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Differences Between Active and Passive Mutual Funds


Mutual funds are available in two main variants: active and passive. Active funds are managed by professional portfolio managers who frequently buy and sell assets in an attempt to outperform the market or a specific benchmark index. Passive funds, commonly known as index funds, aim to replicate the performance of a specific market index. It’s vital to understand the differences between active and passive mutual funds as it aids in making informed investment decisions. A financial advisor can help you determine whether active or passive mutual funds are right for your portfolio.

What Are Actively Managed Funds?

Active management relies on the expertise and analytical research of fund managers, who constantly decide to buy, hold and sell securities in hope of outperforming a particular benchmark or the broader market.

Fund managers and their teams typically base their decisions on market trends, economic factors and company-specific data. Because of their high-frequency trading strategies, they tend to have higher operational costs, including management fees and transaction costs. Be aware that these higher operational costs could potentially eat into your investment returns.

Benefits of an Active Mutual Fund

Adaptability and flexibility are two primary advantages of active management. Active fund managers can react to changing market conditions, adjusting their portfolios by adding or removing investments to seize opportunities or mitigate risks. This is not possible with passive funds that merely track an index. 

Active fund managers also work to align the fund’s goals with investor objectives, whether it’s capital appreciation, income generation or a combination of both. 

Meanwhile, active funds typically hold a diversified mix of assets, spreading risk across various sectors and industries. This diversification can help reduce the impact of poor-performing stocks on your overall investment.

To better understand these benefits, consider a hypothetical active fund investing in tech startups during a technology boom. The fund leverages market trends, which net high yields. However, with such high potential returns, active mutual funds also carry some risks. They might underperform the market, especially if the fund manager’s decisions don’t pan out as expected.

What Are Passively Managed Funds?

A married couple monitors their portfolio, which mainly comprises passive mutual funds.

Instead of beating a specific market index, passively managed funds simply aim to mirror its performance. Passive management doesn’t involve investment decisions by a fund manager but follows a predetermined set of rules for investment.

Passive funds invest in all the securities that comprise a specific index in the same proportions as the index, thereby reducing transaction costs and taxable events. This can potentially lead to better net returns. The buy-and-hold nature of these funds also reduces trading frequency, resulting in further cost reductions.

Benefits of a Passive Mutual Fund

Passive funds typically incur lower costs and offer broad market exposure. They are more transparent than active funds, making them a suitable choice for long-term investors seeking to maximize their net returns through patient capital investment.

They’re also quite effective in efficient markets where it’s difficult to outperform the index. Passive funds, by copying the index, offer a level of diversification, reducing company-specific risk. However, their major shortcoming lies in their inability to act swiftly in response to market changes due to their predetermined investment strategy.

Major Differences Between Active and Passive Mutual Funds

As you can see, the differences between actively and passively managed mutual funds are extensive. Here’s what you should consider as you weigh active mutual funds versus their passive counterparts:

Investment Strategy and Goals

Active funds are managed by portfolio managers who aim to outperform a particular benchmark or the market as a whole.  They rely on research and expertise to actively select individual securities. Meanwhile, passive funds are designed to simply to track the performance of a market index or benchmark. They don’t require constant buying and selling decisions, making them more hands-off.


Active funds offer the potential for higher returns, but this comes with increased risk and often higher fees. Passive funds aim to capture market returns, which tend to be more stable over the long term.


Active funds generally have higher expense ratios due to active management fees. Passive funds are known for their low costs since they require minimal management and trading.


The Securities and Exchange Commission requires mutual funds to disclose their holdings on a quarterly basis. However, passive funds are known for being even more transparent. They typically disclose their holdings daily since they aim to mimic an index. As a result, investors in passive funds can easily assess what they are investing in. 


Active funds can carry higher risk due to the potential for underperformance and the manager’s investment decisions. Passive funds tend to have lower risk because they aim to replicate the broader market.


Active funds may generate more taxable events because of frequent trading, potentially leading to higher tax liabilities for investors. Passive funds, with their buy-and-hold strategy, often result in fewer taxable events and lower capital gains distributions.

Which Types of Funds Are Better to Invest In?

Choosing between active and passive funds involves considering factors such as your individual investment goals, risk tolerance, desired level of involvement and cost sensitivity. For instance, growth-focused investors who can bear higher risks might lean towards active funds. Conversely, those seeking steady growth with lower risk might prefer passive funds. 

It’s also critical to note that passive funds have historically outperformed their active counterparts over the long term, primarily due to their lower fees. In fact, more than 90% of active funds that invest in S&P 500 stocks underperformed that index during the 20-year period that ended in 2022.

Tips for Choosing Mutual Funds to Invest in

An investor looks over his portfolio, which features both active and passive mutual funds.

Choosing the right mutual funds is a vital step in achieving your financial goals. By following these tips and conducting thorough research, you can make informed decisions that align with your investment objectives and risk tolerance.

  • Define your goals. Start by clarifying your investment objectives. Are you looking for long-term growth, income, or a balance of both? Your goals will dictate the types of mutual funds that are suitable for you.
  • Assess your risk tolerance. Are you comfortable with a higher level of risk for potentially higher returns, or do you prefer a more conservative approach? Your risk tolerance should align with the funds you choose.
  • Remember to diversify. Diversifying your investments across different asset classes and sectors can help spread risk. Look for funds that provide diversification within their portfolios.
  • Keep an eye on fees. Pay attention to expense ratios and remember that lower fees can significantly impact your returns over time. Compare expense ratios among similar funds to find the most cost-effective options.
  • Consider a fund’s historical record. While past performance is not indicative of future results, it can provide insights into how a fund has fared in different market conditions. Consider funds with consistent, competitive performance.
  • Manager expertise. Research the fund manager’s experience and track record. A skilled manager can make a substantial difference in a fund’s performance.
  • Read the prospectus. Always read the fund’s prospectus. It contains valuable information about the fund’s strategy, objectives, fees and risks.
  • Consider taxes. Be mindful of tax implications. Some funds are more tax-efficient than others, which can impact your after-tax returns.
  • Review regularly. Your financial goals and risk tolerance may change over time. Periodically review your mutual fund portfolio to ensure it aligns with your current objectives.

Bottom Line

Both active and passive funds come with their unique combination of benefits and potential drawbacks. Active funds strive for higher returns and may provide better capital protection in turbulent markets but they come with higher costs and risks. Passive funds offer steady, long-term returns at lower costs but carry market-level risks. As a result, the choice between the two heavily depends on individual investment goals, risk tolerance and expected market conditions. 

Investing Tips

  • Whether you’re planning for retirement or just getting started on your investing journey, it’s important to have a sense of the potential returns that your investments may generate. SmartAsset’s investment calculator can help you estimate how your money can grow over time when investing. 
  • A financial advisor can help you set financial goals and invest your money accordingly. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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