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ETF Education

Comparing ETFs, Mutual Funds and Stocks

ETFs combine the ease of stock trading with the diversification benefits of mutual funds. While ETFs, mutual funds, and stocks have similarities, understanding their differences is key to ensure you select the appropriate vehicle.

A Quick Comparison

How similar are ETFs to mutual funds and individual stocks? Compare these three investment vehicles:

  ETFs Index Mutual Funds Individual Stocks
Track an Index Yes Yes No
Provide Diversification Yes Yes No
Average Net Expense Ratio (%) 0.57 0.84 N/A
Pricing Market Price Closing Net Asset Value (NAV) Market Price
Intraday Trading Yes No Yes
Minimum Investment No minimum required Some require minimums No minimum required*
Tax Treatment Low impact on shareholder’s level High impact on shareholder’s level Impact on individual level only

Source: Morningstar Direct. Data as of March 7, 2023. Oldest share class of mutual fund used.
*The brokerage through which you purchase individual stocks may have a minimum account requirement.

The Similarities and Differences


ETFs and mutual funds either seek to track or try to outperform the performance of an index, such as the S&P 500® Index. They provide access to many companies or investments in one single trade, removing single stock risk, or the risk inherent in being exposed to just one company.

This diversification across many securities can dilute the potential negative impact of poor performance that any one security may have, thus lowering the risk that an individual stock could hurt the portfolio’s overall performance.

Fees and Expenses

Both ETFs and mutual funds have an expense ratio, which includes management fees and the fund’s total annual operating expenses. Historically, index ETFs have had a lower gross average expense ratio — 0.57,1 while index mutual funds have had a higher gross average expense ratio — 0.84.1

Because ETFs and individual stocks are bought and sold on an exchange, they are both subject to a transaction fee (or commission). Mutual fund transactions do not incur commissions, but may incur other sales charges.

It’s important to consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) for any investment, both the expense ratio and the trading costs. ETFs now trade commission-free on many platforms, which can lower the total cost of owning an ETF. You can find out more about TCO here.

Pricing and Trading

Because investors can buy and sell ETF shares on an exchange continuously throughout the day, like individual stocks, ETF pricing captures the current market price. Their cost may be slightly more or less than their net asset value (NAV).

Mutual fund shares are priced once at the end of the trading day. Shareholders purchase and redeem shares at the closing net asset value of the fund.

Minimum Investment

Similar to individual stocks, with ETFs, there is no minimum investment requirement.2 An investor can purchase as few as one ETF share or as many as preferred. Mutual funds may require investment minimums of $2,500 or more.3

Tax Consequences

When an investor decides to sell ETF shares or individual stocks, any associated capital gains tax is paid at the time of final sale. This offers greater control on the timing of tax consequences.4

In contrast, when an investor decides to sell a share of a mutual fund, the fund manager may sell a portion of the fund’s security holdings in order to deliver cash in the amount of an investor’s position. This sale may generate a realized taxable gain, and taxes on those gains are absorbed by the remaining shareholders in the fund.

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