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Understanding Mutual Funds And ETFs

Feb 27, 2008
While we all wish we could be Warren Buffet, the truth is that most investors are best served just parking their money in a mutual fund or ETF. What is the difference between these two types of investment options and which one is for you?

Both mutual funds and ETFs allow the investor to achieve diversification. Each invests in a basket of stocks, so the investor generally does not have to worry that one individual stock will radically alter his or her returns. Both also give the investor the choice of investing in a certain sector, if he thinks a sector will perform well. For example, there are mutual funds and ETFs that focus just on technology, and there are also broader mutual funds and ETFs that focus on the market as a whole (if you want maximum diversification).

The key difference between mutual funds and ETFs are that mutual funds are actively managed, whereas ETFs are passively managed. What does this mean? Basically, mutual funds have a manager that chooses which individual stocks to buy and sell. He will actively choose generally 50-300 stocks in which to invest. In contrast, an ETF will just invest in the stocks that correspond to an index.

For example, the ETF Diamonds (DIA) seeks to track the Dow Jones index. The ETF's performance will almost exactly mirror how well the Dow Jones index does. So if the Dow Jones goes up 9% in a year, DIA will go up about 9% as well. In contrast, a blue chip mutual fund will also invest in blue chip stocks, like the ones that make up the Dow Jones index, though it may choose to invest in only some of the stocks in the Dow Jones as well as other blue chip stocks that are not in the Dow Jones. Thus, while the Dow Jones may go up 9% in a year, a blue chip mutual fund could have a vastly different return. It might lose 2% or it might gain 15%; it just depends on the luck and the skill of the mutual fund manager.

As you can see, the key difference is how they are managed. But which one is better? Well, it depends. Since there are more decisions and more effort involved in a mutual fund, these charge higher fees than ETFs. These fees may be worth it though if the mutual fund can outperform its index peers. If the mutual fund has returns similar to an index or worse, than the ETF will be better.

Investing in ETFs are a little easier than a mutual fund. As you can see, with an ETF, you are at least guaranteed to meet the index. With a mutual fund, you could do better or you could do much worse. One tip, more than any other, is to make sure you do not pay too high of expense fees with a mutual fund. If your mutual fund is ripping you off, you certainly will underperform the market!
About the Author
The author writes for a stock investing tips website as well as a mutual funds advice website.
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