Deciding Between Mutual Funds and Their ETF Equivalents

by: IndexUniverse

As a diehard index mutual funds fan, I've refused to put my family's personal portfolio into these newfangled exchange-traded funds [ETFs].

If you feel the same way, then there's no real way to break this gently. Let's face it, we're dinosaurs in the world of investing. Everyone's buying these things, from first-time novices to grizzled pros hardened by market whiplashes.

But I'm cheap. Real cheap. Paying commissions to buy and sell ETFs isn't worth it to me. I don't even like to dollar-cost-average. Damn the extra fees.

Last year, some of those concerns were put to rest with the introduction of no-commission ETF trading platforms. The only problem was that they seemed full of loopholes and contingencies. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. Even so, I just don't trust discount brokers, most of which I've tried at one point or another. They seem to be making a living jerking little guys like me around. I don't know how many times I've fallen for some great deal only to be told later: "Oops, we've changed our business model and your fees are going up. If you don't like it, move somewhere else. Oh, yeah, you're going to have to give us $50 to process that order."

My portfolio's expense ratio is comfortably below 0.50% a year. It'll be less than 0.25% as soon as I get all of my assets transferred into my new employer's retirement plan.

Still, shouldn't any REAL indexer strive to pay as little as humanly possible? If I could shave even half a nickel in expenses, wouldn't it be a cop-out settling for anything less?

To satisfy my more miserly instincts, last year I opened an account at one of those fine investment firms heavily promoting free fund trading services. I won't say which one, but the field is pretty narrow. So, I'll leave it to your imagination. Let's just say it was the one with the easiest minimums to meet and least hoops to jump through in terms of qualifying for free trades. That should narrow the field down even more.

I was prepared for a blizzard of paperwork and mind-boggling bureaucracy. Unfortunately, it was actually fairly easy. The biggest problem I had was that employees in one department seemed pretty clueless about rules and procedures outside their direct purview. In some cases, they couldn't even tell me the right phone numbers to call to get answers on my own.

We wound up dropping the ball for months before picking it up again. It was frustrating. Then again, moving accounts or opening new ones isn't always a breeze at mutual fund companies, either. I can't say these new ETF discount programs offer particularly great customer service. But they're at least in the ballpark of the Vanguards of the world, whose whole business is dealing with fund investors.

So this curmudgeon investor now has two ETFs. They smell and look just like the old index mutual funds we used to own. During any given day, their price movements can be rather disconcerting. I don't even look anymore. It still seems just a little too weird.

Why am I writing about ETFs? Well, I remain skeptical. It's true that innovations such as creation units provide a distinct advantage for individual investors. At the same time, why are such learned men like John Bogle and William Bernstein so wary of them?

In a nutshell: Too many traders and too new. And, there's just too many of them.

But for the intelligent allocator, isn't this simply another case of more noise to deal with in an ever-expanding marketplace? The mutual funds marketplace isn't exactly lean and mean. Even old-fashioned indexers like me have to admit that the positives of ETFs should easily outweigh the negatives.

We're always going to have new distractions to face. And that might be the toughest part of ETF investing. Learning about all of the new wrinkles and knowing what's really important and what's less so.

That's why I'm here. I hope to be a useful source in your efforts to build a solid financial future. In no way can I pass myself off as an expert or on the level of most of the people I'll be privileged to write about in coming years at IndexUniverse. But I'm finally working for editors who won't turn their backs on the latest advances in research and education that define modern investing.

If nothing else, I know they won't let me stop learning and growing as an investor and writer. Part of that responsibility means trying to distill and explain some of the mountain of information coming my way through a regular investing column. It's a new experiment for me. But my editor reassured me when he gave me the following marching orders: "Just stick to the facts."

As one of my early mentors likes to put it, "There's more than one path leading to Dublin." In this column, we'll respect that view and avoid any shortcuts. Let's take the long road home.

Written by Murray Coleman