Index Funds and Mutual Funds: What are the Differences? | Jobs Vox


Building a diverse portfolio of stocks and other assets can be a daunting task for any investor. An easy shortcut is to buy an index fund or mutual fund, which invests your capital in a variety of securities.

Notebook with mutual fund data.

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While both index funds and mutual funds can provide you with the basis of portfolio diversification, there are some important differences that investors should be aware of. Read on to see if index funds and mutual funds are right for you.

Mutual funds

A mutual fund is a fund that pools money from many investors and buys securities designed to achieve a goal. That goal is often to outperform a benchmark index by selecting stocks, bonds and other securities.

When the manager actively chooses which stocks to buy (and which not to), it’s called an actively managed mutual fund. This is in contrast to hedge funds or index funds.

Buying mutual funds is a little different than buying stocks. A stock is listed on an exchange, and investors can buy or sell shares at any time. Any broker has access to major exchanges, and you can trade through the broker of your choice.

Mutual funds are bought and sold by the mutual fund company itself. Brokers may have partnerships with some mutual fund companies or offer their own mutual funds, allowing their investors to purchase mutual fund shares in their brokerage accounts. Sometimes, though, you have to go directly to a mutual fund company to buy shares. If you want to change your broker account, it may mean that your mutual funds will not be transferred to the new broker.

A mutual fund company moves investors’ money in and out throughout the day. Stocks are traded at the end of the day at their net asset value — the total value of all holdings — and investors who placed an earlier order to buy or sell receive a price as the shares trade. After the markets close.

One feature of mutual funds is that you can always buy fractional shares. While fractional shares of other securities are becoming more common, it is actually a feature supported by private brokers, not the securities themselves. You can always find mutual fund fractional shares, which makes it convenient for someone who wants to invest their entire money or invest a small amount.

Index funds

An index fund, like a mutual fund, pools investors’ capital and buys a portfolio of securities. The difference between an index fund and an index fund is that an index fund is passively managed and aims only to track the returns of a benchmark index, while an actively managed fund aims to achieve better results. An index fund manager buys the exact same weightings that the index tracks.

An index fund can be structured like a mutual fund, where you buy and sell stocks the same way you would buy any mutual fund.

Index funds can also be structured like exchange-traded funds or ETFs. There are some minor differences between ETFs and index funds structured like mutual funds. An exchange-traded fund, as the name suggests, trades on a stock exchange in the same way as a stock. Investors can buy and sell ETF shares throughout the day, and shares can be purchased through any broker of your choice.

The disadvantages of ETFs are that you may have to pay a commission to your broker to buy the shares. Also, you may not be able to purchase fractional shares. That said, many brokers have eliminated commissions on simple purchases like ETFs. More brokerage services are supporting fractional investing.

Index funds and mutual funds

There are many differences between passively managed index funds and actively managed mutual funds. Here are the most important things for investors to know before deciding which one is best for them.


The sole purpose of an index fund is to provide investors with exposure to a specific asset class. That could be a large amount of US stocks through a simple S&P 500 index fund. Or you may have a more specific goal of tracking a specific sector index, such as financial stocks. Index funds can be part of an investment strategy where you seek exposure to small-cap value stocks. Most importantly, the goal is not to outperform the benchmark index on which the holdings are based.

Actively managed funds give you exposure to specific asset classes, but they also try to select the best securities within those asset classes. For example, a large-cap U.S. stock mutual fund may outperform the S&P 500 by buying certain companies and investing in certain sectors that the fund manager believes will outperform the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, most fund managers fail to outperform their benchmark index every year. In the year By 2021, 79% of fund managers will underperform. S&P 500. It’s almost impossible for investors to pick year-over-year outperformers and managers because none of them have a track record of year-over-year performance.


Both mutual funds and index funds make money by charging expense ratios. Expense ratios are calculated based on assets under management. For example, if you invest $10,000 in a mutual fund that charges a 1% expense ratio, you’ll pay about $100 that year to invest your money. Of course, the nominal amount will always fluctuate based on the volatile value of your portfolio, but expense ratios are generally very stable.

Actively managed funds charge higher expense ratios than index funds because they require a portfolio manager and a team of researchers to feed data into investment decisions. Expense ratios for actively managed mutual funds can be 10 times higher than comparable index funds. Many broad index funds have expense ratios of 0.10% or less.

If you buy mutual funds through a broker, you may have to pay a sales load. This is the fee the investor pays to compensate the broker. The fee can be paid up front (front-end loading) or when shares are purchased (back-end loading).


Another factor to consider is that actively managed funds generally trade more frequently than passive index funds. That could trigger additional taxable events and create additional costs for shareholders. What’s more, shareholders have little control over those decisions, even if taxes are left.

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Which one is correct?

For most investors just starting out, index funds will be their best choice. You will most likely not be able to choose a fund manager that is larger than the index or sector in which you want to invest. Invest unless you have a good reason to pay the high fees and expenses associated with actively managed mutual funds. Index funds can achieve exactly what you want as an investor.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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