More than $1 Trillion is flowing each year into passive investment vehicles, including Index Funds and (primarily) Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), replacing the investment type that has dominated the market for decades: Mutual Funds.
Mutual Funds were the go-to investment for America's hands-off individual investors who are far from experts about the investment world, but who want to make their assets grow to achieve a comfortable retirement at the end of their working years. For more than 100 years, Mutual Funds were the choice of corporate America's HR departments in what they offered to employees in an 'approved' investment that the company would also contribute to on the employee's behalf.
So what's the difference between Mutual Funds, Index Funds, and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)? More importantly, which one is the best vehicle to use for saving/investing for retirement? In this article, we'll examine each of these popular investment vehicles and compare the advantages and disadvantages of each. We'll also discuss a unique advantage that is exclusive to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), which allows them to produce a return that is more than quadruple the return of the S&P 500 – with far less volatility and risk.
First, let's delve into a little background about how fund-investing came into existence in the first place, starting with the first fund-type; Mutual Funds:
Mutual Funds were first created in 1772 in Amsterdam in response to the financial crisis of 1772-1773. More than 100 years later, the introduction of Mutual Funds to the US market in the 1890s gave small savers – mainly from the professional class of doctors and attorneys – an investment vehicle that allowed them to pool their money with enough quantity that it would attract experienced money managers to handle those funds productively.
This assumption by non-investors is the primary selling point of Mutual Funds since their launch: place your money in a Mutual Fund, and you will receive money management by a professional, investment expert. The implication being: this professional will protect and grow your funds far better than you could yourself. It was a very appealing proposition for many tens of millions of savers who saw investing as a minefield of possible ways to lose their life savings. As a result, Mutual Funds were an immediate success since their introduction in America.
Despite some inherent problems (more about this in a moment), there is no doubt that the Mutual Fund industry has experienced incredible success in marketing the intuitive appeal of 'investment experts' handling the investment matters of nonexperts. And despite significant outflows in recent years as investors learn more about their poor performance, after 125 years in the US and nearly 250 years of operating in Europe, the Mutual Fund industry today can still boast of managing about $40 trillion in worldwide assets, and roughly half ($18.9 trillion) of that amount in US Mutual Funds.
Advantages inherent to Mutual Funds include instant and ample diversification because most mutual funds own shares in hundreds or even thousands of individual companies, while for the MF investor it is but one convenient asset they must track. For most individual investors, it would be impossible to spread their funds thin enough to attain this much diversification, and the maintenance of so many positions would certainly be a headache.
Another advantage that comes from diversification is the fact that it's highly unlikely you could ever lose all of your capital in a mutual fund (or ETFs). It would be unimaginable that all the companies in which a Mutual Fund invests would go out of business simultaneously. That's not to say that you can't lose money in a Mutual Fund, because you certainly can (more in the next section).
Disadvantages of Mutual Funds include the highest fees of any fund type, tax inefficiency because of all the behind-the-scene trades executed by the MF manager, non-market-based pricing for entry and exit, often the inability to exit the fund at the time of your choice ( fund lockup periods), minimum investment amounts (usually around $10,000), the potential for management abuses, and an overall track-record of poor investment results.
A Track-Record of Poor Mutual Funds Performance
Unfortunately, over the approximately 130 years since Mutual Funds became available in the US, we've learned that professional Mutual Fund managers actually perform no better than the average amateur investor – which is probably shocking to the Mutual Fund investors who investigate the matter. Most Mutual Funds rely on the fact that individual investors generally DON'T research their money manager's record of performance, and that's generally a safe bet on their part. Discovering this information would probably destroy the concept that 'investment experts' can do a good job of managing investor's funds.
The reason Mutual Fund managers perform no better than amateurs is probably because all the knowledge and experience in the world can never override human emotions on matters of money. Those emotions can overpower a person –like that gnawing, sick feeling that hits when we see a new investment immediately going south. Or the nearly irresistible force that makes a person buy more and more of an investment as it's price continues climbing – even though logic is telling them that the investment is overpriced and ripe for a selloff.
