Thursday, July 7, 2011

ETFs: Are These Investments Needed in Your Retirement Plan?

Boomers are often faced with a decision that will be framed in such a way as to make it seem the only logical choice. As the mutual fund verses ETF debate begins to gain steam, some truths need to be considered.

Mark Twain suggested: "The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it." This will be the selling point for exchange traded funds: you will hear that they are less expensive, that they are better than the mutual funds - many of them indexed, and that you should own them in your 401(k).

They will suggest you overlook the cost of trading them, the fact that they tempt you to trade them more frequently than ou would a mutual fund and in doing so, allow you to follow the herd on any given day, a behavioral no-no for every investor. So what exactly is the attraction that they want us to see? Are mutual funds better or worse than ETFs?
The answer depends on who you are. If the sort of investor who believes that they can make small moves to harness big gains, then you should probably avoid the lure of ETFs. Exchange traded funds are mutual funds that can be traded just like stocks. They tend to have lower fees than their comparable cohort the mutual fund but the commissions that brokers charge for these trades tend to erase the advertised returns you might get.

If you are the sort of investor who buys to hold, then the surprising choice would be ETFs. Yet you will need to harness the inner trader in you that wants to succumb to the temptation to trade. This sounds easy. But in truth, is no easy feat.

So let's run some numbers comparing a total stock market ETF sold by Vanguard and a total stock market index sold by the same company. The ETF (trade as VTI) carries and expense of 0.07%. The mutual fund version of the same thing (bought as VTSMX) levies a 0.18% fee on investors. The former has no minimum investment,; the later wants $3,000 to begin. So we'll start there and propose a hopeful return over 10 years of 4%.

In the first calculated example, the investor made no additional contributions to the investment. Vanguard does suggest that they charge no brokerage fees but they do charge a $20 annual fee for the account. This might be much higher when accessing these funds through your 401(k) and there may be additional brokerage fees. So we'll assume a $10.00 brokerage fee - as I said, yours might be lower and in most cases, the brokerage charge is on both ends of the transaction.

Based on the above numbers, the ETF, once purchased and held begins to creep past, in terms of raw returns by the third year. By the 10th year, you will have saved about $19.41 in fees giving you a net gain for your ETF of $32.82. 

But begin adding to the security on a regular basis (say $200 a month) and the differences are much more notable. To add to the ETF in equal proportions over the same 10 year period would cost you $1021 in commission costs and with this money not working for you, the sacrifice in what each would be worth at the end of the 10-year investment period used in our example in addition to the trading cost would leave you with over $1200 less in the ETF account.

Inside a 401(k), where regular contributions rule the way you invest, ETFs can give the average investor less of an opportunity than proponents suggest they will. In a taxable account, bought without commissions such as Vanguard offers and purchased in large lump sums, ETFs slightly trump their mutual fund siblings.

Will you take the time to learn the truth about yourself before making the decision on which investment is better? You are the debate. 

Paul Petillo is the managing editor and founder of and a fellow Boomer.

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