ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What's the Difference? (2024)

ETF vs. Mutual Fund: An Overview

An investor's portfolio may include stocks, bonds, and sectors with value or growth options, and investors commonly decide whether a mutual fundor exchange-traded fund (ETF)meets their financial goals.

Mutual funds and ETFs can hold portfolios of investments like stocks, bonds, or commodities. They both adhere to the same regulations, like what they can own or how much can be concentrated in one or a few holdings.

Both can be good options for investors but have some key differences that make one better suited than the other concerning an investor's investment goals.

Key Takeaways

  • Mutual funds and ETFs may hold stocks, bonds, or commodities.
  • Both can track indexes, but ETFs tend to be more cost-effective and liquid since they trade on exchanges like shares of stock.
  • Mutual funds can offer active management and greater regulatory oversight at a higher cost and only allow transactions once daily.


Exchange-traded funds trade on exchanges just like common stocks. Most ETFs are index-tracking and aim to match the returns and price movements of an index, such as the , by assembling a portfolio that matches the index constituents.

Passive management generally makes ETFs cheaper than mutual funds with lower expenses than index-tracking mutual funds. Because buyers and sellers are doing business with one another, the managers have far less to do. The ETF providers want the price of the ETF to align as closely as possible to the net asset value of the index. To do this, they adjust the supply by creating new shares or redeeming old shares.


In January 2024, the Securities and Exchange Commission(SEC) approvedthe firstspot market BitcoinETFs listed on theNYSE Arca,Cboe BZX, andNasdaqexchanges.

    Mutual Funds

    Mutual funds are commonly managed by financial institutions such as Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and BlackRock, either directly or through a brokerage firm. The purchase of a mutual fund is executed at the net asset value of the fund based on its price at the market close.

    When investors sell shares, the same process occurs, but in reverse. Some mutual funds assess a penalty of up to 2% of the shares’ value for selling early, typically sooner than 90 days after purchase.

    Mutual funds can track indexes, but most are actively managed. Actively managed funds incur high costs for analysts, economic and industry research, company visits, and administration. That typically makes mutual funds more expensive to run—and for investors to own—than ETFs.

    Investors only pay capital gains taxes when they sell ETF shares. By holding on to shares, investors delay paying taxes until shares are sold.

    Key Differences


    • Buying and selling can occur at any point during a trading session at market pricing.
    • ETFs are not priced at the end of the day.
    • There’s no minimum holding period. This is especially relevant in the case of ETFs tracking international assets, where the price hasn’t yet been updated, but the U.S. market’s valuation of it has.
    • ETFs can reflect the new market reality faster than mutual funds can.
    • Investors in ETFs and mutual funds are taxed based on the gains and losses incurred within the portfolios. ETFs engage in less internal trading, and less trading creates fewer taxable events.
    • ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than mutual funds.

    Mutual Funds

    • Mutual funds can be purchased in fractional shares or fixed dollar amounts.
    • Minimum initial investments for mutual funds are a base dollar amount and not based on the fund's share price.
    • Investors benefit from professional managers when the fund is actively managed.

    When Does a Taxable Event Occur for an ETF?

    For an all-ETF portfolio, the tax will generally be an issue only if and when investors sell their shares. Just like mutual funds, if an ETF pays dividends, those count as taxable income.

    When Are Investors Liable for Gains Earned From a Mutual Fund?

    Unless individuals invest through 401(k) or other tax-favored vehicles, mutual funds will distribute taxable gains to investors, even if they merely hold the shares.

    What Is Meant by an Open-End or Closed-End Fund?

    Mutual funds and ETFs are both open-ended. The number of outstanding shares can be adjusted up or down in response to supply and demand. A closed-end fund (CEF) does not continuously offer its shares for sale but instead sells a fixed number once.

    The Bottom Line

    ETFs and mutual funds are baskets of individual securities like stocks or bonds. Both offer exposure to a variety of asset classes. Investors can gain more diversification from a mutual fund or ETF than investing in a single stock or bond.

    ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What's the Difference? (2024)


    ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What's the Difference? ›

    How are ETFs and mutual funds different? How are they managed? While they can be actively or passively managed by fund managers, most ETFs are passive investments pegged to the performance of a particular index. Mutual funds come in both active and indexed varieties, but most are actively managed.

