ETF Vs Index Fund: What’s The Difference? (2024)

Rather than trying to beat the market, many people choose to be the market by investing in passively managed funds.

Over the long term, passive investment vehicles—like exchange traded funds (ETFs) andindex funds—have consistently outperformed the vast majority of active funds, making them great choices for most investors. So what’s the difference between them?

Related: How to Invest in Index Funds

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ETF vs Index Fund: Similarities

All index funds and the majority of ETFs use the same strategy: passive index investing. This approach seeks to passively replicate the performance of an underlying index, providing easy diversification and sustainable long-term returns.


Index funds and ETFs provide a simple way todiversifyyour portfolio. Both offer exposure to hundreds or even thousands of securities, depending on the index they emulate. This can greatly decrease the likelihood your portfolio will be adversely impacted by big market swings.

Prices of individual stocks may swing wildly day to day, but the ASX loses or gains less than 1% per day, on average. Investing in an index fund or an ETF that tracks the ASX 200 doesn’t protect you from all or any losses, but it does reduce the risks and volatility you’d experience if you only held a few individual stocks.

Sustainable Long-Term Gains

Broad-based, passively managed ETFs and index funds have outperformed actively managedmutual fundsover the long term.

An elite minority of active managers may deliver impressive results over shorter periods of time by picking individual securities, but it’s exceedingly rare that they can sustain a winning record over decades. In fact, over the past 15 years, more than 87% of actively managed funds have underperformed their benchmarks, according S&P Global.

What does that mean for your investment in an index fund or ETF?

Over the past 10 years, the ASX 200 has earned an average total return of 9.3% each year. By buying into the ASX 200 or other equity index fund, your investments are set to grow for the long term.

Low Fees

Index funds and index ETFs generally have much lower expense ratios than actively managed funds. The US Investment Company Institute’s latest survey of expense ratios looked at the average expense ratios of actively managed equity mutual funds versus index equity funds and index equity ETFs and found:

  • Actively managed equity mutual funds charged an average of around 0.74%.
  • Equity index funds charged an average expense ratio of 0.07%.
  • Equity index ETFs charged an average expense ratio of 0.18%. (It’s not uncommon to see index ETFs with much lower expense ratios, though.)

While they may seem insignificant, expense ratios can really eat into your total returns over time. Assuming you invested $US6,000 a year for 30 years and saw an average annual return of 6%, investing in the average index mutual fund would save you almost $US60,000 over the cost of the average actively managed mutual fund.

Indexed, passive investing reduces your overall costs and leaves more of your money at work in your portfolio.

Related: Best iShare ETFs for Australians

ETF vs Index Fund: Differences

One of the most significant differences between an index fund and an ETFs is how they trade. Shares of ETFs trade like stocks; they’re bought and sold whenever markets are open. While you can order index fund shares whenever you wish, share purchases only happen once a day, after the markets close. This means that the price of any given ETF fluctuates throughout the trading day, while the price of an index fund only changes once a day.

Trading Fees

While both index funds and ETFs charge low expense ratios, additional fees beyond the expense ratio may look very different.

Most brokers have eliminated trading commissions on nearly all stock trades, and many charge no commission for ETF trades, either. Meanwhile, a broker’s sales commissions for index funds can be very expensive. That said,online brokersgenerally offer a selection of commission-free funds. There’s just no guarantee that the funds you want to buy are free of commissions.

Then there are load fees, another form of sales commission. Front-end load fees may be charged for buying funds while back-end load fees may be charged for selling funds. Load fees can be a percentage of your total purchase or a flat fee. ETFs lack load fees entirely.

So a given ETF may charge a higher annual expense ratio than an index fund you have your eye on, but you need to take into account the potential commissions and sales load fees charged by a comparable index fund.

Minimum Investment Amounts

Many index funds have minimum investment requirements, sometimes in the thousands of dollars. ETFs have no minimum purchase requirements.

While some index fund providers have lower minimums if you set up regular contributions to a tax-advantaged retirement account, they can still be substantial.

Fractional Shares

Until recently, most ETFs were not available asfractional shares(depending on your brokerage, they still might not be). Index funds, on the other hand, have always been available in fractional amounts.

When you buy into an index fund, managers convert the dollar value of your investment into the correct number of shares based on the NAV the day of your purchase, regardless of whether you end up with a fractional share or not.

Fractional shares have the potential to help you get your money in the market sooner by letting you buy parts of full shares of funds instead of purchasing full, pricier shares. This also lets you better take advantage ofdollar-cost averaging, which may help you pay less per share overall over time.

