Bond Mutual Funds vs. Bond ETFs – Which is Cheaper?

There has been a lot of press recently about the cost advantages of Bond ETFs vs. Bond Mutual Funds.  It may therefore come as a surprise that for many investors Bond Mutual Funds are actually the less expensive option.  To understand why, let’s compare each of the costs you encounter when investing in Bond Mutual Funds and ETFs.


Annual Expense Ratio

Bond ETFs are cited as being less expensive because they have lower expense ratios on average than Bond Mutual Funds.  The expense ratio is the money charged to investors to compensate the ETF manager or Mutual Fund Company.  While reported on an annualized basis, the fee is charged and deducted from the fund’s NAV on a daily basis.  It is important to understand that this is a fee that is charged continually as long as the fund is held.

The average Bond ETF has an annual expense ratio of 0.28% according to Morningstar, while the average bond mutual fund has an annual expense ratio of 1.01%.  If you are investing $100,000, the average bond mutual fund costs you $620 more per year than the average bond ETF.  This is a significant amount of money not only in terms of the $620 per year, but also in terms of the loss of interest compounding on that money for long term investors.


What about Bond Index Mutual Funds?

Most ETFs are passively managed, meaning they are designed to track an index, and there is very little discretion involved in the management of the ETFs’ portfolio.  Most Bond Mutual Funds on the other hand are actively managed, and therefore employ a team of high priced portfolio managers and analysts.  Their goal is to outperform an index through smart investment picks.  However not all bond mutual funds are actively managed so a fairer comparison is passively managed bond mutual funds (called index funds).  Bond ETFs win here as well, as the average expense ratio for a bond index mutual fund is 0.37%. This is almost two-thirds less than the average bond mutual fund, but still ⅓ more than the average bond ETF.


Commissions and Sales/Load Fees

When you factor in commissions, the question of whether Bond ETFs or Bond Mutual Funds are more expensive gets more complicated.

When you buy and sell most Bond ETFs you are charged a commission, which is the same as the commission for buying and selling stocks.  This is in the range of $8 to $10 each time you buy or sell with the major online brokers.  If you are transacting through a full service broker, the fee can range from $50 up to $100 or more.

This can be a big cost to investors who are investing small amounts of money on a regular basis.  Take an investor who is following a monthly investment plan, where they buy $1000 worth of Bond ETFs each month.  Even if the investor is investing through a discount broker, they are going to be paying a $8 commission on the low end.  While $8 does not seem like a lot of money, as a percentage of a $1000 investment it is fairly high.  If you are investing in $1000 increments, this equates to an extra .80% in fees.  At $5,000 the fee equates to an additional .4%.  While this is a one time non recurring fee, there is also a commission charged when you sell the position.

Mutual funds can also have commissions and transaction charges, and even worse load charges (you can learn more about this in our article on understanding and minimizing mutual fund fees).  However, with most mutual funds you can also buy the fund directly from the mutual fund company, bypassing your stockbroker, and without paying a load or a commission.  If you are investing in increments of less than $5,000 and willing to have your funds located outside of your brokerage account, this option generally makes bond mutual funds the less expensive option.


What’s the Bottom Line?

If you are investing over $10,000 at a time or only make 1 to 2 deposits/withdrawals into an ETF per year, then Bond ETFs are likely to be the less expensive option.  If you are investing smaller amounts of money on a regular basis, then make sure you factor in commissions when calculating ETF costs.  If you are on a regular monthly investment plan, we suggest having an account directly with the mutual fund company as the most cost effective choice.

For more on bond mutual funds and ETFs see the bond funds section here at Learn Bonds.

All trading carries risk. Views expressed are those of the writers only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The opinions expressed in this Site do not constitute investment advice and independent financial advice should be sought where appropriate. This website is free for you to use but we may receive commission from the companies we feature on this site.
David Waring

David Waring

David Waring was the founder of LearnBonds.com and has been a major contributor to the extensive library of investing news and information available on the site. Until the launch of Learnbonds.com in late 2011 there was no single site on the internet catering exclusively to the individual bond investor. This was true even though more individuals own stocks than bonds. Learn Bonds was launched to fill that gap.
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