ETFs and index funds are two distinct types of investments. Structurally, they differ, as do their liquidity and cost. Performance between them may vary depending on the index.

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between ETFs and index funds, as well as their benefits and drawbacks


Definition of ETFs and Index Funds

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and index funds are two popular investments. ETFs are like mutual funds, as they provide diversified portfolios. However, there are differences investors should know to decide which is best for them.

An ETF is a marketable security that follows an index, commodity, bonds, or a basket of assets like an index fund. It lets investors buy fractional shares, so they can get parts of the fund close to what the underlying assets would cost.

In contrast, an index fund is usually a mutual fund or unit investment trust. It buys the underlying securities that make up a market index like the S&P 500. It may also buy debt securities or commodities, depending on structure and objective. With this investment, you purchase shares or units from the sponsoring institution.


Investment Structure

When examining ETFs and Index Funds, one key thing to assess is investment structure. ETFs are listed on the stock market. Thus, their prices vary with the market and they can be bought and sold during market hours. On the other hand, Index Funds are purchased and sold through asset management companies – their prices do not move with the market.

Let us take a deeper look into the distinctions between ETFs and Index Funds



An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is like a stock but with roots in mutual funds. It can be bought and sold throughout the day on the major stock exchanges. An ETF holds assets such as stocks, commodities, or bonds, and it is priced close to its net asset value.

ETFs are similar to index funds, but not actively managed. Examples of ETFs include industry, sector, international/worldwide equities, and international/worldwide fixed income. ETFs can also offer alternative investments such as commodities or Treasury bonds.

One difference between ETFs and mutual funds is that ETF investors pay brokerage commissions. Mutual fund investors do not. ETFs tend to be more cost-efficient than actively managed mutual funds in terms of expenses, but there may be higher costs when buying into the fund due to commissions paid. Investors should be aware of fees when investing and decide which product is most cost effective for their overall investment strategy.


Index Funds

Index funds are either mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs). They seek to replicate the performance of indexes like the Standard & Poor’s 500.

Index funds buy components of the chosen index to provide a return similar to that index.

Unlike actively managed funds, index funds are managed almost like robots. They only seek to replicate an existing index and don’t have to follow any particular strategy. This gives them consistency and allows investors to diversify their portfolios with small amounts of capital. As such, index funds are designed for long-term growth, not short-term gains. However, these funds may have lower returns due to management fees, transaction costs, and other expenses.



Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) and index funds have an important difference in their cost structure. ETFs are usually more cost-efficient than index funds. But, aside from this, there are other aspects to consider. Let’s delve deeper into the fees of ETFs and index funds.



ETFs have lower investment minimums and cost less than index funds. They often have lower expense ratios, but not always. ETFs’ share prices change throughout the day based on supply and demand. When buying ETFs, you pay a commission to your broker. With index funds, there are usually sales charges or fees, but not commissions.

  • ETFs can be bought or sold at any time of day, unlike mutual funds which must be bought or sold at the end of the trading day.
  • ETFs are open to investors of all net worths or incomes. You don’t need to commit long-term, making them accessible investments.
  • Most domestic ETFs track their chosen index, providing consistent returns that match market performance. This type of investment lets you access many asset classes without managing multiple accounts.


Index Funds

Index funds are a type of mutual fund and ETF. They invest in assets that match a particular index. Assets such as stocks, bonds or other securities, follow certain market benchmarks. Usually, the performance of an index fund is tracked against the S&P 500. This contains the 500 largest U.S. companies.

Index funds have lower operating costs than actively managed funds. This is because they don’t need a team of asset management professionals. This often results in lower expense ratios for investors. Also, index funds usually require a small minimum investment. This makes them accessible to investors with low capital.

By diversifying investments, these types of investments offer risk-adjusted returns. They also reduce volatility and outperformance compared to large portfolios with active asset management strategies.


Tax Efficiency

Investing? Tax efficiency’s essential. Two types of investments, ETFs and index funds, provide distinct tax advantages. Let’s look into the tax efficiency of these two. That’ll help you pick which one fits your portfolio.



Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are a type of security that let investors buy or sell a group of stocks, commodities, bonds, or other investments. ETFs have an advantage over traditional index funds in terms of taxes.

ETFs are set up to make capital gains taxes low. If the underlying investments don’t go up or down much, the gain won’t be taxed until the fund shares are sold. If investors hold index funds in mutual funds and the stocks increase, they must pay capital gains taxes even if they still have the index fund shares.

ETF investors can change their holdings into cash quickly without paying a lot in taxes. This is different from actively managed mutual funds, where there is usually more trading friction.

Overall, ETFs give investors a more tax efficient way to invest compared to index funds. This is because of its structure and the options for holding periods and liquidation.


Index Funds

Index funds, sometimes called passive investments, are a type of mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF). They replicate or “track” the performance of a certain stock or bond index, like the S&P 500.

Index funds try to copy the performance of their particular benchmark index by owning many of the securities in the index. These funds offer diversification, low costs, and tax efficiency.

Plus, due to tracking an index instead of selecting stocks, there’s no need for active trading or transaction costs. This makes index funds popular investments since they may deliver returns equal to the benchmark without high expenses from ETFs or other funds. Index Funds also benefit from low levels of risk since they don’t rely on manager forecasts. Investing capabilities like market analysis are unnecessary since security selection and timing decisions don’t affect returns.



Choosing between an ETF and an index fund? Risk needs to be taken into account. ETFs bring more risk, especially leveraged ETFs. On the flip side, index funds are seen as comparatively safe.

Let’s look at risk for both types of funds closer:



Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are a type of investment that you can buy and sell on stock exchanges. ETFs are generally cheaper than traditional funds, but there is still a risk of losing your capital. The risk level depends on the type of ETF.

Leveraged ETFs involve extra risk in exchange for potentially greater gains or losses. Non-leveraged ETFs have lower potential returns, but also carry less risk. They usually track a market index, so if the market rises, so will your investments. If it falls, its value will decline. Non-leveraged ETFs have lower volatility than other investments.

Leveraged ETFs use debt to increase their exposure to an underlying asset. This means they are more sensitive to price swings. Their performance depends on how well the underlying asset performs.


Index Funds

Index funds are investment products that track a specific index of stocks, bonds, or both. Like ETFs, they offer diversification, low expense ratios and generally low minimum investments. They have lower expenses than ETFs due to their simpler structure and trading costs. Index funds provide an opportunity for investors to make investment decisions from their accounts without a broker or financial advisor.

Index funds are usually composed of large-cap stocks and tend to have little turnover in the fund’s portfolio. They act more like a mutual fund in terms of fees and purchases as it is managed by an investment manager. However, this can lead to increased costs compared to an ETF that tracks an index. Additionally, since index funds don’t trade like stocks or ETFs, they can take longer to buy and sell.



It’s a personal decision to choose between ETFs and index funds. Both could be a great addition to diversifying a portfolio. Knowing the differences, like costs, liquidity, taxes, and more, can help make the choice.

Be sure to not rely on past performance. Diversifying doesn’t secure profits or protect against losses in a volatile market. Research each fund’s risks and benefits before investing. It’s wise to talk to a financial advisor or professional to make the best choice for your goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an ETF?

An ETF (Exchange-Traded Fund) is a type of investment fund that holds a collection of assets, such as stocks, bonds, or commodities, and trades on a public exchange like a regular stock.

What is an index fund?

An index fund is a type of mutual fund that is designed to track the performance of a specific index, such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It is a type of passive investing, in which the fund manager invests in all the stocks or bonds included in the index rather than attempting to pick individual stocks.

What is the difference between an ETF and an index fund?

The primary differences between ETFs and index funds are in terms of structure, fees, and trading strategies. ETFs are traded like stocks on an exchange, while index funds are bought and sold through a fund provider. Additionally, ETFs typically have lower fees than index funds, and ETFs allow for more active trading strategies.