What are ETFs and Mutual Funds

February 19, 2023
for People

At AdvisorFinder, we're dedicated to providing the most valuable insights into the world of investments. One of the most popular investment vehicles is the exchange-traded fund (ETF), which has been compared to mutual funds. In this article, we will provide an in-depth analysis of the differences between ETFs and mutual funds, and why investors should consider either of them for their portfolio.

In this article, we will cover:

  1. What an ETF is
  2. What a Mutual Fund is
  3. Differences Between ETFs and Mutual Funds
  4. The Types of ETFs
  5. The Types of Mutual Funds
  6. A, B, and C Shares of Mutual Funds

What is an ETF?

An ETF is a type of investment fund that is traded on stock exchanges, much like a stock. It is a basket of securities that tracks the performance of an underlying index, commodity, or asset class. The goal of an ETF is to replicate the returns of the index or asset it tracks, with low expense ratios and no minimum investment requirements. This makes ETFs more accessible to individual investors, who can buy and sell shares on the open market just like stocks.

What is a Mutual Fund?

A mutual fund, on the other hand, is a type of investment vehicle that pools money from many investors to purchase a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, or other assets. Mutual funds are managed by professional money managers, who buy and sell securities on behalf of the fund's investors. Unlike ETFs, mutual funds are priced at the end of each trading day and have minimum investment requirements.

Key Differences Between ETFs and Mutual Funds

Trading Flexibility

ETFs can be traded throughout the trading day, whereas mutual funds can only be bought or sold at the end of the trading day. This provides greater flexibility for investors to take advantage of market movements and make real-time trades.

Lower Expense Ratios

ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than mutual funds, which means investors can keep more of their returns. This is because ETFs are typically passively managed, meaning they track a specific index or benchmark, and don't require the same level of active management as mutual funds.

Tax Efficiency

ETFs are often more tax-efficient than mutual funds, as they can be designed to minimize capital gains taxes. Mutual funds, on the other hand, can be subject to capital gains taxes if they buy and sell securities frequently.


ETFs are more transparent than mutual funds, as they disclose their holdings daily. Mutual funds, on the other hand, only disclose their holdings on a quarterly basis.

The Types of ETFs

There are three different structures of ETFs that you should be aware of:

Exchange-Traded Open-End Fund

This type of ETF is the most common, and it is registered under the SEC's Investment Company Act of 1940 as an open-end management company. It has specific diversification requirements, which include limiting investments to no more than 5% of the portfolio in a single stock. This structure offers greater portfolio management flexibility than the Unit Investment Trust structure, as it is not required to fully replicate an index. Instead, many open-end ETFs use optimization or sampling strategies to match an index's characteristics. This structure also allows the reinvestment of dividends in additional securities until distributions are made to shareholders. Securities lending is allowed, and derivatives may be used in the fund.

Exchange-Traded Unit Investment Trust (UIT)

These ETFs are also governed by the Investment Company Act of 1940, but they must attempt to replicate their specific indexes to limit tracking error fully. These ETFs limit investments in a single issue to 25% or less and set additional weighting limits for diversified and non-diversified funds. The first ETFs were structured as UITs, and they do not automatically reinvest dividends but pay cash dividends quarterly. UITs are not allowed to engage in securities lending or hold derivatives. Examples of this structure include the QQQQ and Dow DIAMONDS (DIA).

Exchange-Traded Grantor Trust

This is the preferred structure for ETFs that invest in commodities. Such ETFs are structured as grantor trusts, which are registered under the Securities Act of 1933 but not registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940. This type of ETF bears a strong resemblance to a closed-ended fund, but investors own the underlying shares in the companies in which the ETF is invested, including voting rights. The composition of the fund does not change, and dividends are paid directly to shareholders without reinvestment. Investors must trade in 100-share lots, and Holding company depository receipts (HOLDRs) is an example of this type of ETF.

The Types of Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are legally classified into two main types:

Open-Ended Funds

These funds are the most popular in terms of volume and assets under management. With open-ended funds, investors purchase and sell fund shares directly from the fund company. The fund can issue an unlimited number of shares, so as more investors buy into the fund, more shares are issued. Federal regulations require a daily valuation process, known as marking to market, which adjusts the fund's per-share price to reflect changes in the portfolio's value. The value of an individual's shares is not affected by the number of shares outstanding.

Closed-End Funds

These funds issue only a fixed number of shares and do not create new shares as investor demand grows. The prices of these funds are not determined by the net asset value (NAV) of the fund, but rather by investor demand. Shares are often purchased at a premium or discount to NAV.

What are A, B, and C shares of mutual funds?

An A share of a mutual fund is a type of mutual fund share that typically charges an upfront sales charge, also known as a front-end load. This fee is deducted from the investor's initial investment. A shares may also have lower ongoing expenses than other types of mutual fund shares, such as C shares or B shares. However, the upfront sales charge can make A shares more expensive for investors who plan to hold onto their shares for a shorter period of time.

B shares, on the other hand, typically have higher upfront costs than C shares, but they do not charge a level load fee. Instead, B shares charge a back-end load fee, also known as a contingent deferred sales charge (CDSC), when you sell your shares. The CDSC usually decreases over time, so the longer you hold onto your shares, the less you'll pay in fees.

C shares are a type of mutual fund share that charge what is known as a "level load" fee. This fee is typically a percentage of the assets in the mutual fund and is charged annually. C shares often have lower upfront costs than other types of shares, but the level load fee can make them more expensive over time.

Mutual fund companies offer different classes of shares to provide investors with various financial backgrounds and investment objectives a selection of fee and sales charge options. The three primary classes of mutual fund shares, A, B, and C, each come with their own distinct expense ratios, loads, and opportunities to reduce or eliminate some expenses. This can be advantageous to investors with varying investment amounts and horizons, as they can choose the class of shares that best suits their investment goals and financial situation.

ETFs are traded like stocks and track the performance of an underlying index or asset, whereas mutual funds pool money from investors to purchase a diversified portfolio of assets, managed by professionals. ETFs have trading flexibility, lower expense ratios, tax efficiency, and transparency compared to mutual funds, but mutual funds have minimum investment requirements and are priced at the end of each trading day.