Vanguard ETFs Vs. Vanguard Mutual Funds: The Winners Are...

Tom Madell profile picture
Tom Madell


  • Many investors may be assuming that ETFs will typically be better performers than managed mutual funds of a similar category.
  • But some recent research by may suggest that investors should take a look at Vanguard's managed funds.
  • I examined relatively short- and long-term returns from both ETFs and managed funds from Vanguard's lineup.
  • I found that for one- and three-year periods, the managed funds were likely a better choice.
  • Over a five-year period, there was little difference in returns with ETFs  having a small edge.

Mutual Funds vs ETFs

Douglas Rissing

Many investors seem convinced that ETFs deliver better returns than actively managed mutual funds. The main drags on mutual funds that are cited appear to be their higher costs as well as poor market timing by jumping in and out of stocks. However, a recent article appeared on casting some doubt on these assumptions. The article, written by the Vice President of Research for Morningstar, suggests that Vanguard's largest actively managed mutual funds have ranked better in performance than Vanguard's largest unmanaged funds.

The article shows that over the last five years, the performance rankings of Vanguard's managed funds have exceeded the performance rankings of Vanguard's largest unmanaged mutual funds when compared to the performance rankings of all other funds in the same investment category. (Note: I highly recommend you read his article as it is one of the most informative on fund investing I have come across in a long time.)

From a somewhat different perspective, I wanted to directly compare popular Vanguard ETFs with similar Vanguard managed funds, the latter chosen because they seemed to most highly resemble a matching ETF. This would provide a head-to-head comparison of unmanaged ETFs with managed mutual funds of the same ilk. Of course, most Vanguard ETFs have an equivalent class of unmanaged mutual funds with a slightly different structure, but with the exact same portfolio composition, such as Vanguard Growth ETF (VUG) being essentially equivalent to the Vanguard Growth Index Admiral Fund (VIGAX).

If the proponents of superior ETF performance are correct, ETFs should outperform their managed mutual fund of the same category, even when both funds are chosen from the same fund company, such as Vanguard. (Of course, the ETFs may have other favorable non-performance characteristics which make them more desirable to own than managed funds, such as tax advantages in taxable accounts, but that is a whole different discussion.)

So now let's look at the comparisons I chose to make between the two types of funds, unmanaged ETFs and managed mutual funds.

How I Proceeded

I examined the entire list of Vanguard funds, both ETFs and mutual funds, trying to find managed funds that were most similar to ETFs, not in name necessarily, but in their actual portfolios. For example, Vanguard might classify a fund as a Value fund but actually have a majority of stocks that are considered more in the Blend category.

In some cases, it was difficult to find "matching" Vanguard pairs based on Vanguard's stated fund categories alone. For example, in matching a pair of Growth funds, I wanted to choose a fund that was like VUG but only if it was open to new investors. So, while I could have chosen Vanguard PRIMECAP (VPMCX), it is currently closed. Therefore, the comparison would not at this time be actionable if one wanted to buy the fund. I also wanted only funds with at least a five-year track record. As a result, some potentially good choices were eliminated.

The following list shows the eight pairs chosen:

  1. Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) vs. Dividend Growth Fund (VDIGX)

  2. Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) vs. International Value Inv (VTRIX)

  3. Total Bond Mkt ETF (BND) vs. Core Bond Inv (VCORX)

  4. Value ETF (VTV) vs. Windsor Inv (VWNDX)

  5. Growth ETF (VUG) vs. Diversified Equity (VDEQX)

  6. Mid-Cap ETF (VO) vs. Strategic Equity Inv (VSEQX)

  7. Small-Cap ETF (VB) vs. Strategic Small-Cap Eq Inv (VSTCX)

  8. FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) vs Emerging Mkts Sel Stk Inv (VMMSX)

Performance Results for Eight Popular Vanguard ETFs vs. Similar Vanguard Managed Funds

Now let's look at how each fund pair performed over one, three, and five year periods:

Fund results shown in bold text indicate a better performance than its "matched" fund. Returns are annualized as of 8-23-22.

Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Total Stk Mkt ETF /Large Blend




Dividend Growth /Large Blend




Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Tot Intl Stk ETF /For Lar Blend




Intl Value Inv / For Lar Value




Note: "Stated Category" is as defined by Vanguard. However, when examining the above two funds, they both have a predominance of Large Blend stocks and are therefore quite similar.

Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Tot Bond Mkt ETF /Interm Bnd




Core Bond Inv / Interm Bnd




Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Value ETF / Large Value




Windsor Inv / Large Value




Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Growth ETF /Large Growth




Diversified Eq /Large Blend




Note: See the note above. Diversified Equity has a majority of its stocks that would be classified in the Large Growth, not Large Blend, category.

Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Mid-Cap ETF /Mid Blend




Strategic Eq / Mid Blend




Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

Small-Cap ETF /Small Blend




Strat Small-Cap Eq / Sm Blend




Fund/Stated Category

1-Year Return

3-Year Return

5-Year Return

FTSE Emer Mkts ETF /Em Mkts




Emerg Mkts Sel Stk / Em Mkts




Interpreting These Results

Each of the eight fund comparisons had at least one instance of the managed fund outperforming the unmanaged fund, except in the case of the Emerging Market managed fund.

In six out of eight comparisons, the managed fund outperformed the ETF when the time period examined was one year. When the time period was three years, the results were much more mixed with the managed funds still showing a slight edge. But by five years, the results became highly similar, slightly favoring the ETFs.

It appears then that the ETFs may be better when held for long periods, while the managed funds, apparently being able to profit from short-term market trends, come out on top.

Suggested Strategy

If you consider yourself a very long-term investor, I would consider that holding Vanguard ETFs or those mutual funds with the same portfolio composition as an ETF, such as VIGAX, to be your best course of action.

If you prefer to try to maximize your returns over shorter time periods, especially within a tax-deferred portfolio such as a 401(k), many of Vanguard's actively managed funds may be able to help you achieve that goal even better than ETFs with a similar type of portfolio makeup.

This article was written by

Tom Madell profile picture
Tom Madell, Ph.D., is the publisher of Mutual Fund/ETF Research Newsletter, a free newsletter which began publication in 1999 with thousands of readers. It has become one of the most popular mutual fund/ETF newsletters on the internet, as shown here. His site has been named as one of the "Top 12 Investment Newsletters Focusing on Mutual Funds" at , an important fund information provider, under "Fund Newsletter". Also, recently his Newsletter was recognized as one of 5 expert mutual fund resources worth following offering free, and, in its case, particularly "unbiased, useful, and original advice" at .He is also a researcher/writer/investor whose articles have appeared on hundreds of websites, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Morningstar and in the international media.His articles have been among the most popular among those posted on the website by non-Morningstar employed contributors.His recommendations have an outstanding, long-standing record of success . His complete list of former articles can be accessed at

Disclosure: I/we have no stock, option or similar derivative position in any of the companies mentioned, and no plans to initiate any such positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: I own Vanguard Windsor (VWNDX) and FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO).

Recommended For You

Comments (5)

To ensure this doesn’t happen in the future, please enable Javascript and cookies in your browser.
Is this happening to you frequently? Please report it on our feedback forum.
If you have an ad-blocker enabled you may be blocked from proceeding. Please disable your ad-blocker and refresh.