Index fund

Index fund

An index fund (also index tracker) is a collective investment scheme (usually a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund) that aims to replicate the movements of an index of a specific financial market, or a set of rules of ownership that are held constant, regardless of market conditions. As of 2013, index funds made up 18.4% of equity mutual fund assets in the US.[1]


  • Tracking 1
  • Fees 2
  • Origins 3
  • Economic theory 4
  • Indexing methods 5
    • Traditional indexing 5.1
    • Synthetic indexing 5.2
    • Enhanced indexing 5.3
  • Advantages 6
    • Low costs 6.1
    • Simplicity 6.2
    • Lower turnovers 6.3
    • No style drift 6.4
  • Disadvantages 7
    • Common market impact 7.1
    • Losses to algorithmic trading 7.2
    • Possible tracking error from index 7.3
  • Diversification 8
  • Asset allocation and achieving balance 9
  • Pension investment in index funds 10
  • Comparison of index funds with index ETFs 11
  • U.S. capital gains tax considerations 12
  • See also 13
  • References 14
  • External links 15


Tracking can be achieved by trying to hold all of the securities in the index, in the same proportions as the index. Other methods include statistically sampling the market and holding "representative" securities. Many index funds rely on a computer model with little or no human input in the decision as to which securities are purchased or sold and are thus subject to a form of passive management.


The lack of active management generally gives the advantage of lower fees (which otherwise reduce the investor's return) and, in taxable accounts, lower taxes. In addition it is usually impossible to precisely mirror the index as the models for sampling and mirroring, by their nature, cannot be 100% accurate. The difference between the index performance and the fund performance is called the "tracking error", or, colloquially, "jitter".

Index funds are available from many investment managers. Some common indices include the S&P 500, the Nikkei 225, and the FTSE 100. Less common indexes come from academics like Eugene Fama and Kenneth French, who created "research indexes" in order to develop asset pricing models, such as their Three Factor Model. The Fama–French three-factor model is used by Dimensional Fund Advisors to design their index funds. Robert Arnott and Professor Jeremy Siegel have also created new competing fundamentally based indexes based on such criteria as dividends, earnings, book value, and sales.


In 1973, Burton Malkiel wrote A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which presented academic findings for the lay public. It was becoming well known in the lay financial press that most mutual funds were not beating the market indices. Malkiel wrote

John Bogle graduated from Princeton University in 1951, where his senior thesis was titled: "Mutual Funds can make no claims to superiority over the Market Averages." Bogle wrote that his inspiration for starting an index fund came from three sources, all of which confirmed his 1951 research: Paul Samuelson's 1974 paper, "Challenge to Judgment", Charles Ellis' 1975 study, "The Loser's Game", and Al Ehrbar's 1975 Fortune magazine article on indexing. Bogle founded The Vanguard Group in 1974; it is now the largest mutual fund company in the United States as of 2009.

Bogle started the First Index Investment Trust on December 31, 1975. At the time, it was heavily derided by competitors as being "un-American" and the fund itself was seen as "Bogle's folly".[3] Fidelity Investments Chairman Edward Johnson was quoted as saying that he "[couldn't] believe that the great mass of investors are going to be satisfied with receiving just average returns".[4] Bogle's fund was later renamed the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, which tracks the Standard and Poor's 500 Index. It started with comparatively meager assets of $11 million but crossed the $100 billion milestone in November 1999; this astonishing increase was funded by the market's increasing willingness to invest in such a product. Bogle predicted in January 1992 that it would very likely surpass the Magellan Fund before 2001, which it did in 2000.

John McQuown and David G. Booth at Wells Fargo and Rex Sinquefield at American National Bank in Chicago both established the first Standard and Poor's Composite Index Funds in 1973. Both of these funds were established for institutional clients; individual investors were excluded. Wells Fargo started with $5 million from their own pension fund, while Illinois Bell put in $5 million of their pension funds at American National Bank. In 1971, Jeremy Grantham and Dean LeBaron at Batterymarch Financial Management "described the idea at a Harvard Business School seminar in 1971, but found no takers until 1973. Two years later, in December 1974, the firm finally attracted its first index client."[5]

In 1981, David Booth and Rex Sinquefield started Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), and McQuown joined its Board of Directors many years later. DFA further developed indexed based investment strategies. Vanguard started its first bond index fund in 1986.

Frederick L.A. Grauer at Wells Fargo harnessed McQuown and Booth's indexing theories such that Wells Fargo's pension funds managed over $69 billion in 1989[6] and over $565 billion in 1998. Wells Fargo sold its indexing operation to Barclay's Bank of London, which it operated as Barclays Global Investors (BGI). In 2009, Blackrock Inc acquired BGI; the acquisition included BGI's index fund management (both institutional funds and its iShares ETF business) and its active management.

