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An index fund or 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.



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 is therefore a form of passive management.


The lack of active management generally gives the advantage of lower fees and lower taxes in taxable accounts. Of course, the fees reduce the return to the investor relative to the index. 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 known as the "tracking error" or informally "jitter".

Index funds are available from many investment managers. Some common indices include the Standard & Poor's 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Wilshire 5000, 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, to which the standard reply was made "of course, you can't buy an index." Malkiel said, "It's time the public can."

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"[1]. 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[2]". 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 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. For its efforts, Batterymarch won the "Dubious Achievement Award" from Pensions & Investments magazine in 1972. Two years later, in December 1974, the firm finally attracted its first index client."[3]

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.

Wells Fargo sold its indexing operation to Barclay's Bank of London, and it now operates as Barclays Global Investors; it is one of the world's largest money managers.

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.[4] 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 scientific 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.

Operating indexing

Indexing Operating Performance is a method of measuring and comparing a company's performance in terms of financial metrics against the financial performance of other comparable companies (so called peers or peer universe).


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 ranges 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. 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 (ie. 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.


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.[5]

Cannot outperform the target index

By design, an index fund seeks to match rather than outperform the target index. Therefore, a good index fund with low tracking error will not generally outperform the index, but rather produces a rate of return similar to the index minus fund costs.

Index composition changes reduce return

Whenever an index changes, the fund is faced with the prospect of selling all the stock that has been removed from the index, and purchasing the stock that was added to the index. The S&P 500 index has a typical turnover of between 1% and 9% per year.[6]

In effect, the index, and consequently all funds tracking the index, are announcing ahead of time the trades that they are planning to make. As a result, the price of the stock that has been removed from the index tends to be driven down, and the price of stock that has been added to the index tends to be driven up, in part due to arbitrageurs, in a practice known as "index front running".[7] The index fund, however, has suffered market impact costs because they had to sell stock whose price was depressed, and buy stock whose price was inflated. These losses can be considered small, however, relative to an index fund's overall advantage gained by low costs.


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.[8]

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.

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 [9]. A global indexing strategy may outperform 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 ETF's could be used to implement a full range of investment policies from low risk to high risk.

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.[10] Index ETFs, on the other hand, are priced during normal trading hours, usually 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Index funds tend to have higher expense ratios than ETFs.

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. ^ Bogle, John. "The First Index Mutual Fund: A History of Vanguard Index Trust and the Vanguard Index Strategy". Bogle Financial Center.  
  2. ^ Ferri, Richard (2006-12-22). "All About Index Funds". McGraw-Hill.,M1.  
  3. ^ Bogle, John. Common Sense on Mutual Funds.  
  4. ^ Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, W. W. Norton, 1996, ISBN 0-393-03888-2
  5. ^ Tergesen, Anne; Young, Lauren (2004-04-19). "Index Funds Aren't All Equal". BusinessWeek (McGraw-Hill Companies). Retrieved 2007-02-20.  
  6. ^ "S&P 500 Turnover Data". Standard & Poor's. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..,3,2,2,0,0,0,0,0,5,13,0,0,0,0,0.html. Retrieved 2007-02-20.  
  7. ^ "Understanding index front running". The Trade Magazine. The TRADE Ltd.. Retrieved 2009-03-24.  
  8. ^ Bogle, John C. (2004-04-13). "As The Index Fund Moves from Heresy to Dogma . . . What More Do We Need To Know?". The Gary M. Brinson Distinguished Lecture. Bogle Financial Center. Retrieved 2007-02-20.  
  9. ^ Gale, Martin.. "Building a Globally Efficient Equity Portfolio with Exchange Traded Funds". Retrieved 2008-01-08.  
  10. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions About Mutual Fund Share Pricing". Investment Company Institute. Retrieved 2009-03-24.  
  • John Bogle, Bogle on Mutual Funds: New Perspectives for the Intelligent Investor, Dell, 1994, ISBN 0-440-50682-4
  • Mark T. Hebner, Index Funds: The 12-Step Program for Active Investors, IFA Publishing, 2007, ISBN 0-976-80230-9
  • 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.

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