Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) – Best for passive investors

Mr. The Poor Swiss | Updated: | Investing, Financial Independence
Exchange Traded Funds - ETFs

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Mutual funds are an excellent way to invest. Instead of investing in single stocks, you can invest in many stocks at once. Passive funds with very low fees are especially interesting, thanks to index investing.

Unfortunately, mutual funds are not accessible to everyone. It is where Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) come into play!

Mutual Funds are provided by banks and fund providers such as Vanguard or Blackrock. If you are lucky, you have access to Vanguard via your bank. Or you can directly invest in Vanguard funds. That means you can directly invest in their low fees mutual funds.

If you are not lucky, you do not have any easy access to good mutual funds. This is, unfortunately, the case in Switzerland. I can bet that your Swiss bank does not offer cheap passive funds. Instead, they will probably offer you expensive active funds. It is the main reason why Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are an excellent investment tool!

In this article, we are going to learn all about Exchange Traded Funds! I myself invest directly in ETFs!

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

A mutual fund is a managed collection of financial instruments. It can contain stocks, or bonds, or both. By buying into the fund, you are essentially buying a part of all the financial instruments the fund invests in.

But a mutual fund is only available through a financial institution. This institution can be your bank. But this can also be the manager of the fund, such as Vanguard. But in Switzerland, we do not have access to any good mutual funds. Vanguard does not provide access to its funds to Swiss investors. All available mutual funds are costly. So we need another option.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are funds traded on the stock market. They are available to everybody with access to a broker. My current broker, Interactive Brokers, offers access to a very long list of them. As will most brokers. For all the big mutual funds today, there is an ETF alternative. Most of the ETFs are passive indexing funds. However, there are also active ETFs. We saw last time that index funds have lower costs, and active funds rarely beat the market. Therefore, we will focus again on index ETFs.

Such as there are mutual funds for different financial instruments, there are also other kinds of ETFs. The most common kind of ETF is a Stocks ETF. But there are also Bonds ETFs and Currency ETFs.

How to invest in ETFs?

The main difference between mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds is how to buy and sell them. For a mutual fund, you will have to go through the mutual fund provider and deposit money into one of their mutual funds.

On the other hand, Exchange Traded Funds are exchanged on the stock market.

You can buy a share of an Exchange Traded Fund as you buy a share of a company. Go to your broker, search for the ETF you want to invest in, and buy it at the current price. Then, if you need the money, you can sell the shares and get some money back, once again, from your broker.

Hopefully, you will sell for a profit. And you should hold ETFs for the long-term. If you trade ETFs for a quick buck, you are a trader and not a long-term investor. So I will focus on long-term investment here. That means hold for as long as possible.

Another major difference between ETF and Mutual Funds is when you can trade them. Since an ETF is on the stock exchange, you can trade it when the exchange is open. On the other hand, a mutual fund can only be bought and sold once a day.

If you do not know how to start, you can read my guides about buying ETFs shares from the two brokers I have used:

ETF Pricing

Now, if you know how a stock is priced, you may wonder how Exchange Traded Funds can reflect the price of the index? It is an excellent question.

The short answer is that you do not have to worry about that. But the complete answer is complicated. ETF arbitrage is used to minimize the difference between the price of the ETFs and the index. For now, it is enough to know that this will allow you always to trade the ETFs as if you were buying into the index.

It is enough to know that there can be some variations due to stock market transactions. But in the end, the ETF price should mostly reflect the price of the index. Some counterparties will ensure that shares are sold and bought when necessary to keep the price in check.

If you want to know all about ETF Arbitrage, I wrote a detailed guide on Exchange Traded Fund Arbitrage.

Important properties of Exchange Traded Funds

The first thing you want to do when choosing an index ETF is to choose the index you want to invest in. There are already many parameters to take into accounts.

But, once you have chosen a stock market index, you will be amazed by the number of funds there are for the same index. There are several important properties when choosing between different Exchange Traded Funds. Most of them are the same as when you choose between mutual funds. But some of them are different.