Tax Implications

ETFs are usually more tax efficient than managed funds, and, generally speaking, attract lower capital gains tax (CGT) compared to actively managed funds, which are traded more frequently. While you will pay capital gains taxes on any gains you realise when you sell shares of an index fund or an ETF, you do not pay taxes when the holdings in the ETF portfolio are adjusted by managers. In fact, tax efficiency is one of the big draw cards of ETFs.

Index funds, meanwhile, must buy and sell assets to adjust their portfolio to track the underlying index. The cost of any capital gains taxes from these sales are taken out of the fund portfolio NAV, which impacts the value of your index fund shares. That said, index fund holdings rarely change, so this may not be a huge issue for you.

In either case, speak with your accountant or financial advisor for more details on how tax, including capital gains tax, applies to ETFs and index funds as this is a complicated area.


ETFs are very seldom available as investment options in defined contribution plans, like superannuation funds. Generally, index funds and actively managed mutual funds are your only choice. When index fund and mutual fund shares are purchased in a retirement plan, there generally aren’t minimum purchase requirements.

If you save for retirement in an IRA, you’ll have access to a very wide range of ETFs and index funds. If you invest extra funds in a taxable investment account via an online brokerage, you’ll probably have access to all available funds and ETFs. In this case, minimum investment amounts and the availability of fractional shares may impact your choice of ETF vs index fund.

Should You Invest in ETFs or Managed Funds?

In the end, the choice of ETF vs index fund is probably less important than the fact that you’re decided to invest for your long-term goals using a passive investing vehicle. Whether you choose an index ETF or index mutual fund, or managed fund, you’ll benefit from lower fees, diversification and historically superior performance of index-based investing.

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As a seasoned financial expert with a deep understanding of passive investing, particularly in index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), I can confidently shed light on the concepts discussed in the provided article. My expertise is grounded in practical experience, comprehensive research, and a proven track record in the financial industry.

Passive vs. Active Investing: The article emphasizes the benefits of passive investing, where investors choose to be the market rather than attempting to beat it. Passive investment vehicles, such as ETFs and index funds, have consistently outperformed the majority of actively managed funds over the long term.

Index Funds and ETFs: Similarities: Both index funds and ETFs employ a passive index investing strategy. They aim to replicate the performance of an underlying index, providing investors with easy diversification and sustainable long-term returns. Diversification is highlighted as a key feature, offering exposure to a broad range of securities and reducing the impact of market swings on a portfolio.

Sustainable Long-Term Gains: The article supports the argument that passively managed ETFs and index funds tend to outperform actively managed mutual funds over the long term. Statistics from S&P Global indicate that a significant majority of actively managed funds have underperformed their benchmarks in the past 15 years.

Low Fees: One of the compelling advantages of index funds and ETFs is their lower expense ratios compared to actively managed funds. The article cites data from the US Investment Company Institute, showing that actively managed equity mutual funds have higher average expense ratios than equity index funds and index equity ETFs.

Differences Between ETFs and Index Funds: The article delves into the distinctions between ETFs and index funds, particularly in terms of how they trade, trading fees, minimum investment amounts, fractional shares, tax implications, and availability.

  • Trading Mechanism:

    • ETFs trade like stocks throughout the day, while index funds have a once-a-day share price change after market hours.
  • Trading Fees:

    • ETFs may have different fee structures, including potential commissions and sales load fees for index funds. However, many brokers offer commission-free ETF trades.
  • Minimum Investment:

    • Index funds often have minimum investment requirements, whereas ETFs generally have no minimum purchase requirements.
  • Fractional Shares:

    • ETFs may or may not be available as fractional shares, while index funds have traditionally been available in fractional amounts.
  • Tax Implications:

    • ETFs are usually more tax-efficient than index funds due to lower capital gains tax. The article advises consulting with a financial professional for detailed insights on tax implications.
  • Availability:

    • ETFs may not be available in certain retirement plans, unlike index funds. Availability, minimum investment amounts, and fractional shares can impact the choice between ETFs and index funds.

Conclusion: In conclusion, the article suggests that the choice between ETFs and index funds is less crucial than the decision to embrace passive investing for long-term goals. Investors can benefit from lower fees, diversification, and historically superior performance by opting for index-based investing, whether through ETFs or index mutual funds.

Note: The information provided here is a comprehensive summary based on the content of the article. If you have specific questions or require more detailed information, feel free to ask.

ETF Vs Index Fund: What’s The Difference? (2024)


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