Economic theory

Economist Eugene Fama said, "I take the market efficiency hypothesis to be the simple statement that security prices fully reflect all available information." A precondition for this strong version of the hypothesis is that information and trading costs, the costs of getting prices to reflect information, are always 0 (Grossman and Stiglitz (1980))." A weaker and economically more sensible version of the efficiency hypothesis says that prices reflect information to the point where the marginal benefits of acting on information (the profits to be made) do not exceed marginal costs (Jensen (1978)). Economists cite the efficient-market hypothesis (EMH) as the fundamental premise that justifies the creation of the index funds. The hypothesis implies that fund managers and stock analysts are constantly looking for securities that may out-perform the market; and that this competition is so effective that any new information about the fortune of a company will rapidly be incorporated into stock prices. It is postulated therefore that it is very difficult to tell ahead of time which stocks will out-perform the market.[7] By creating an index fund that mirrors the whole market the inefficiencies of stock selection are avoided.

In particular the EMH says that economic profits cannot be wrung from stock picking. This is not to say that a stock picker cannot achieve a superior return, just that the excess return will on average not exceed the costs of winning it (including salaries, information costs, and trading costs). The conclusion is that most investors would be better off buying a cheap index fund. Note that return refers to the ex-ante expectation; ex-post realisation of payoffs may make some stock-pickers appear successful. In addition there have been many criticisms of the EMH.

Indexing methods

Traditional indexing

Indexing is traditionally known as the practice of owning a representative collection of securities, in the same ratios as the target index. Modification of security holdings happens only when companies periodically enter or leave the target index.

Synthetic indexing

Synthetic indexing is a modern technique of using a combination of equity index futures contracts and investments in low risk bonds to replicate the performance of a similar overall investment in the equities making up the index. Although maintaining the future position has a slightly higher cost structure than traditional passive sampling, synthetic indexing can result in more favourable tax treatment, particularly for international investors who are subject to U.S. dividend withholding taxes. The bond portion can hold higher yielding instruments, with a trade-off of corresponding higher risk, a technique referred to as enhanced indexing.

Enhanced indexing

Enhanced indexing is a catch-all term referring to improvements to index fund management that emphasize performance, possibly using active management. Enhanced index funds employ a variety of enhancement techniques, including customized indexes (instead of relying on commercial indexes), trading strategies, exclusion rules, and timing strategies. The cost advantage of indexing could be reduced or eliminated by employing active management. Enhanced indexing strategies help in offsetting the proportion of tracking error that would come from expenses and transaction costs. These enhancement strategies can be:

  • lower cost, issue selection, yield curve positioning,
  • sector and quality positioning and call exposure positioning.


Low costs

Because the composition of a target index is a known quantity, it costs less to run an index fund. No highly paid stock pickers or analysts are needed. Typically expense ratios of an index fund range from 0.15% for U.S. Large Company Indexes to 0.97% for Emerging Market Indexes. The expense ratio of the average large cap actively managed mutual fund as of 2005 is 1.36%. If a mutual fund produces 10% return before expenses, taking account of the expense ratio difference would result in an after expense return of 9.85% for the large cap index fund versus 8.64% for the actively managed large cap fund.


The investment objectives of index funds are easy to understand. Once an investor knows the target index of an index fund, what securities the index fund will hold can be determined directly. Managing one's index fund holdings may be as easy as rebalancing every six months or every year.

Lower turnovers

Turnover refers to the selling and buying of securities by the fund manager. Selling securities in some jurisdictions may result in capital gains tax charges, which are sometimes passed on to fund investors. Even in the absence of taxes, turnover has both explicit and implicit costs, which directly reduce returns on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Because index funds are passive investments, the turnovers are lower than actively managed funds. According to a study conducted by John Bogle over a sixteen-year period, investors get to keep only 47% of the cumulative return of the average actively managed mutual fund, but they keep 87% in a market index fund. This means $10,000 invested in the index fund grew to $90,000 vs. $49,000 in the average actively managed stock mutual fund. That is a 40% gain from the reduction of silent partners.

No style drift

Style drift occurs when actively managed mutual funds go outside of their described style (i.e. mid-cap value, large cap income, etc.) to increase returns. Such drift hurts portfolios that are built with diversification as a high priority. Drifting into other styles could reduce the overall portfolio's diversity and subsequently increase risk. With an index fund, this drift is not possible and accurate diversification of a portfolio is increased.