Total Expense Ratio (TER)

First, pay attention to the fund’s Total Expense Ratio (TER).

As mentioned before, the cost is the most important factor. It is the only factor of performance that you can control. If two funds have the same index but different fees, the one with the lowest fee will return the most. There can be large differences in fees between different ETFs for the same index. And you will find that ETFs generally have lower TER than similar mutual funds. But it is not a very significant difference.

You should not underestimate the impact of investing fees.

Fund size

The second important characteristic is the size of the fund. By size, I mean the total amount of money that the fund is managing.

You should prefer large funds over small funds. They have several advantages. First, the bigger the fund, the lower the ask/bid spread will be. The next section will cover this in detail. Second, large funds also generally have lower risks. Third, they are less likely to bankrupt. And finally, they are generally better at replicating the index.

Ask/Bid spread

The ask/bid spread is simply the difference between the price sellers ask for, and the price buyers ask for.

Ideally, you want the spread to be as low as possible. However, this mostly depends on the size of the fund and the trading volume. Generally, the more buyers and sellers there are, the lower the spread will be.

If you have a small fund with a low volume of transactions, there may be a large spread. You may have to buy higher than the market price or sell below the market price in those cases. Therefore, it is generally acceptable to select large funds with a large volume of transactions.

Accumulating vs Distributing

Finally, there is one last important property of Exchange Traded Funds. Funds can be either accumulating or distributing.

It is about the use of dividends by the fund. Some of the funds are using the dividend to buy new shares. This strategy is called an accumulating strategy. In this case, the fund’s value will go up with the dividend since they have more shares.

The second strategy is simple. The dividends are distributed to the owner of the shares. You receive the dividends as if you owned shares of all the companies in the index. I prefer distributing funds. But it is a matter of personal taste. There is a lot of talk going on about taxes and accumulating vs distributing funds. But at least for Switzerland, you get taxed in the same way in the end. But it may depend on your country.

For more information, read this comparison of accumulating funds and distributing funds.

Choosing an ETF

As you can see, there are many things you can take into account when you are choosing between Exchange Traded Funds. Fortunately, this is not something you are going to do often.

But it is something important. You do not want to change ETF often. Ideally, you will choose an ETF and invest for the long-term into that fund. Changing ETF is not difficult, but it is not free either.

If you want more details, I wrote a full guide on choosing an Exchange Traded Fund to invest in.

Exchange Traded Funds vs Mutual Funds

Now, you may wonder how to choose between an Exchange Traded Fund and a Mutual Fund.

Most big investment companies will offer both. For instance, Vanguard has both mutual funds and ETFs for each of their funds. And it is the same for Blackrock, another huge investment company.

On this blog, I primarily speak about ETFs. And I only invest in ETFs. But this does not mean ETFs are better than mutual funds! In Switzerland, we do not have access to good mutual funds! For example, Vanguard does not offer access to their mutual funds to Swiss investors. Therefore, we need to use ETFs.

If you have access to both mutual funds and ETFs, there are a few differences between both:

  • ETFs require access to a broker account and are a bit more difficult to buy.
  • ETFs are sometimes slightly cheaper than mutual funds, but the difference is not significant.
  • ETFs can be traded at any time of the day (in the opening hours of the exchange). But mutual funds can only be sold and purchased once a day.
  • Mutual funds can always be traded, while the stock exchange could be closed for some reasons (for instance, because of a circuit breaker).
  • There is no bid/ask spread with mutual funds, but there can be a significant spread in ETFs.

So, overall, it is up to you to decide which instrument you prefer. But remember to focus on passive funds.

If I were in the United States with access to Vanguard mutual funds, I would invest directly through them.

FAQ

What is an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)?

An Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) is a mutual fund traded on the stock market. It can be traded at any time during stock market opening hours. It is traded using a broker account, on the stock exchange.

What is the difference between an ETF and a mutual fund?

A mutual fund can be traded only once a day while an Exchange Traded Fund can be traded any time during market opening hours. You only need a broker to access an ETF, you do not need to go through a mutual fund company.

