In 2012 investors put a total of $154 billion into exchange traded funds, or ETFs, while removing $119 billion from mutual funds. The move from actively managed mutual funds to passive ETFs is a good one for investors. ETFs tend to have far lower fees than mutual funds, which in the long term matters quite a bit. A lot of money is being moved into bond ETFs, which is another problem entirely, but investors moving money from mutual funds to stock-based ETFs are most likely making the right move.
The Pros Aren't Very Good
On average, mutual funds tend to underperform major indices. Of course, some active fund managers do very well in the long run, averaging returns well above the market as a whole. The problem is finding that fund out of the sea of mediocre mutual funds. Unfortunately, many people choose the funds that have done the best recently, which is almost always a recipe for disaster. And because mutual funds charge much higher fees than ETFs (on average about 1.4% of assets), the funds need to do better than the ETFs just to match their performance after fees. If an ETF with an expense ratio of 0.1% returns 8% per year before fees than a mutual fund with an expense ratio of 1.4% must return 9.3% before fees just to match the ETF's performance.
The Race To The Bottom
Companies offering ETFs have been aggressively lowering fees in order to gain business. The three big ETFs which track the S&P 500 have rock-bottom expense ratios. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSEARCA:SPY) has an expense ratio of 0.09%., the iShares S&P 500 Index Fund has an expense ratio of 0.07%, and the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF has an expense ratio of just 0.05%. Specialized ETFs can have much higher fees, but generally the broad-based index tracking funds have extremely low fees.
The SPDR fund is the largest of the three ETFs, with a net asset value of $126 billion. This fund has been around since 1993 and is by far the largest ETF of any kind in existence. It also has the highest fee of the three. The iShares fund is the next largest with a net asset value of about $37 billion. This fund was formed in 2000 and is the sixth-largest ETF. The Vanguard fund is tiny in comparison, with a net asset value of just $7 billion. Founded very recently in 2010, this fund offers the lowest rate of the three and has the well-respected Vanguard name behind it.