Email FacebookTwitterMenu burgerClose thin

Tax Differences of ETFs vs. Mutual Funds


While investing is a significant step towards achieving your financial goals, navigating the ins and outs requires a keen understanding of the options available in the market. One such common crossroad encountered by investors is the choice between Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) and Mutual Funds. Understanding the tax advantages of each might provide you with the insight you need to make your investment decision. You may also want to work with a financial advisor to help you find the right investments in your portfolio.

What Is an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)?

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are investment funds that get traded on stock exchanges. ETFs are designed to track the performance of specific indexes, sectors, commodities or currencies, replicating the returns of the index or sector they follow. The different types of ETFs cater to various investment niches, ranging from stock index to commodities ETFs.

ETFs tend to have high liquidity and accessibility, which can allow investors to make quick adjustments to investments, as they mirror individual stocks. Mutual funds, by contrast, are only traded at the end of the day.

Additionally, ETFs generally have lower expense ratios when compared with managed mutual funds, making them attractive to cost-conscious investors.

You should note, however, that ETFs are not free of risks. Market risk and liquidity risk, for example, can affect your investments. Also, these types of index funds can get closed when they underperform, which can have tax implications. Finally, brokerage expenses incurred while trading ETFs, can also add to your costs.

What Is a Mutual Fund?

A couple comparing tax implications for ETFs vs. mutual funds.

Mutual funds are investment vehicles that pool money from multiple investors to buy a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, or other securities. These are managed by professional money managers, and are often considered a good investment to balance portfolios.

Investors in managed mutual funds rely on qualified experts to deliver steady returns. Moreover, these funds offer diversification, which can potentially reduce risks when compared with individual stocks. And automatic reinvestment of dividends can facilitate building the investment over time.

However, you should also consider the drawbacks before investing. Mutual funds can carry higher expense ratios, because of active management, which in turn can eat into your returns. And unlike ETFs, mutual fund trading is limited as transactions are only possible at the end of the trading day.

Tax Differences of ETFs vs. Mutual Funds

Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are similar investment vehicles when it comes to diversification, but they have different tax characteristics.

One note: ETFs have an edge over mutual funds as this type of investment generally avoids triggering capital gains taxes during the transaction of securities in the fund.

Here are some key tax differences between mutual funds and ETFs:

  1. Capital gains distributions:
    • Mutual funds: Mutual funds are required to distribute capital gains to their shareholders when they sell securities within the fund’s portfolio. These distributions are typically made annually, and shareholders are liable for taxes on these gains, even if investors don’t sell their mutual fund shares. This can result in a tax liability for shareholders.
    • ETFs: ETFs are structured in a way that typically minimizes capital gains distributions. Instead of selling securities from the fund, ETFs allow for in-kind transactions between authorized participants, which can help reduce capital gains. As a result, ETF shareholders may have more control over when they realize capital gains, and they may incur fewer taxable events.
  2. Tax efficiency:
    • Mutual funds: Mutual funds can be less tax-efficient because of the mandatory capital gains distributions. Shareholders have no control over the timing of these distributions, and they could be taxed on gains even when they haven’t sold any shares.
    • ETFs: ETFs are generally more tax-efficient due to the in-kind creation and redemption process, which minimizes capital gains events.
  3. Buying and selling:
    • Mutual funds: Mutual fund transactions are executed at the fund’s Net Asset Value (NAV) at the end of the trading day. Taxes are typically triggered when gains are distributed by the fund or when investors redeem or sell their shares.
    • ETFs: When you sell ETF shares, you may incur capital gains taxes if you sell your shares at a profit. This tax liability depends on the difference between the purchase and sale prices of the ETF shares.
  4. Cost basis reporting:
    • Mutual funds: Mutual funds are required to report cost-based information to investors and the IRS, making it easier for shareholders to calculate their capital gains or losses when they sell shares.
    • ETFs: ETFs also report cost basis information, but their tax efficiency may reduce the frequency and magnitude of capital gains events, simplifying the tax reporting process.

It’s important to note that individual tax circumstances can vary, and tax laws change over time. The tax treatment of mutual funds and ETFs may also depend on factors such as the investor’s holding period, tax bracket and the specific investments within the fund.

When to Invest in an ETF vs. Mutual Fund

Choosing to make an investment in either an ETF or a mutual fund will depend on your investment goals, risk tolerance and investment horizon. ETFs could be better for those seeking lower costs, more trading flexibility and tax efficiency. Managed mutual funds may be preferred by those who value professional management and automatic reinvestment of dividends.

Bottom Line

A financial advisor comparing the tax differences between ETFs and mutual funds.

While both ETFs and Mutual Funds provide avenues to diversify your investment portfolio, their benefits and drawbacks hinge strongly on an individual’s investment preferences, financial goals and risk tolerance. Thus, consider weighing the pros and cons, and seeking advice from a financial advisor before making significant investment decisions.

Tips for Investing

  • A financial advisor can help you set long-term financial goals and then choose the right investments to help you achieve those goals. Finding the right 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.
  • You may find it helpful to analyze how a particular investment could impact your current portfolio. If that’s the case, consider using SmartAsset’s free investment and return calculator.

Photo credit: ©, ©, ©