Traditional mutual funds and ETFs may seem like competitors in a fight to the death. But the truth is, the two products coexist in most portfolios.

Exchange-traded funds are booming. Yet while the growth rate for ETFs has trounced that of open-end funds, the traditional mutual fund is far from dead. Assets under management surged globally to $1.5 trillion in early 2012 from $25 billion in 1997, according to figures compiled by ETF Global Insight, a London-based consulting firm.

While much of the growth in ETFs has come from retail users, surveys show that most advisors are employing at least some ETFs. Late last year, a Charles Schwab study found that more than eight out of 10 independent registered advisors incorporated ETFs.

"It's very rare that I don't include ETFs" in client portfolios, says Ken Robinson, owner of Practical Financial Planning in Cleveland. "For passive investments, I almost always find myself using ETFs now. Even when you factor in the trading costs, they're typically less expensive than other options.''

While the growth rate for ETFs has pummeled that of open-end funds, traditional mutual fund assets are still strong. Morningstar estimated that, at January's end, the value of U.S. ETF assets were $1.15 trillion, compared with $8.3 trillion for open-end funds, excluding money market and fund-of-funds portfolios.

Most advisors use both ETFs and mutual funds, says Anthony Rochte, senior managing director of Boston-based SSgA Funds Management. SSgA is both the second-largest ETF provider and a major player in the traditional mutual fund business. The company's SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), the first U.S. exchange-traded fund, is running neck and neck with the Vanguard 500 Index fund in the race for most assets under management in a retail portfolio tracking the benchmark S&P 500.

 

POINTLESS FIGHT

Some industry watchers, though, think that pitting ETFs against traditional open-end mutual funds is a meaningless faceoff. "A lot of times these comparisons of ETFs versus funds mask other things," says Joel Dickson, principal and senior investment strategist at Vanguard, one of the two biggest mutual fund companies and the third-largest ETF sponsor.

Dickson says that the choice between ETFs and open-end mutual funds has been driven not by the structure of the investment, but by "the distribution platform that is available to the advisor." Before ETFs, commission-based advisors had no access to the indexing giant's portfolios. Vanguard has never paid for distribution on its mutual funds, Dickson says.

But the company's ETFs are available on brokerage platforms, making it easy for both commission-based and fee-based RIAs to use them in constructing portfolios. "That's in many ways why the ETF has blossomed in the financial advisor community," he says.

As with Vanguard's products, most ETFs in today's marketplace are index funds. As a result, some planners shun them as core holdings because of current market conditions. "Right now, we're more on the managed equity side than on the indexed equity side," says Jim Holtzman, an advisor and shareholder with Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh. "We don't want to get into indexes right now," he adds, citing the whipsawing effects of market volatility.

Holtzman notes that since the late 1990s, stocks have moved sideways. What's more, he believes that investors have become complacent. "We think there are more drops to come," he says.

Holtzman does use ETFs as tactical tools to provide exposure to areas that can't be accessed efficiently through traditional mutual funds. Mostly he uses gold, coal and agribusiness ETFs in more aggressive portfolio strategies.

 

AVOIDING NOVELTY

In contrast, Robinson, of Practical Financial, says he avoids anything that might be considered a novel ETF. "I'm not an early adopter," he says. "The ETFs that I use tend to be with companies that have been doing indexing a long time and they're very boring and garden variety."

Although Robinson sometimes uses actively managed funds, he usually opts for indexed portfolios. It's a preference that his clients share. "If they have a strong opinion that it's all about active management, they probably wouldn't be my clients," he says.

Does the choice come down to passive strategies versus active ones? SSgA's Rochte thinks not: "The conversation is less and less about indexing versus active," he says.

"I think there's been a bit of a mischaracterization of terms," adds Vanguard's Dickson. "ETF does not have a one-to-one correspondence with index," he says, noting that his firm's sales of open-end index funds have been strong. Much of the company's growth in open-end index fund sales has been in the defined contribution market where target-date portfolios have become increasingly popular.

Because of the preponderance of indexed products in the ETF universe, it stands to reason that advisors favoring active management will have to construct client portfolios using mostly open-end funds. Rochte predicts growth ahead in the active ETF market. "That could look very different five to 10 years from now," he says.

Rochte says initial growth will come in the fixed-income ETF space because bond managers are more likely to feel comfortable about disclosing their holdings. Understandably so, since in the huge, opaque fixed-income market it would be more difficult to copy a manager's strategy than in the more transparent equity market. Meanwhile, higher ETF trading volume last year suggests to the authors of the Schwab study that advisors are using passive instruments to implement active management strategies, such as sector rotation.

 

STRATEGIC TIMING

Morris Armstrong, owner of Armstrong Financial Strategies in Danbury, Conn., takes a core and satellite approach with client portfolios. In a typical portfolio, he estimates, ETFs are 20% to 30% of client assets. Armstrong likes the flexibility of the ETF structure. If he decides to take a position in the morning, he doesn't want to wait until 4 p.m. to see the strategy implemented. That's especially important, he says, if you are using technical levels to buy or sell.

"If you're doing a lot of technical execution, ETFs are better than mutual funds," Armstrong says. The liquidity of many larger ETFs allows Armstrong to use market volatility to pick buy-and-sell points. Rochte contends that SPY is "the most liquid security on any exchange in the world," trading 250 million to 300 million shares a day.

Liquidity also permits advisors to use large ETFs to park assets that are awaiting investment in narrower market niches. Referring to its low expense ratio, Rochte calls SPY "a nine-basis-point solution." Even so, Rochte says, SPY and other broad-based ETFs can have multiple functions in a portfolio, ranging from a short-term trading vehicle to a core asset for an investor with a buy-and-hold strategy. "ETFs are used by different constituents for very different reasons," he says.

A major appeal of ETFs is the idea of "price certainty." You can see where the ETF is trading and decide if the price is right for you. "A lot of people like to have that sense of control of the price certainty," Dickson says.

Armstrong sees a downside, however. "You're never really sure if you're getting the right price," he says. After all, the price of the ETF may vary from the fund's net asset value at any moment.

Traditional open-end mutual funds provide what Dickson calls "value certainty." The price you get at the 4 p.m. close represents the value of the securities underlying the fund at that point. Of course, that raises the question of pricing of the underlying securities. Indexers are likely to say that the market efficiently prices assets, while active managers will look for discrepancies between price and true value.

 

OFF THE RADAR

Despite all the attention given to ETFs in the past few years, many advisors say that clients don't specifically ask about them. Holtzman says the investors who are aware of ETFs represent a small percentage of the firm's client base.

Few of those clients are versed in the differences between ETFs and open-end funds. "They certainly understand when [ETFs] are cheaper," Robinson says. But the more subtle differences are not on clients' radar. Ultimately, that may reflect a general lack of knowledge of investment products. "If they don't understand the ETF, they don't understand about their open-end fund as well," he says.

Dickson adds: "I think there has been too much separation of ETFs and [mutual] funds. I think it's important to recognize that the 'F' in ETF stands for fund. Most of the DNA is very similar. At the portfolio level, you're dealing with an index fund," he says.

Armstrong's experience with clients also suggests that most investors prefer to leave the choice of instrument up to the advisor. "I think people don't really understand the technical differences between a mutual fund and an ETF," he says. From the client's perspective, SPY and the Vanguard 500 track the same index. "What's the difference at the end of the day?"

 

Joseph Lisanti, a New York financial writer, is former editor-in-chief of Standard & Poor's weekly investment advisory newsletter, The Outlook.