What makes U.S. ETFs so great?

By Baptiste Wicht | Updated: | Investing

(Disclosure: Some of the links below may be affiliate links)

I mostly invest in U.S. ETFs, and I have recommended these ETFs many times on this blog. I consider U.S. ETFs to be the best available ETFs. I have talked a few times about what makes them great in various articles. But since I still get many questions, I will now go into all the details of these U.S. ETFs.

I will not talk about Exchanged Traded Funds (ETFs) that invest in the United States. I am going to talk specifically about ETFs from the United States. What matters here is the domicile of the ETF. This is more important than many people realize.

So, let’s see what makes these U.S. ETFs great.

Availability of U.S. ETFs

First, we need to address the issue of the availability of U.S. ETFs, or lack thereof.

If you are in the United States, you will not have any issues. However, if you are in Europe, this is another story. Indeed, due to European regulations, many countries lost access to U.S. ETFs.

In fact, in 2018, all the countries part of the European Union lost access to U.S. ETFs. This is due to the PRIIPS regulations. These regulations are part of a bigger package, known as MiFID II. These laws force the fund providers to provide a Key Investor Document (KID) in the investor’s language. And so far, U.S. fund providers have not provided them, and they are unlikely to do it in the future either. So, for now, European investors are not able to invest in U.S. ETFs.

In theory, these laws are here to protect investors by giving them more information on the instruments they are using. However, in practice, they are only here to force people to invest in European funds.

However, Switzerland is not part of the European Union. Therefore, Swiss investors still have access to U.S. ETFs. However, this may change in 2022 when the Swiss equivalent of the European laws enter into effect. Now, it is not entirely clear if this will apply to foreign brokers (like Interactive Brokers) or not. But for now, we are free to use these ETFs.

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Furthermore, not every broker gives us access to these ETFs even though they could do it by law. For now, only foreign brokers, like Interactive Brokers, give access to these ETFs. This is good since Interactive Brokers is the best broker for Swiss investors.

If you want more information on these regulations, you can read my article on the availability of U.S. ETFs.

U.S. ETFs have lower fees

The first advantage of U.S. ETFs is that they have lower fees than their European alternatives.

What matters to us is the Total Expense Ratio (TER) of the ETFs. The TER is the total amount of fees you pay for holding the funds. This fee is expressed in percentage and is removed over the year from your money. So, if you have a TER of 0.1% and 100’000 CHF in the fund, you will lose 100 CHF each year to fees.

Since you will pay the fees each year, it is important to optimize them. In fact, if you are a passive investor, ongoing fees are the most important cost you can optimize. So, it is important to do it well. And the more money you have into the funds, the more fees you will pay.

We can compare a few ETFs to see the difference in fees:

  • Vanguard S&P 500: The U.S. ETF (VOO) has a TER of 0.03%, while the European ETF (VUSA) has a TER of 0.07%, twice more expensive
  • Vanguard World: The U.S. ETF (VT) has a TER of 0.08%, while the European ETF (VWRL) has a TER of 0.22%, almost three times more expensive
  • iShares S&P 500: The U.S. ETF (IVV) has a TER of 0.03%, while the European ETF (IUSA) has a TER of 0.07%, twice more expensive
  • iShares World: The U.S. ETF (URTH) has a TER of 0.24%, while the European ETF (IWRD) has a TER of 0.50%, twice more expensive

As you can see, the TER of European funds is significantly higher than the TER of U.S. ETFs. Over the long-term, this will make a significant difference in your returns.

When you are investing in ETFs, investing fees are not to be ignored. And this is especially true if you want to retire early based on your portfolio.

U.S. ETFs are more tax-efficient

The second advantage is actually even more significant, but it is also a bit more complicated and is only for Swiss investors. Indeed, U.S. ETFs are more tax-efficient for Swiss investors.

This tax-efficiency is based on the way dividends are taxed. Especially how the U.S. taxes dividends of U.S. companies.

By default, the U.S. government will tax 30% of the dividends emitted by U.S. companies to foreign investors. Now, Switzerland has a tax treaty that reduces this withholding to 15% for Swiss investors, the same amount withheld for U.S. investors. And on top of that, we can reclaim the 15% left on our tax declaration.

But when we use a fund in Europe, the dividends will be withheld before reaching the fund. For instance, if you invest in an ETF from Ireland that has Coca-Cola shares, you will lose 15% of these dividends directly. But if these dividends are paid to a U.S. fund, there is no loss!

This advantage is essential since U.S. stocks make up 50% percent of the entire world stock market. So, saving on the dividends of these stocks is very important.

After the U.S., the second-best domicile for ETFs is Ireland. So, if you do not have access to U.S. ETFs, Ireland (IE) ETFs are the next best thing.

Overall, how much you save will depend on the yield of the ETFs you are using. For a 2% yield, you will save 15% of 2%, which is 0.3%. So, by using U.S. ETFs, you can save up to  0.3% in fees every year! On a 100’000 CHF portfolio, you can save 300 CHF per year!

U.S. ETFs are larger

A small advantage is that U.S. ETFs are larger and more liquid. By large, I mean that they are managing more money. Generally, this is exposed as the Assets Under Management (AUM) metric.

A larger ETF has a few advantages over a smaller one:

  1. It shows more popularity. Larger funds are generally large because they are very popular (people put their money in them).
  2. It has a lower chance of being closed.
  3. A larger ETF has a higher trading volume. This has the advantage of the ETF being easier to sell. Generally, they also have a lower spread, which gives you better buying and selling prices.
  4. A larger ETF can generally better replicate the index since it will include more small companies than a smaller ETF.