What self-managed investor hasn't made a rash decision in the heat of the moment that causes a painful loss of money – a decision that later, when calm and cool have returned, is obviously irrational. Often we ask ourselves, "How could we have done something so stupid?" and kick ourselves, promising we will never repeat the mistake. But we do… (Shhh: there is a solution!)
…the average Mutual-Fund investor – because of the malevolent influence of human emotion – panics and exults at exactly the wrong moments, which causes them to attain an annual return of just 2.6%!
The reason that individuals make rash decisions about money now has an entire field of study based upon it. Already with several Nobel prize winners, the field is called called Behavioral Finance.
The reason both amateur investors and seasoned professionals make these mistakes? Because the human emotions of Fear and Greed have never met a logic-circuit in the human brain they couldn't overpower, and when it comes to matters of money, those human emotions seem to get super-powers. These subconscious, emotional urges can overtake an investor – whether it's the person who earned that money or a professional who has a fiduciary responsibility to manage that money prudently. History shows that subconscious human emotions cause investors to repeatedly take self-destructive actions that often wreck their life savings.
This is the reason that many studies have shown that on average, only 9.6% of Mutual Funds outperformed their passive benchmarks over the last 20 years. In other words, if the investor in a Mutual Fund had instead bought-and-held shares of a passive, benchmark index of stocks (such as the S&P 500 ETF; SPY), there's a greater-than 90% chance that investor would've done better than the professional money manager who guided their Mutual Fund to a poor performance for an exorbitant fee.
Since 1994, investment performance-tracking firm Dalbar, Inc. has published their annual 'Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior' study which tracks the performance of individual investors using Mutual Funds. The firm finds each year that there is a significant influx of money after a fund has been doing well, and a significant outflow of money after the fund has experienced a bad stretch, even if it is related to a market selloff when nearly everything has declined. In other words, investors are Buying High and Selling Low – the exact opposite of what an investor should be doing to earn profits.
Dalbar's annual study consistently shows that the average investor earns less – in many cases, much less – than mutual fund performance reports would suggest. In the most recent year's (2018) report, Dalbar documented that the average Mutual-Fund investor – because of the malevolent influence of human emotion – panics and exults at exactly the wrong moments, which causes them to attain an annual return of just 2.6%! That's especially troubling when you consider that 2.6% is only 0.3% above the long-term rate of inflation (~2.3%) and significantly lower than the buy-and-hold annual return (~9%) of the S&P 500 over the same span.
Mutual Fund Performance in 2018: Cringe-Worthy
The Dalbar study of Mutual Fund results for 2018 (the most recent report) are especially painful to contemplate. There is no doubt that 2018 was a difficult year for many investors, with its challenges including excitement over corporate tax cuts to start the year, followed by a sharp correction, and then a deep, -19.8% selloff in the fourth quarter with a nadir on Christmas eve. Nevertheless, investors pay professional Mutual Fund managers many millions of dollars each year, expecting them to avoid these problems and produce a profit. But that's not what happened in 2018. Then, individual Mutual Fund investors hurt themselves even more by trying to time entries and exits, but instead bought during January's exuberance and sold near the bottom in late December.
The inflation rate in 2018 was 1.93%, so investors would have needed to earn that percentage just to keep their heads above water. Nevertheless, according to Dalbar, the average equity Mutual Fund investor lost -9.42% in 2018, for a gap of more than 11 percentage points below breakeven.
Bond fund investors did a bit better, though they had little to brag about. Their average investment declined “only” -2.84%, so they lagged inflation by more than 4.7 percentage points.
Consider a few more dismal data points for equity mutual fund investors. Compared with the S&P 500, through Dec. 31, 2018, they underperformed by:
■ -5.88 percentage points, annualized, over 30 years;
■ -3.46 percentage points, annualized, over 10 years;
■ -4.35 percentage points, annualized over five years.
