Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mutual Funds vs Exchange Traded Funds

While purchase of individual stocks and bonds makes sense in some investing plans, for most seeking a diversified investment portfolio, mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs) will be the choice.  In this post we introduce these products, and examine the differences and similarities between these investment vehicles.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are offered by all of the major financial institutions, as well as by companies operating only in the mutual fund space. The folks at FundLibrary keep track of the Canadian funds available (using the Fundata Canada database), and as of early 2017 there were 17,471 different mutual funds operated by 449 companies in Canada. The actual number of funds is larger still, since a number of funds have different clones that hold essentially the same products (there may be a form of the fund when it is sold through a discount brokerage, and a different form for those sold through financial advisors).

You can purchase mutual funds through your financial institution, through some financial advisors, or through a discount brokerage (in a few cases those with large holdings can purchase them directly from the fund company).

The expense structure for mutual funds can be complicated, but the situation is becoming simpler and much more transparent due to recent legislation. You will pay a percentage of the holdings each year to account for the operations of the mutual fund (the costs of purchasing and selling stocks, administrative costs, etc.) There may, or may not, be charges at time of purchase or redemption in addition.  We will look in detail at the costs of mutual funds and ETFs in a future column.

Some mutual funds track an index (e.g. the TSX Canadian stock index, or a bond index), but many have a more complicated structure, aimed at for example providing regular income or providing the right mix of stocks and bonds for a certain retirement age.

If one is going to just hold a few financial products, a balanced fund, that holds a mix of stocks, bonds and possibly other instruments, can be the simplest choice. For example, the Phillips Hager & North (PH&N) balanced mutual fund RBF1950 holds a mix of about 36% bonds, along with equities from Canada, the USA and internationally. By going to the information sheet linked above you can see the holdings, cost, and past performance of the fund.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

As the name implies ETFs are bought and sold on a stock exchange.  For most individual investors it will only be economical to hold ETFs if you have a discount brokerage account (a topic for a future column).  You purchase and sell ETFs through this brokerage account.

In Canada the major players in the ETF field are iShares by Blackrock,  BMO Asset Management, First Asset, Horizons ETFs, and Vanguard Investments Canada,

The idea of an ETF is that it holds a number of financial products, usually stocks or bonds, in a package. In most case the products held match some index (or compilation of several indexes according to a formula).

For example, the iShares XIC ETF tracks the Canadian composite stock index, so in one product you hold essentially a bit of each company on the TSX, in proportion to the size of that company.

As another example the Vanguard VUN ETF tracks essentially the entire US stock market, with an index including companies of different sizes and from all sectors.  It holds a little more than 3500 individual stocks.

Some ETFs hold bonds, with a common example being the Vanguard VAB ETF, which invests in high quality government and corporate Canadian bonds with a variety of durations.


As the above demonstrates some ETFs and mutual funds will hold very similar products, although in general more mutual funds are active, in the sense of not simply tracking an entire stock exchange index. They have a lot in common, in that they both hold a number of products, usually at least 50 and often thousands of individual stocks.
  • How bought/sold:  ETFs are bought and sold on a stock exchange, while mutual funds can be bought and sold without a brokerage account. You sell ETF's in terms of number of units, while you redeem mutual funds in dollar amounts generally.
  • Price: The price of a mutual fund is set once a business day (at end normally), and you redeem or purchase at this price in dollar units (there is usually some minimum price).  The cost of an ETF will, like a stock, go up and down throughout the day. 
  • Guarantee/Risk: There is no guarantee on the value of either a mutual fund or an ETF. These are not like investment bank accounts and GICs and they do carry risk that you can lose principal value. The amount of risk depends on what the holdings are in the ETF or mutual fund, rather than one being in general more risky than the other.
  • Costs: We will explore this in more detail in a future post, but in general the annual management costs will be lower in ETFs and in mutual funds. However, there will be a per transaction cost so when you buy and sell ETFs there will be this additional cost (there are exceptions we will explore in future columns). In general it does not make sense to do frequent trading in small amounts of an ETF due to these costs.
  • Transparency: In general both products are transparent regarding holdings, past performance, etc., although the situation is most clear for ETFs that track an index.
  • Reinvestment: Normally ETFs will offer a DRIP option to reinvest dividends in additional units, if that is your wish, and normally mutual funds can be set up similarly if desired.
  • Name: Most ETFs have a three letter stock exchange designation, such as VAB or XIC, while in general mutual funds have a combination of letters and numbers in a longer name such as RBF1950, with the first letters designating the mutual fund company (RBF means Royal Bank Fund, who handle PH&N funds now) and the latter part being the number of the actual mutual fund.
This posting is intended for education only. The reader is responsible for their own financial decisions.  The writer is not a financial planner and reading this column should not be interpreted as obtaining individual financial planning advice. For major financial decisions it is always wise to consult skilled financial professionals. While an effort has been made to be accurate, any statements of fact should be independently checked if important to the reader.

Disclosure:  The author of this column holds funds in the mutual fund (RBF1950) and all ETFs mentioned in this column (XIC, VUN, VAB).

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