When looking at your investment returns, it’s important to calculate your return after the impact of taxes and expenses (management fees, commissions, bid/ask spreads). That number is what you really end up with, but it’s never shown on any year-end statements. ETF provider iShares put out a Managing Tax Challenges brochure that shows the average annualized tax cost for actively-managed mutual funds over the last 10 years. Via Abnormal Returns and Mebane Faber.
Many actively managed mutual fund managers have had difficulty delivering benchmark-beating, after-tax returns. Figure 1 shows the 10-year average tax cost for active funds and top quartile active funds. What’s striking is that in every case except for mid cap blend and small cap value, top quartile funds’ tax costs (as indicated with a white dot) were equal to or greater than those of the category average (black dot). Even worse, after taking taxes and fees into consideration, the average active fund underperformed its benchmark.
The takeaway is that expenses and tax-efficiency both matter greatly to the bottom line, and passively-managed ETFs are much more tax-efficient than actively-managed mutual funds, possibly enough to counter the performance benefit of active management. For one, being passively-managed on its own means lower turnover (less buying and selling) and thus less taxable events. Second, the ETF structure itself has inherent advantages over open-ended mutual funds. Neither of these traits are specific to iShares, by the way, although they do have some of the most popular index ETFs out there.
I should note that many Vanguard ETFs are simply different share classes of open-ended mutual funds (Example: VTI and VTSMX). Theoretically, this extends the tax-advantages of ETFs to the mutual fund shareholders, as described in Vanguard’s ETF brochure:
Tax advantage. Like other ETF providers, Vanguard can push low-cost-basis shares out of the portfolio through the in-kind redemption process. Our patented share-class system provides an additional benefit. To meet cash redemption requests from non-ETF shareholders, Vanguard can sell high-cost-basis securities to generate a capital loss. These losses offset any current taxable gains and, if not exhausted, can be carried forward to offset future capital gains—a recycling that is not likely within stand-alone ETFs. Theoretically, cash redemptions could trigger a gain instead of a loss; however, Vanguard’s deep tax-lot structure has allowed us to select high-costbasis shares in both good markets and bad, resulting in a high degree of tax efficiency.
As a result, in many cases if I can own Admiral shares of Vanguard index funds that have the same low expenses as the ETF version, I’d rather just own the mutual fund version for the sake of simplicity. For instance, I like making dollar-based transactions at net-asset value (NAV) instead of having to place a market order (potential loss due to bid/ask spread) and also worrying about NAV discount/premiums. It also keeps me from doing silly things like trying to time the market intraday.