For these reasons, large ETFs are generally better than small ETFs. But this should not be the primary argument in choosing an ETF.

U.S. ETFs are cheaper to trade

The last advantage is that U.S. ETFs are cheaper to trade (with a good broker) than European ETFs.

This is not directly due to the fund itself, but rather to the stock exchange they are using.

For instance, my primary ETF, Vanguard Total World (VT), is traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). To buy or sell shares with Interactive Brokers, it cost me about 0.35 USD. I can buy a ton of shares and still pay less than a dollar for the transaction.

On the other hand, buying for 10’000 CHF of my Swiss ETF, iShares Core SPI ETF (CHSPI) on the Swiss Stock Exchange (SWX), cost me 10 CHF! That is about 30 times more expensive than for my U.S. ETFs.

And European ETFs are about in the middle of Swiss ETFs and U.S. ETFs. To my knowledge, U.S. ETFs are the cheapest to trade. Now, this may change if you use a service with free transactions. But there are very few good services like this available in Switzerland yet.

What about the U.S. Estate Tax?

Many people believe that we should not invest in U.S. ETFs because of the U.S. Estate Tax. And in some cases, this is actually true. But in practice, for Swiss investors, there is almost no risk in investing in U.S. ETFs.

The U.S. Estate Tax law states that inheritance of U.S. ETFs is subject to a 40% inheritance tax. And non-resident aliens (basically, foreigners outside of the United States) are exempted from this tax for assets up to 60’000 USD. After this, foreigners will have to pay the 40% tax.

This means that if you have many U.S. assets, they could lose a lot of value when you pass away, and your assets go through inheritance. It is not something you want to happen to your estate.

However, many people miss the fact that Switzerland has an estate tax treaty with the United States. And this treaty greatly increases the part that is exempted from this estate tax!

With this estate tax treaty, Swiss investors are exempted from the U.S. estate for up to 11.18 million dollars, prorated to the proportion of U.S. Assets in your net worth. For instance, if U.S. ETFs form 10% of your estate, 1.118 million dollars (10% * 11.18 million) will be exempted from U.S. Estate Tax!

So, in most cases, Swiss investors do not have to worry about the U.S. Estate Tax!

If you want all the details and many more examples, you can read my in-depth article about the U.S. Estate Tax law.

What if you cannot use U.S. ETFs?

Unfortunately, many people do not have access to these great U.S. ETFs.

For these people, investing in European ETFs is still an excellent option. In fact, using U.S. ETFs is the best way to invest. However, it is an optimization over European ETFs. There is nothing wrong with investing in European ETFs!

If you want to be optimal, you will need to go with U.S. ETFs. Now, it could be difficult (or even impossible) to use these ETFs. Even for Swiss investors, few brokers let us access them. If you do not want to go the extra mile and want to invest in good ETFs with lower effort, European ETFs are great!

What matters most is investing, not investing optimally!

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many strong reasons to invest in U.S. ETFs instead of investing in European ETFs! These ETFs will let you save a significant amount of money in fees and taxes.

80% of my portfolio is invested in Vanguard Total World (VT), a U.S. ETF. The rest is invested in a Swiss ETF for my home bias portion. So, I invest a considerable portion of our money into U.S. ETFs. This is because I consider these ETFs to be the best available for Swiss investors.

However, the problem with these ETFs is that they are more difficult to use. Investors from the European Union cannot invest in them anymore. And in Switzerland, only a few brokers let you use them.

As I mentioned before, U.S. ETFs are an optimization over European ETFs, but they are not a revolution. If you cannot (or do not want to) invest in U.S. ETFs, investing in European ETFs will be a great way to invest!

If you want to start trading U.S. ETFs, I recommend using Interactive Brokers. It is an excellent broker that lets you trade U.S. ETFs with very low transaction fees. I have a guide on investing with Interactive Brokers.

Are you investing in U.S. ETFs?

Baptiste Wicht 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.

55 thoughts on “What makes U.S. ETFs so great?”

  1. Hey Poor Swiss

    Quick question on the choice of ETF, when I compare the iShares (URTH) to the Vanguard (VT) the performance over the last few years the iShares is mostly between 1-5% better. In the end, isn’t it better to invest in it even if the cost (TER) is higher? Or what speaks from your point of view for the Vanguard?

    Thanks for the short reply.

    Kind regards
    Franz

    1. Hi Franz,

      It’s very difficult to compare these two funds since they do not invest in the same thing. VT invests in the entire world. URTH only invests in developed countries.
      Now, it’s indeed possible that developed countries perform better than emerging countries. But if that changes in the future, VT will have you covered with higher diversification.

      But many people invest solely in developed countries and will be pretty fine. It’s just a matter of how much diversification you want.

      1. Hello Poor Swiss

        Yes, you are completely right, I looked twice wrong :S. Once the two wrong ETFs compared and then still in the wrong column for the performance looked. The two Total World ETFs from MSCI or Vanguard are identical in terms of performance, which is also logical :D. Thanks for your help anyway!

        Kind regards,
        Franz

  2. Hello!
    How could I apply for the 15% withholding tax reduction from dividends in Interactive Brokers? Is it simply stating that I qualify for the benefits of US income tax treaty?
    Will they then automatically not charge 30% withholding tax but only 15%?

  3. Just one query re Interactive Brokers. How hard is it to get the relevant documents needed for our tax return here in Switzerland? We are living here and tax resident.

  4. Hi!

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    > However, this may change in 2022 when the Swiss equivalent of the European laws enter into effect.

    Would you mind sharing your source for this? Do you have plan for you portfolio if this change happens?

    Thank you,
    Larry

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