Index Funds vs ETFs: Choose the Right Investment Option

Passive investing has become increasingly popular in today’s fast-paced world, allowing investors to grow their wealth without the need for constant oversight. Two widely used passive investment options are index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). 

But which one of either is better than the other?

In this article, we’ll delve into the key differences between these two investment vehicles to help you make an informed decision.

What are Index Funds?

Index funds are similar to mutual funds, where investments are made in various securities and further diversified across shares, bonds, and commodities. However, index funds primarily aim to mirror popular market indices such as NIFTY 50 or SENSEX 100.

This approach offers investors the advantage of participating in the potential returns of equities while managing risk, as the index fund strives to track the benchmark index, regardless of market conditions.

Index funds have gained popularity as a convenient passive investment option for long-term wealth creation, providing attractive returns.

Key Features of Index Funds

  • An index fund is an open-ended mutual fund scheme, that allows investors to invest and redeem their funds at their convenience.
  • Index funds provide investors with both growth and dividend options, allowing them to tailor their investment strategy to their risk tolerance.
  • These funds are professionally managed by fund managers who execute trades on behalf of investors, aiming to minimise losses and maximise profits.

It’s worth noting that index funds typically charge management expenses, including fees for fund managers and asset management companies (AMCs), which can impact the overall cost for investors.

Read More About What is Index Mutual Funds?

What are ETFs?

An ETF, or exchange-traded fund, is a tradable financial product designed to mirror the performance of an index, commodity, bond, or collection of assets, much like an index fund.

In simpler terms, ETFs are investment funds that aim to replicate the performance of specific indexes such as the CNX Nifty or BSE Sensex. When you purchase shares or units of an ETF, you are essentially investing in a portfolio that closely tracks the returns and yield of its respective index. 

What sets ETFs apart from other index funds is their primary objective—they do not attempt to outperform the underlying index but rather aim to mirror its performance. In essence, they seek to represent the market rather than beat it.

In contrast to regular mutual funds, ETFs are traded on stock exchanges, just like common stocks. Consequently, their market price fluctuates throughout the trading day as they are bought and sold on the exchange. 

Features of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

  • Investors can earn dividend income from their ETF investments, which can be reinvested in the stock market.
  • ETFs’ performance is closely tied to the liquidity and trends in the stock market. Bearish trends can lead to losses for investors.
  • Investors receive daily updates on their ETF investment portfolio, allowing them to stay informed about their holdings.
  • Similar to index funds, investors can buy and sell ETFs at any time according to their convenience, providing liquidity and flexibility in their investment approach.

Difference Between Index Funds and ETFs 

Here’s a detailed table highlighting the differences between ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) and Index Funds:

Feature Index Funds ETFs
Holding Requirements Demat account not required for trading in Index Funds. Demat account is required for trading in ETFs.
Expense Ratio Higher expense ratios compared to ETFs. Lower expense ratios than index funds.
Fund Management Managed mainly by fund managers in index funds. Most ETFs are passively managed, providing flexible trading options in ETFs.
Valuation of Funds The valuation depends on the underlying assets. Valuation is done at the end of the day for index funds. Demand and supply control the valuation. Continuous valuation throughout the trading day for ETFs.
Purchase and Redemption Can invest or redeem with the AMC similar to open-ended mutual funds. After NFO subscription, ETFs are typically bought or sold on stock exchanges unless dealing in creation units. Can transact directly with AMC for creation units.
Minimum Investment Minimum investment amounts for one-time purchases and additional purchases are specified in the Scheme Information Document (SID) for Index Funds, usually ₹100. ETFs require the purchase of one or more units in the stock market, with the minimum investment amount being the price of one unit.
SIP Facility SIP facility available for index funds. Generally, no SIP facility for ETFs, although some stockbrokers may offer SIP-like options for ETF investing.
Transaction Mechanism Index fund transactions are based on end-of-day NAVs. ETF transactions occur at current market prices on stock exchanges, similar to stocks, based on the NAV of the underlying stocks.
Costs Index funds have higher costs compared to ETFs but lower than actively managed mutual funds. ETFs typically have lower costs, but additional costs like brokerage, STT, GST, and stamp duty may apply.
Distribution Options Index Funds may offer growth and IDCW options, allowing investors to choose based on their needs, as specified in the SID. ETFs do not offer Income Distribution cum Capital Withdrawal (IDCW) options.