Common market impact

One problem occurs when a large amount of money tracks the same index. According to theory, a company should not be worth more when it is in an index. But due to supply and demand, a company being added can have a demand shock, and a company being deleted can have a supply shock, and this will change the price.[8][9] This does not show up in tracking error since the index is also affected. A fund may experience less impact by tracking a less popular index.[10][11]

Losses to algorithmic trading

Most retirement savings, such as private pension funds or 401(k) and individual retirement accounts in the US, are invested in index funds which must periodically "rebalance" or adjust their portfolio to match the new prices and market capitalization of the underlying securities in the stock or other index that they track.[12][13] This allows algorithmic traders (80% of the trades of whom involve the top 20% most popular securities[12]) to anticipate and trade ahead of stock price movements caused by mutual fund rebalancing, making a profit on advance knowledge of the large institutional block orders.[14][15] This results in profits transferred from investors to algorithmic traders, estimated to be at least 21 to 28 basis points annually for S&P 500 index funds, and at least 38 to 77 basis points per year for Russell 2000 funds.[16] In effect, the index, and consequently all funds tracking the index, are announcing ahead of time the trades that they are planning to make, allowing value to be siphoned by arbitrageurs, in a practice known as "index front running".[17]

John Montgomery of Bridgeway Capital Management says that the resulting "poor investor returns" from trading ahead of mutual funds is "the elephant in the room" that "shockingly, people are not talking about."[18] Related "time zone arbitrage" against mutual funds and their underlying securities traded on overseas markets is likely "damaging to financial integration between the United States, Asia and Europe."[19]

Possible tracking error from index

Since index funds aim to match market returns, both under- and over-performance compared to the market is considered a "tracking error". For example, an inefficient index fund may generate a positive tracking error in a falling market by holding too much cash, which holds its value compared to the market.

According to The Vanguard Group, a well run S&P 500 index fund should have a tracking error of 5 basis points or less, but a Morningstar survey found an average of 38 basis points across all index funds.[20]


Diversification refers to the number of different securities in a fund. A fund with more securities is said to be better diversified than a fund with smaller number of securities. Owning many securities reduces volatility by decreasing the impact of large price swings above or below the average return in a single security. A Wilshire 5000 index would be considered diversified, but a bio-tech ETF would not.[21]

Since some indices, such as the S&P 500 and FTSE 100, are dominated by large company stocks, an index fund may have a high percentage of the fund concentrated in a few large companies. This position represents a reduction of diversity and can lead to increased volatility and investment risk for an investor who seeks a diversified fund.[22]

Some advocate adopting a strategy of investing in every security in the world in proportion to its market capitalization, generally by investing in a collection of ETFs in proportion to their home country market capitalization.[23] A global indexing strategy may have lower variance in returns than one based only on home market indexes, because there may be less correlation between the returns of companies operating in different markets than between companies operating in the same market.

Asset allocation and achieving balance

Asset allocation is the process of determining the mix of stocks, bonds and other classes of investable assets to match the investor's risk capacity, which includes attitude towards risk, net income, net worth, knowledge about investing concepts, and time horizon. Index funds capture asset classes in a low cost and tax efficient manner and are used to design balanced portfolios.

A combination of various index mutual funds or ETFs could be used to implement a full range of investment policies from low risk to high risk.

Pension investment in index funds

Research conducted by the World Pensions Council (WPC) suggests that up to 15% of overall assets held by large pension funds and national social security funds are invested in various forms of passive strategies including index funds- as opposed to the more traditional actively managed mandates which still constitute the largest share of institutional investments [24] The proportion invested in passive funds varies widely across jurisdictions and fund type [24][25]

The relative appeal of index funds, ETFs and other index-replicating investment vehicles has grown rapidly [26] for various reasons ranging from disappointment with underperforming actively managed mandates [24] to the broader tendency towards cost reduction across public services and social benefits that followed the 2008-2012 Great Recession.[27] Public-sector pensions and national reserve funds have been among the early adopters of index funds and other passive management strategies.[25] [27]

Comparison of index funds with index ETFs

In the United States, mutual funds price their assets by their current value every business day, usually at 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, when the New York Stock Exchange closes for the day.[28] Index ETFs, in contrast, are priced during normal trading hours, usually 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern time. Index ETFs are also sometimes weighted by revenue rather than market capitalization.[29]

U.S. capital gains tax considerations

U.S. mutual funds are required by law to distribute realized capital gains to their shareholders. If a mutual fund sells a security for a gain, the capital gain is taxable for that year; similarly a realized capital loss can offset any other realized capital gains.

Scenario: An investor entered a mutual fund during the middle of the year and experienced an overall loss for the next 6 months. The mutual fund itself sold securities for a gain for the year, therefore must declare a capital gains distribution. The IRS would require the investor to pay tax on the capital gains distribution, regardless of the overall loss.

