Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Boomer Look at Similar but Conflicting Investment Tools

There is a great deal of conversation going on about whether the ETF is a better than the mutual fund. Both have advantages and one, as you will find out, has more disadvantages than the other. Because we are basically discussing the approach to retirement, the concern among investors as to which would be better is relevant.

The argument is never clear. When we compare mutual funds to ETFs, we often miss the differences between the two in large part because we are discussing two different types of investments, how they should be used and what they are. Folks on the ETF side of the disagreement point out a variety of plus while conveniently leaving the minuses out of the conversation. People who argue for mutual funds are looking for something other than a simple index fund.

The Pluses of ETFs (with the minuses)
The tax benefits that are often touted by the ETF camp rely on the buy-and-hold strategy that index funds offer. It should be noted that when comparing these two investments, one should drop the vast majority of mutual funds from the argument and concentrate only on the index mutual fund.

With any investment, capital gains are a consideration. The only way these two can be compared on a tax basis is when there is a sale. While funds held outside of a 401(k) or other retirement account distribute capital gains on a regular basis, ETFs do so only when sold. An actively managed mutual fund (which is what numerous ETF supporters believe is a fair comparison) can generate a capital gains even if the fund losses money. Actively managed mutual funds shift the holdings in the fund during the course of the year and this does present the possibility that you will need to pay taxes on those transactions. But like index funds, ETFs only shift holdings when the index fund it tracks shifts holdings.

So in this argument, ETFs and index funds are similar in tax efficiency. But when ETFs are compared to actively managed funds, ETFs seem the better choice.

Are ETFs a more simple investment?
While you buy an ETF at a set price (which can also be done with index funds, the main difference is the when the price is fixed - in mutual funds it is at the four o'clock close; ETFs reprice throughout the day depending on how well the underlying portfolio has done) that price can gyrate wildly throughout the day. In fact, much of the last minute swings in the overall market are due to ETF positioning and may offer you a false picture of the underlying worth of the ETF.

Those for ETFs suggest that this one price, one trade principle makes these investments better. But the cost of that one trade can be much higher than the purchase of a mutual fund (actively managed or indexed) and that trade, which is whatever your brokerage account charges, is also a factor in the sale. If you add those two transaction to the cost and the fact that many mutual funds do not charge for the purchase of their shares, the argument about simplicity falls flat.

So in this argument, on the surface, ETFS seem less expensive but only as long as you buy and hold which is not what professionals do with this investment.

Perhaps ETFs are more cost-effective
Once again, ETFs cost you dollars to trade. While this is a fixed cost that can be calculated, mutual funds charge expenses against portfolio balances. This makes any mutual fund purchase, even index fund investments, subject to fee considerations. The lower the fee, the greater the cost-effectiveness. With ETFs, you do pay an underlying fee which when compared to index funds is often higher and you pay commissions on the purchase and sale.

One percent is one percent no matter who charges it but if you can buy one for nothing compared to the cost of a brokerage fee both in and out, the ETF argument runs into problems.

The ETF option
While there are numerous types of ETFs available there are also numerous types of mutual funds tracking essentially the same markets. Mutual funds offer sector investments just as ETFs do. Here ETFs are probably better. The simple reason is the ability to allow you to get in and out of a hot sector without any pain other than the cost of the trade. But for the vast majority of investors, their style is passive. They really want to do the research, make the decision and then let the money and the investment ride.

ETF investors crave action even if they do it under the guise of flexibility. They are essentially chasing the next hot corner of the market while mutual fund investors leave the pursuit up to the professional manager they hired.

So in this argument, ETFs play nicely to the investor who wants to move quickly in and out of a hot sector.

Are ETFs easier to transfer
Of course they are easier to transfer. Held in your brokerage account, the shares are yours to take wherever you want. Transferring assets in a mutual fund (index or actively managed) does require a bit of work and there may be a slight charge for the effort but this argument also falls flat. When moving a fund, those shares must be sold and there is a cost in doing so. But most mutual fund investors spend a great deal of time researching their investments (manager tenure, fees, performance and underlying holdings/investment style) and if they desire to move, it is because something has gone wrong with the fund. In this instance, moving a fund is worth the cost incurred. ETF investors move based on price value alone. And they move to another ETF.

So in this argument, the better research you do the more likely you are to buy an index fund and hold it or buy an actively managed fund and monitor it. Owning an ETF is always a temporary investment and the investor is always looking for another ETF to suit their needs.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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