Do Index Funds or ETFs Have Better Returns?

Whether ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) or index funds have better returns can vary depending on various factors, including the specific funds in question, market conditions, and the investment horizon of the investor. Here are some points to consider:

  • Tracking Error: Both ETFs and index funds are designed to track the performance of a specific index. However, the degree to which they track the index can vary. A lower tracking error indicates that the fund closely follows the index, which can lead to returns that closely match the index returns. Historically, ETFs had a lower tracking error than index funds, as they are traded in real-time on the stock exchange.
  • Expense Ratios: ETFs typically have lower expense ratios compared to actively managed mutual funds. Lower expenses can have a positive impact on returns, as less of the fund’s assets are used to cover management fees.
  • Tax Efficiency: ETFs are known for their tax efficiency, as they have the ability to create and redeem shares “in-kind.” This can result in fewer capital gains distributions compared to index funds, which may have to sell underlying securities to meet redemption requests.
  • Market Conditions: The performance of both ETFs and index funds is ultimately tied to the performance of the underlying index. In bullish markets, both may perform well, but in bearish markets, both may experience losses.
  • Fund-Specific Factors: The specific ETF or index fund you choose may have unique characteristics that can impact returns. For example, some ETFs and index funds may use different strategies, have different sectors or asset classes, or apply different weighting methodologies.

Are Index Funds Safer or ETFs?

Both ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) and index funds are generally considered to be relatively safe investment options compared to individual stocks or actively managed mutual funds. However, there are some differences in risk factors to consider:

  1. The safety of ETFs and index funds is closely tied to the overall performance of the market and the specific index they track. If the overall market experiences a downturn or if the index underperforms, both ways ETFs can experience downturns.
  2. ETFs, being traded on stock exchanges like individual stocks, can be subject to liquidity risk. In some cases, there may be lower trading volumes for certain ETFs, leading to wider bid-ask spreads and potentially impacting the ease of buying or selling shares. However, this is not a concern for index funds.
  3. Some index funds may have active management elements, where fund managers make periodic adjustments to the portfolio to maintain alignment with the index. In such cases, manager decisions can introduce some level of risk.

Should You Invest in Index Funds or ETFs?

ETFs and index funds differ in trading and risk. ETFs trade on stock exchanges through AMCs, offering the potential for higher returns but higher risk due to price fluctuations. Index funds trade within AMCs, providing stable, low-cost investments mirroring market indices, ideal for risk-averse investors. The choice depends on risk tolerance and goals.

Deciding whether to invest in ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) or index funds depends on your individual financial goals, risk tolerance, investment strategy, and preferences. Both types of funds have their advantages and disadvantages, so it’s essential to consider your specific circumstances before making a decision.

To invest in stocks, you need to hold a Demat account. Now open a Demat account for free through Angel One and explore the best ETFs, index funds, stocks, etc. that fit your investment needs and risk appetite. 


Do ETFs pay dividends?

In India, ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) generally don’t distribute dividends to investors. Instead, they typically reinvest the proceeds received from the underlying securities back into the scheme. This reinvestment strategy can lead to periods where ETFs outperform their benchmark index for a limited duration.

Is SIP (Systematic Investment Plan) possible in ETF?

Yes, SIP is possible in ETFs. But only a few stockbrokers provide the option of SIP for ETFs.

Which is better: an Index fund or ETF?

The choice between an index fund and an ETF depends on your individual investment goals and preferences. Both have their advantages:

  • Index funds are typically more straightforward for long-term investors.
  • ETFs offer intraday trading flexibility and have a lower expense ratio than index funds.
  • Ultimately, the choice should align with your investment strategy and objectives.

What is the cost difference between ETF and index fund?

The cost difference between ETFs and index funds can vary but often boils down to expense ratios. ETFs tend to have lower expense ratios on average compared to traditional index mutual funds. However, this can vary depending on the specific ETF or index fund you choose.

Are ETFs more risky than index funds?

Both ETFs and index funds are typically considered low-risk investment options because they aim to replicate the performance of an underlying index. The level of risk primarily depends on the index being tracked and the assets within it. However, ETFs can introduce additional risks related to trading, such as price fluctuations throughout the trading day. This added risk might not be significant for long-term investors but could be a consideration for active traders.