Chart 1 below shows the returns of the average Equity Mutual Fund investor on the left, and the average Bond Mutual Fund investor on the right. Comparisons to the S&P 500 are made with Equity MF investors and comparisons to inflation are made for Bond MF investors for one, 10, and 30-year spans.
|Equity Mutual Funds
||Bond Mutual Funds
Chart 1: The performance of the
average Equity Mutual Fund (left), and average Bond Mutual Fund investor (right). Source: NYTimes, Dalbar.
On the left, it's easy to see that Equity Mutual Fund investors (pale green bars) lagged a buy-and-hold of the S&P 500 (orange bars) over every time span measured; 1-year, 10-year, and 30-year spans. On the right, the same story of underperformance by Bond Mutual Fund investors, who languished with a return less than the rate of inflation over 1-year, 10-year, and 30-year periods.
These statistics don't speak highly of human investment decision-making, do they? First, the majority of Mutual Fund managers underperform the market, then individual investors move their money into and out of their Mutual Fund with timing that is diametrically opposed to the optimum timing. Meanwhile, the benchmark does nothing but BE the benchmark (no investor decisions or trades required) and it attains a return that's more than triple the return of the futile, ever-analyzing fund manager and sad-sack investor with poor timing.
But wait… perhaps there is an alternative!
An Index Fund is a type of Mutual Fund, but with a portfolio constructed to passively track a market index, such as the NASDAQ Index (mainly technology companies), the Standard & Poor's 500 Index (500 of America's most successful, largest companies), the Dow Jones Industrial Index (30 of America's premier companies), and many other established market indices.
The first Index Fund, called the 'Index 500' and based on the S&P 500, was introduced by The Vanguard Group in 1975 with $11 million in assets. By 1995 – only 20 years later – the Vanguard Index Trust had grown to total assets of $18 billion.
If you have the time, you should check out an enjoyable and educational read penned in 1997 about the early history of Index Funds, as seen through the eyes of the pioneer that founded them, John Bogle, Chairman of Vanguard. I found this gem in an archived article on the Wayback Machine. (Sadly, Mr. Bogle died last January at age 89.)
The primary difference between an Index Fund and a Mutual Fund is that the Index Fund does not attempt to beat an identified benchmark. Instead, Index Funds ARE the benchmark, because they passively own and track the same stocks held in the index that regular Mutual Funds use as benchmarks. Perhaps it's a case of "if you can't beat 'em… join 'em," because active Mutual Fund managers haven't been doing very well in the game of trying to "beat 'em," as we documented in the previous section.
The earlier discussion about Mutual Funds highlighted the meager percentage of active funds that beat their index-based benchmark. With the advent of internet-based information, more investors realized the inability of most professional managers to beat their index-based benchmarks, and the indices themselves became popular products as passive Index Fund investments.
Because Index Funds are passive – without the active selection of individual stocks in most Mutual Funds, expenses are far lower than they are for a Mutual Fund. Managing an active Mutual Fund requires making daily (sometimes hourly) investment decisions, so it is analysis-intensive work.
In recent years, expense ratios (which are a type of management fee) have averaged about 0.82% for Mutual Funds versus 0.09% for Index Funds. According to the Investment Company Institute (the most established firm documenting fund statistics), over the next 30 years, the average Mutual Fund investor will pay $15,000 in fees while the average Index Fund investor will pay only $1,800 in fees.
Perhaps the primary appeal of Index Funds is their simplicity and ease-of-use. Buying an Index Fund allows an investor to eliminate the need to track the day-to-day developments of an individual company or regularly review earnings reports. Is highly unlikely that you will lose all of your money in an Index Fund, but the exchange you make in return for ease and safety is mediocrity.
Index Funds have many of the negative features of Mutual Funds, including minimum investment amounts (usually about $10,000), transactions only once a day with the fund company and not the marketplace, and sometimes have lockup periods for your money in which it cannot be withdrawn.
You'll never do better than the market with an Index Fund, and you can only hope that when it comes time for your planned retirement the market hasn't lost one-quarter or one-half its value – as it often does – i.e., 2008-2009, 2000-2003, 1987, 1973-1974, need I go on? If you planned for many years to retire at age 65, but at age 64 your Index Fund has nosedived, losing half its value and half of your life savings along with another recession, then what do you do? Obviously, you will have to go back to work and make up that 50% loss! It's a very troubling thought that can haunt you as you work towards your retirement objective.
