Mutual funds have long been an important part every investor’s financial toolkit. More recently, many investors have made index funds a major part of their portfolios. An index fund is a particular kind of mutual fund which tracks the ups and downs of the market as a whole. With these funds, investors aim to avoid the risky guesswork and reliance on fund managers that come with other kinds of investments. In this article, we will explore the ins and outs of these financial instruments and indicate some of the benefits and risks of index investing.
The Concept of an Index Fund
Fundamentally, these types of funds track either a market index or a smaller part of an index. But what is an index? Typically, when investors refer to the current state of “the market,” they are really talking about the current numbers of some index or other. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq Composite, for example, are familiar indexes of the American market. These indexes track a section of the market and allow us to compare investments and evaluate the overall economic situation. They provide a statistical picture of the market taken as a whole.
Modern index investing originated in the 1960s in response to the discovery that many managed mutual funds were not actually beating the market. Investors asked: if it isn’t possible for experts to design a fund that consistently outperforms the market, why not construct a fund that simply mirrors the market itself? Index funds were the solution, allowing for mutual funds that would have lower risk than actively managed funds but would still provide decent returns to investors.
Although computers now do most of the actual indexing, managers construct their funds based on certain rules that govern the choice of companies that the fund will track. Today there are thousands of such funds tracking different indexes or components of different indexes. In the United States, these funds now make up some 30 percent of all funds under management.
An individual investor would have to spend a fortune in commissions and a huge amount of time to achieve the same level of market coverage that an index fund can offer. Putting money into index-based instruments is a form of passive investing, which often means lower costs for the average investor.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Index Funds
Index investing is now an established practice. However, opinion remains divided about the pluses and minuses of this form of passive investing. Given the prominence of an index-based fund on the mutual fund market, even the most involved investor will probably have some of these funds in his or her portfolio. No matter an investor’s personal strategy, it pays to appreciate both the advantages claimed for index methods as well as the various criticisms they have received in recent years.
Advantages of Index Funds
- Lower Costs
These funds are generally more affordable than other funds. Because they are not actively managed, investors avoid paying for the expert attention that other mutual funds receive. Many non-index fund investments have expense ratios as high as 1.5 percent. Index-tracking funds, on the other hand, can run as low as 0.2 percent.
Many investors lack the time or the expertise needed for effective stock-picking. Even choosing the best mutual funds can also be a major challenge. With an index fund that tracks a major section of the market, investors need not concern themselves with details of strategy and stock selection.
- Lower Turnover Means Lower Taxes
Buying and selling securities means capital gains taxes. Investors may accrue these taxes directly or end up paying for stock turnover via the fees that come with mutual funds. Since they involve less buying and selling by investors and managers, they also avoid many of these costs.
Disadvantages of Index Funds
- All Funds Are Not the Same
Although index investing has a reputation for lower costs, many funds are as expensive as managed mutual funds. Likewise, in today’s crowded market there are a huge number of funds with a variety of different indexing strategies. There is no guarantee that any one fund will bring the much-touted advantages of indexing.
- They Still Have Risks
Index funds are also supposed to reduce risks for investors, and this has often proved to be true. However, since such funds track the market, they can only do as well as the market as a whole. When the market is down, heavy investment in index fund securities can carry major risks.
- Lack of Reaction
These funds depend on the notion that the market as a whole is efficient and will usually outperform any expert’s picks. However, this is not always true. With indexing, investors give up the possible advantages of smart adaptation to market behavior, expert forecasts, and personal investing strategies.
While they come with a number of possible disadvantages, for individual investors index-based funds remain one of the most important types of investments to have in the portfolio. Historically, tracking the market as a whole has been a winning strategy. Plus, the lower costs of such funds are a major benefit.
Like any other investment vehicle, index investing comes with no guarantee of financial success. Nevertheless, there are few better ways to get immediate coverage across huge sectors of the markets. For effective, affordable diversification and all the advantages of passive investing, index funds are one of the best choices on today’s financial landscape.