ETFs vs. Mutual Funds: Are You a Buy-and-Hold Investor or Active Trader?

When deciding whether to invest in ETFs or mutual funds, it may help to know whether you're an active or buy-and-hold investor.

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Key Takeaways

  • Mutual Funds and Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are two investment vehicles used by investors to pursue diversification
  • When deciding between ETFs and mutual funds, consider your investment style—buy-and-hold investor or active trader

Each financial product comes with its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. But these aren’t solely attributable to the product itself. They also have a lot to do with the individual investor—namely, how he or she uses the product.

This scenario is especially true when comparing exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds. Suppose you’ve gone over the basic features, noted the main differences, and mulled over the pros and cons of each product, but you still can’t decide between the two.

What if you approached the problem from a different angle, one that focuses less on the products and more on your own preferences and tendencies as an investor? You might want to begin by asking a simple set of questions: “Am I more of a buy-and-hold investor or an active participant and which products—ETFs or mutual funds—might better align with my investment style?”

Buy-and-Hold vs. Active Investing: Two Very Distinct Approaches

In case you’re not familiar with either term, here’s a brief description.

  • Buy-and-hold investors typically aim to match the performance of a given benchmark, such as the S&P 500 Index (SPX). If you’re take this approach, your goal—as indicated by the word “hold”—might be to “set and forget,” aside from perhaps conducting a periodic review.
  • Active market participation, in contrast, is characterized by frequent buying and selling, reallocating and rebalancing, in an attempt to respond to short-term market dynamics. Sometimes, the line can get blurred between “investing" and “trading." In other words, you may want to make sure your level of activity aligns with your objectives.

How Your “Investor Type” Affects Your Approach to ETFs and Mutual Funds

Assuming you’re familiar with the features that differentiate ETFs and mutual funds, let’s see how both products might enhance or limit the tendencies inherent to both general investment styles. Here’s the skinny:

ETFs for the Buy-and-Hold Investor

Many ETFs are indexed to a benchmark, making them a popular choice for the self-directed buy-and-hold type of investor. The products are also flexible enough to provide both concentrated and diversified index exposures. Plus, TD Ameritrade clients can access over 300 commission-free ETF products offered by eight leading providers.

Caveat: If you don’t feel you have the discipline to stay the course during periods of market volatility, then perhaps a do-it-yourself approach to buy-and-hold investing might not be the best fit.

Mutual Funds for the Buy-and-Hold Investor

As they may be inclined to do with ETFs, buy-and-hold investors may focus on index-based mutual funds. Other mutual funds allow you to benefit from the services of a professional fund manager, whose job is to know the ins and outs of constructing and rebalancing a portfolio. Fund managers apply their knowledge and understanding of markets and market sectors in the context of the economic conditions to attempt to optimize the portfolio mix within the confines of the fund’s objectives. TD Ameritrade clients can access more than 13,000 mutual funds, including several hundred no-transaction-fee (NTF) mutual funds.

Caveat: Professional management costs money. In addition to paying management fees, you may also end up paying a larger tax bill, in the case of funds with high asset turnovers. This can erode your principal invested.

ETFs for the Active Trader

Because of their intraday trading flexibility, lower fees than managed mutual funds, and range of market exposures—from narrow to wide—ETFs generally are considered by the active participant. 

Caveat: Active trading can be difficult and tricky. It often entails timing the market, which can be challenging at best and can lead to missing opportunities, not to mention additional transaction costs. And those commission-free products? Because they’re typically meant for buy-and-hold investors, they are typically subject to minimum holding periods.

Mutual Funds for the Active Trader

Mutual funds can only be bought and sold at the end of a trading day, at the daily net asset value (NAV). Considering this lack of trading flexibility, mutual funds might not be inherently compatible with a more active investment approach. Many investors thus view mutual funds as long-term investment products. 

Caveat:  Clients do not pay a load fee for most mutual funds available on the TD Ameritrade platform, and many come with no transaction fees. Plus, many employer-sponsored plans allow participants a certain number of transactions per month for free, for those interested in rejiggering their investment lineup. So if you’ve considered all the variables and are leaning toward mutual fund investing, the once-a-day valuation shouldn’t necessarily deter you from choosing mutual funds, even if you plan to take a more active approach.

The Final Word

When deciding between ETFs and mutual funds, consider your investment style. And of course, consider whether your investment style and product of choice aligns with your overall investment goals, financial resources, and risk tolerance.

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Mutual funds are subject to market, exchange rate, political, credit, interest rate, and prepayment risks, which vary depending on the type of mutual fund.

Diversification does not eliminate the risk of experiencing investment losses.

ETFs can entail risks similar to direct stock ownership, including market, sector, or industry risks. Some ETFs may involve international risk, currency risk, commodity risk, and interest rate risk. Trading prices may not reflect the net asset value of the underlying securities. Commission fees typically apply.

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