But wait… again there may be an alternative!
EXCHANGE TRADED FUNDS (ETFs)
Every investor should consider Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) as an investment-vehicle option. ETFs are significantly more popular with today's investors than Index Funds or Mutual Funds, for many excellent reasons.
Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) easily constitute the most substantive investing trend of the last century, growing at a pace of about 20% per year since 2009, outpacing all other funds, including Mutual Funds and Index Funds, which are barely growing at all. Since ETFs entered the mainstream of investor consciousness at the time of the Financial Crisis, investors have seen their clear superiority, and ETFs now own the growth that once belonged to Mutual Funds.
Still considered the 'new kids on the block,' the first Exchange Traded Fund was launched in America in 1993. Today, that first ETF is the most actively traded investment product in the world, i.e., the SPDR S&P 500 Investment Trust (SPY), which (at last check) has $273 billion of investor funds under management.
While the vast majority of Mutual Funds are run by professional money managers who actively choose the stocks in which the fund invests (complete with all the human biases and errors in judgment that accompany discretionary decisions), passive market indices – which beat Mutual Funds 75% of the time – are the basis of almost all ETFs.
Significantly Less Expensive: One of the primary reasons ETFs are so popular is that they generally maintain an advantage across-the-board when it comes to expense ratios. ETFs have no sales or 'load' charges as is the case with Mutual Funds.
For example, let's look at Vanguard (one of the least expensive fund managers), which issues and manages all three products; Mutual Funds, ETFs, and Index Funds. Vanguard's S&P 500 ETF (VOO) carries a fee of just 0.04% of assets, yet Vanguard's Mutual Fund version of the S&P 500 index, the Vanguard 500 Investor Shares (VFINX) has an expense ratio of 0.14% – more than triple the cost of the ETF for virtually the same product.
While ETFs have far fewer expenses than Mutual Funds and Index Funds, they often do have commissions that are similar to stock-trading commissions.
However, commissions have come down to about $6 in 2019, and many ETF sponsors with Brokerage arms have eliminated the commissions on the ETFs they issued. At least one ETF sponsor (Vanguard) has waived the commissions on ALL ETFs when you use their brokerage.
No Investment Minimums: Most Mutual Funds and Index Funds have minimum investment requirements of $10,000 or more. Meanwhile, ETF investors can get started by buying a single share of an ETF for as little as $20 (depending on the price of the ETF on any given day), and build their account from a minimal amount.
Flexibility: ETFs also differ from Mutual Funds and Index Funds in that the latter two funds can only be traded during a specified period at the end of each market session, while investors can trade ETFs anytime during the trading day, just like an individual stock.
Unlike Mutual Funds, ETFs can also be used as the basis for Call and Put options for a particular investment thesis. If you think large-company stocks are going to rally over the next 30 days, you can buy a Call on SPY, the S&P 500 large-cap ETF.
Diversification: ETFs are required by law to pass diversification requirements to be approved, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one holding fewer than 20 stocks. Most index-based ETFs hold the stock of hundreds to thousands of individual companies. For example, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) holds a namesake 500 stocks, while the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) holds the shares of 2,000 small-capitalization companies.
Transparency: Another investor advantage that ETFs have over Mutual Funds and Index Funds is transparency; every ETF is required to publish a list of each stock owned and its percentage of the ETF every trading day of the year. Mutual Funds and Index Funds, on the other hand, have no such requirement and don't disclose to investors the makeup of their holdings.
Market-based Price Discovery: Shareholders of Mutual Funds and Index Funds can only sell their holdings back to the fund at the end of each trading day, at a price equal to a proportional amount of the net asset value of the fund.
On the other hand, ETFs transactions can take place whenever the exchange is open (just like common stock), and the transaction price is based upon supply and demand forces in the marketplace.