A small investor selling an ETF to another investor does not cause a redemption on ETF itself; therefore, ETFs are more immune to the effect of forced redemptions causing realized capital gains.

See also


  1. ^ 2014 Investment Company Fact Book
  2. ^ Burton Malkiel (1973). A Random Talk Down Wall Street. W. W. Norton.  , page 226-7
  3. ^ Bogle, John. "The First Index Mutual Fund: A History of Vanguard Index Trust and the Vanguard Index Strategy".  
  4. ^ Ferri, Richard (2006-12-22). "All About Index Funds".  
  5. ^ Bogle, John. Common Sense on Mutual Funds. 
  6. ^ "How This Man Manages $69 Billion". Fortune. 1989. 
  7. ^ Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, W. W. Norton, 1996, ISBN 0-393-03888-2
  8. ^ "Market Reactions to Changes in the S&P 500 Index: An Industry Analysis" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-07-30. 
  9. ^ "The Price Response to S&P 500 Index Additions and Deletions: Evidence of Asymmetry and a New Explanation" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-07-30. 
  10. ^ Arvedlund, Erin E. (2006-04-03). "Keeping Costs Down - Barron's". Retrieved 2014-07-30. 
  11. ^ Investment Performance Measurement: Evaluating and Presenting Results p. 670
  12. ^ a b "High-Frequency Firms Tripled Trades in Stock Rout, Wedbush Says". Bloomberg/Financial Advisor. August 12, 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  13. ^ Siedle, Ted (March 25, 2013). "Americans Want More Social Security, Not Less". Forbes. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  14. ^ Amery, Paul (November 11, 2010). "Know Your Enemy". Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  15. ^ Salmon, Felix (July 18, 2012). "What’s driving the Total Return ETF?". Reuters. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  16. ^ Petajisto, Antti (2011). "The index premium and its hidden cost for index funds". Journal of Empirical Finance 18: 271–288.  
  17. ^ "Understanding index front running". The Trade Magazine. The TRADE Ltd. Retrieved 2009-03-24. 
  18. ^ Rekenthaler, John (February–March 2011). "The Weighting Game, and Other Puzzles of Indexing". Morningstar Advisor. pp. 52–56. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  19. ^ Donnelly, Katelyn Rae; Edward Tower (2009). "Chapter VIII. Time-zone arbitrage in United States mutual funds: Damaging to financial integration between the United States, Asia and Europe?". Challenges and Opportunities for Trade and Financial Integration in Asia and the Pacific. Studies in Trade and Investment 67. New York: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. pp. 134–165.  
  20. ^ Tergesen, Anne; Young, Lauren (2004-04-19). "Index Funds Aren't All Equal".  
  21. ^  
  22. ^ "Practice Essentials - Equal Weight Indexing".  
  23. ^  
  24. ^ a b c Rachael Revesz (27 Nov 2013). "Why Pension Funds Won't Allocate 90 Percent To Passives". Journal of Indexes - Retrieved June 7, 2014. 
  25. ^ a b Chris Flood (11 May 2014). "Alarm Bells Ring for Active Fund Managers". FT fm. Retrieved June 7, 2014. 
  26. ^ Mike Foster (6 June 2014). "Institutional Investors Look to ETFs". Financial News. Retrieved June 7, 2014. 
  27. ^ a b Rachael Revesz (7 May 2014). "UK Govt. Leading Way For Pensions Using Passives". Journal of Indexes - Retrieved June 7, 2014. 
  28. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions About Mutual Fund Share Pricing".  
  29. ^ "ETFs". Retrieved 2013-05-09. 
  • John Bogle, Bogle on Mutual Funds: New Perspectives for the Intelligent Investor, Dell, 1994, ISBN 0-440-50682-4
  • Mark T. Hebner, Foreword by Harry Markowitz, Index Funds: The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors, IFA Publishing; Updated Revised Edition, 2012, ISBN 0976802317
  • Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, Michael LeBoeuf, The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing, Wiley, 2006, ISBN 0-471-73033-5
  • From Berkshire Hathaway 2004 Annual Report; see Wikiquotes for text.

External links

  • Is Stock Picking Declining Around the World? The article argues that there is a move towards indexing.
  • The Lowdown on Index Funds Investopedia's introduction to Index Funds
  • False Discoveries in Mutual Fund Performance: Measuring Luck in Estimated Alphas Evidence that stock selection is not a viable investing strategy.
  • The Prescient Are Few - ...“the number of funds that have beaten the market over their entire histories is so small that the False Discovery Rate test can’t eliminate the possibility that the few that did were merely false positives” — just lucky, in other words.