Conclusion

An Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) is a fund traded on the stock market. It has almost the same properties as a mutual fund. But the availability is better since you only need to have access to the stock market. You do not need to go through your bank or any financial institution. You need a broker account, though.

I am using Interactive Brokers as my broker. It is the best broker for my needs. But there are many brokers out there.  It is generally straightforward to buy shares of ETF. As an example, I wrote a guide on how to buy an ETF on Interactive Brokers.

I am only using ETF as a long-term investment instrument. For example, you can take a look at my ETF portfolio. I am not a financial advisor. It should only give you a rough idea of what can be done. In the end, only you have to decide what you want to do with your money!

There is one essential thing about ETFs. Exchange Traded Funds are really good for long-term investments. But you should not trade them a lot. It is not because they are available on the stock market that you should trade them daily. Instead, you should only use them as long-term investments like a mutual fund.

I speak mostly about ETFs on this blog because we do not have access to good mutual funds in Switzerland. Therefore, we need ETFs to be able to invest with Vanguard, for instance. But there is nothing wrong with mutual funds! If you have access to them, invest in their mutual funds! I wish I could do the same in Switzerland!

To learn more about Exchange Traded Funds, read about the different ways an ETF can replicate an index. Or you can learn about how ETFs are kept synchronized with the price of the index.

Are you using ETFs? Do you prefer ETFs or mutual funds?

Mr. The Poor Swiss is the author behind thepoorswiss.com. In 2017, he realized that he was falling into the trap of lifestyle inflation. He decided to cut on his expenses and increase his income. This blog is relating his story and findings. In 2019, he is saving more than 50% of his income. He made it a goal to reach Financial Independence. You can send Mr. The Poor Swiss a message here.

9 thoughts on “Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) – Best for passive investors”

    1. Hi Mark,

      I think that so much passive investing will just make stronger recoveries and stronger fall. But I am not concerned about a passive bubble right now. I think we are heading to a crash (but we always are).
      Now, a lot of articles about the subject are just there to sell views, they have no content nor value. But it’s true that there is more and more passive investing and that this could change the rules of the fame. But for now, I am not too worried. And there is not much we can do about it except diversifying.

  1. I love your website and have referenced it a lot over the last few months, as I dive into the world of investing and specifically ETFs. One question regarding purchasing the ETFs (let’s say via Interactive Brokers)… Is it possible to set up a monthly automation, to buy the same amount of the same funds every month? Or, do you have to manually do this? Thanks so much for your help on this, much appreciated, Darren

  2. I always considered the TER the main factor to choose a FTE. However, after reading this I saw you emphasize on the size of the fund as well. Between two ETFs replicating the same index, I would definitely go for the cheapest (even though it has a smaller size) What do you think? (e.g. iShares vs Xtrackers: https://www.justetf.com/de-en/find-etf.html?query=DAX++UCITS&groupField=none&sortField=fundSize&sortOrder=desc) I can understand thatthe smaller the fund, the higher the risk. But it is very difficult for me to say when a fund is considered big or small in size… so at the end the TER is the main factor.

    Thanks so much for the amazing series. I am learning sooo much!

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Yes, TER should be the main factor. But it should not be the only factor. In the example you gave, I would indeed go for the xtrackers now even though it’s twice smaller. In fact, the absolute size is not really important but more the range of sizes. For instance, I would not take the comstage one because it’s five times smaller than xtrackets one and almost one order of magnitude smaller than the ishares one. TER should be the main factor between funds of the same magnitude size. I do not know if it makes sense, it’s a bit difficult to put into words.

      Thanks for sharing :)

        1. Hi Katya,

          I don’t think we can say that a fund is big enough. This should only be used to compare two different funds. In general, a larger fund will be better than a smaller one.
          But a fund with 2B is not necessarily better than a fund with 1B. It is the order of magnitude that matters.
          I would not invest in a fund with less than 10 million, but anything higher than 1B is fine. For something in the middle, it will depend on other parameters.

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