ETF transactions are between one third-party and another third party – a private buyer and a private seller – whereas Mutual Fund transactions are between the third-party investor and the Mutual Fund at a specified price established by the Mutual Fund.
Also, if there is not enough liquidity on the exchange to accommodate your ETF transaction, you can still sell or buy the ETF – see 'Liquidity' (below).
Liquidity: ETFs do not trade like individual stocks, and there are three levels at which liquidity can be added or removed from an ETF to accommodate your trade – all without affecting the ETF’s price.
Not least of the levels is the liquidity in the underlying stock itself – the shares owned by the ETF. For example, let's say you buy a thinly traded individual company stock. Then if that stock's volume goes down dramatically since you bought it, you might not be able to get out of that position for days – or even weeks, in some cases.
A thinly traded ETF is an entirely different animal than a thinly traded stock. Let’s say you might buy an ETF that only trades 1,000 shares/day, but if that ETF holds the shares of companies with substantial liquidity, the trade will fly through without delay. That’s because when you buy a single ETF, you are actually automatically buying ownership shares in every stock in the index upon which the ETF is based.
ETFs also have market-makers on the stock market trading floor, and many ETF sponsors also have dedicated trading desks to help accommodate your trade (if it is a large one).
Also, ETFs are 'open-ended' funds, with transaction capabilities that are enabled by 'Authorized Participants' (AP) which are qualified entities (large investment companies and brokerages) that can create and redeem shares of the ETF in exchange for a like amount of the individual stocks in the ETF/index. You'll never have a problem executing a trade in an ETF as you might often have with thinly traded individual stocks, Mutual Funds, or Index Funds.
Choice: Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) offer investors a much broader selection of market niches than are available with Mutual Funds or Index Funds.
Worldwide in 2019, there are more than 5,000 different ETFs available, spanning choices from large-cap stocks (VOO) to small-cap stocks (IWM), Israeli stocks (EIS) to Brazilian (EWZ) or Russian (RSX) or Italian (EWI) stocks, the Technology Sector ETF (XLK) vs. the Energy Sector ETF (XLE) or the Aerospace and Defense Industry ETF (ITA), Developed World Markets ETF (VEA) vs. Emerging World Markets (VWO), the Japanese Yen ETF (JYF), a Cloud Computing Index ETF (SKYY), Junk-Bond ETF (JNK), Merger Arbitrage ETF (MNA), and thousands of similar niche ETFs.
Essentially, today there is an ETF based on virtually every nook-and-cranny of the world's investment markets. If you can name an investment niche, it's very likely to have a related ETF. That's certainly an ample amount of choice!
If it sounds as there's more enthusiasm in this article for ETFs than there is for Mutual Funds or Index Funds – you're correct – and not without good reason (if based only on the advantages listed above). Moreover, this enthusiasm is shared by the millions of individual investors that have made ETFs the fastest-growing financial product in history.
The bad news is that you can still lose half of your life savings in a buy-and-hold investment in an ETF, just like you could in the Index Fund discussed in the earlier section.
But wait… there is a legitimate (and desperately needed) alternative that solves this problem, made possible only by the pairing of ETFs with Quantitative Investment Systems, as offered by ETFOptimize.com.
ETFs & Quantitative Systems: a Match Made in Heaven!
There is a smorgasbord of additional unique advantages to ETFs not covered in the list above. That's because these other benefits result from the application of a carefully crafted quantitative investment system (ETFOptimize's particular area of expertise) to ETF selection – which can result in dramatically increased returns for an investor.
For example, because ETFs trade like individual stocks throughout the trading day like stocks (but unlike Mutual Funds and Index Funds), specialized technical software can readily graph the patterns of their price changes. Also, because ETFs are required to disclose their constituent holdings every business day of the year, we can apply fundamental-analysis algorithms to each of the companies that an ETF holds, then our software will analyze the constituents of each ETF and make decisions based on the collective fundamental analysis of those positions.
Each week, our quantitative algorithms compile a composite of 38 proven indicators from Macroeconomic, Stock Fundamental, internal Breadth, and Technical Analysis indicators to select the optimum ETFs to own at any given time for each of our investment strategies. Using ETFs with quantitative strategies is far more effective than using individual stocks for a number of reasons. (We will explain those reasons in a separate article.)