    Is it better to invest in ETFs or mutual funds? ›

    Tax efficiency: ETFs are almost always more tax efficient than mutual funds because of how they interact. For more details, see ETFs vs. mutual funds: Tax efficiency.

    What is the downside of ETFs? ›

    For instance, some ETFs may come with fees, others might stray from the value of the underlying asset, ETFs are not always optimized for taxes, and of course — like any investment — ETFs also come with risk.

    Is S&P 500 a mutual fund or ETF? ›

    An index fund is a type of mutual fund that tracks a particular market index: the S&P 500, Russell 2000, or MSCI EAFE (hence the name). Because there's no original strategy, not much active management is required and so index funds have a lower cost structure than typical mutual funds.

    What is more expensive ETF or mutual fund? ›

    ETFs expense ratios generally are lower than mutual funds, particularly when compared to actively managed mutual funds that invest a good deal in research to find the best investments.

    Why would someone choose an ETF over a mutual fund? ›

    ETFs usually have to disclose their holdings, so investors are rarely left in the dark about what they hold. This transparency can help you react to changes in holdings. Mutual funds typically disclose their holdings less frequently, making it more difficult for investors to gauge precisely what is in their portfolios.

    Why would I choose a mutual fund over an ETF? ›

    As we covered earlier, infrequently traded ETFs could have wide bid/ask spreads, meaning the cost of trading shares of the ETF could be high. Mutual funds, by contrast, always trade without any bid-ask spreads.

    Why shouldn't you invest in ETFs? ›

    Limitations of ETF investments

    It is crucial to take these into account before making any investment decisions: Reduced potential for returns: Due to their passive tracking of an index, ETFs may not exhibit significant outperformance of the market over the long term when compared to actively managed funds.

    What happens if ETF shuts down? ›

    ETFs may close due to lack of investor interest or poor returns. For investors, the easiest way to exit an ETF investment is to sell it on the open market. Liquidation of ETFs is strictly regulated; when an ETF closes, any remaining shareholders will receive a payout based on what they had invested in the ETF.

    Is it possible to lose money on ETF? ›

    All investments have a risk rating ranging from low to high. An ETF with a low risk rating can still lose money. ETFs do not provide any guarantees of future performance. As with any investment, you might not get back the money you invested.

    Are ETFs riskier than mutual funds? ›

    The short answer is that it depends on the specific ETF or mutual fund in question. In general, ETFs can be more risky than mutual funds because they are traded on stock exchanges.

    Do you pay taxes on ETFs if you don't sell? ›

    At least once a year, funds must pass on any net gains they've realized. As a fund shareholder, you could be on the hook for taxes on gains even if you haven't sold any of your shares.

    Do ETFs pay dividends? ›

    One of the ways that investors make money from exchange traded funds (ETFs) is through dividends that are paid to the ETF issuer and then paid on to their investors in proportion to the number of shares each holds.

    Do you pay fees on ETFs? ›

    Brokerage houses may charge a commission for ETF trades just as they charge for any other market-traded security. These fees are typically around $20 per trade or less but they can add up over time if the investor trades ETFs often.

    What is the best mutual fund to invest in in 2024? ›

    The Quant Small Cap Fund (Direct) is leading the pack, boasting an impressive 42.34% return, followed closely by the Nippon India Small Cap Fund (Direct) at 36% return. The HSBC Small Cap Fund (Direct) and the HDFC Small Cap Fund (Direct) have also performed well, delivering returns of 33.73% and 31.91%, respectively.

    Are ETFs good for beginners? ›

    The low investment threshold for most ETFs makes it easy for a beginner to implement a basic asset allocation strategy that matches their investment time horizon and risk tolerance. For example, young investors might be 100% invested in equity ETFs when they are in their 20s.

    Are ETFs better for taxes than mutual funds? ›

    ETFs are generally considered more tax-efficient than mutual funds, owing to the fact that they typically have fewer capital gains distributions. However, they still have tax implications you must consider, both when creating your portfolio as well as when timing the sale of an ETF you hold.

    Are ETFs more tax-efficient than mutual funds? ›

    Although similar to mutual funds, equity ETFs are generally more tax-efficient because they tend not to distribute a lot of capital gains.

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