These quantitative capabilities are not possible using Mutual Funds or Index Funds – because investors can only transact them at the end of the trading day. Mutual Funds and Index Funds also don't have the supply-and-demand-based price discovery that characterizes ETFs. Instead, Mutual Funds and Index Funds keep their constituent holdings hidden – all issues that negate the possibility of using a quantitative investment system with them, while ETFs are perfect for use with quantitative strategies.
Chart 2 below shows an example of the exceptional effectiveness of quantitative investment systems when using ETFs. The chart shows the performance of our ULTIMATE 6-Model (5-9 ETF) COMBO Strategy since its inception on January 1, 2007 to present (this chart is automatically updated each week and reflects the actual performance of the portfolio). This model has an Annual Return of about 30%, with a average annual Maximum Drawdown of only -11%.
ULTIMATE 6-Model (5-9 ETF) COMBO Strategy
(January 1, 2007 - Present)
Chart 2: Our ULTIMATE 6-Model (5-9 ETF) COMBO Strategy demonstrates the effectiveness of quantitative investment systems using ETFs.
KEY: The red line is the ULTIMATE 6-Model (5-9 ETF) COMBO Strategy's performance, with prices adjusted to an average of high, low, and closing prices.
The blue line is the benchmark – a buy-and-hold combination of S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and the Total Bond Market ETF (BND), weighted 70%-30%, respectively.
Learn more about this Premium Strategy
Our Premium Strategies automatically identify the optimum ETF to own at any given time, with position changes occurring only 1-3 times per year, on average. By adding a quantitative selection system to ETFs, it's possible to improve the performance of your portfolio to more than quadruple the return of the market over the same period, with minimal volatility and significantly less risk.
If you use discipline in executing the trades (a critical component of success in systematic models) recommended by your quantitative system, you can dramatically reduce or even eliminate severe drawdowns associated with the market (such as the -56% loss the S&P 500 incurred in 2008-2009). In fact, during the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis, the ETFOptimize strategies attained a return of 263.4% during the five years that the S&P 500 was underwater – dead money – and slowly climbing back to a return of 0%. None of the ETFOptimize Premium Strategies lost money during the Financial Crisis.
Moreover, the ETFOptimize models have a history of zero money-losing years since their inception –
collectively, that's 98 consecutive winning years!
Because they are well diversified, ETFs inherently negate Individual Company Risk (risk of adverse, company-related news decimating a stock's price). A well-designed quantitative strategy can also virtually eliminate Market Risk (economic contraction causing a selloff) and Selection Risk (choosing the wrong position based on an incorrect assumption about the future).
These unique advantages enabled by quantitative investment systems make ETFs superior even to individual stocks and don't apply to Mutual Funds or Index Funds, because the latter two do not offer the market-based pricing that is a feature of ETFs.
For further information on the effectiveness of quantitative investing with ETFs, please consider reviewing our Introduction-section articles; The ETFOptimize Advantage and The Benefits of Systematic Investing. Don't forget to examine our selection of quantitative ETF investment strategies in the ETFOptimize Investment Strategy Suite.
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The ETFOptimize quantitative investment strategies have a proven track record of consistently high-performance success over long periods. Our premium model strategies have provided an average annual return of 30.53% since the inception of our first model in 2000 – and that performance is a multiple of more than quadruple (415%) the annual return of the S&P 500 over the same period, and more than eight times more than the index' return since 2000. The ETFOptimize strategies, collectively, have beaten the S&P 500 in 98 of 98 years (100%)!
The ETFOptimize strategies operate using our proprietary, quantitative financial-analysis programming that has been continuously upgraded and refined over the last 25 years, accompanied by high-speed computer servers and high-quality, point-in-time investment and economic databases. As ETFs have become increasingly popular over the last 20 years, we've embrace these products, which offer investors instant-diversification – eliminating the individual company risk inherent in stocks.
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