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I am definitely a big advocate of passive investing in either index mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs).  However, the proliferation of products over the last 10 years or so has made things quite a bit more complicated than the old days of John Bogle introducing the first large offerings of index mutual funds at Vanguard over 30 years ago.  I figured it would be worthwhile to address a few topics in this regard.

There are two issues that are central to my discussion that individual investors need to be aware of.  The first issue is that the underlying stock or bond holdings of these offerings can be very different even if the names sound exactly the same.  The second issue is that many of the new registrations for ETFs or recently issued securities are more akin to what is termed enhanced indexing or “smart” beta.  These types of choices are not active mutual funds or ETFs in the traditional sense.  Moreover, they are not passive either.  These newer products will slice and dice a universe of securities or use “proprietary” methods to actually beat the index.  Now by definition an index investor knows that he or she will underperform the index when costs are taken into account.  Any “passive” product that claims that the advisor can beat the index is therefore more akin to an active approach.  There are many different terms to describe.  I will postpone the discussion of that salient topic in the second part of this post though.

There is a great example in recent days of why this is important.   An ETF is the best way to analyze the issue because they must be transparent daily.  The holdings of any ETF are publicly available to see each day.  Additionally, each ETF will hold all the components of a particular index.  Therein lies the extremely vital piece that most individual investors are unaware of.  There happen to be multiple indexes that attempt to capture the stock and/or bond investment performance of a particular piece of the financial markets.  The definition of that universe is what matters to investors.  A timely example is the stock performance of emerging markets which has been incredibly volatile of late.  However, not all ETFs follow the same definition of what an emerging market country is.

The two main emerging market ETFs are offered by Vanguard and BlackRock.  The Vanguard offering is through their VIPER series and is called the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (Ticker Symbol:  VWO).  The BlackRock offering is through their iShares series and is called the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (Ticker Symbol:  EEM).  Most individual investors (and some financial professionals) think of these ETFs as being the same.  However, they are actually quite different.  Why?  Well, the difference in the names kind of gives the answer away.  The Vanguard ETF is tied to the FTSE Emerging Markets Stock Index, while the BlackRock ETF is tied to the MSCI Emerging Markets Stock Index.  Both of these ETFs invest in all the components of stocks in those two respective universes.  The definition of emerging markets by these two index providers is quite different.

The main difference between the two is how they classify stocks traded in South Korea.  MSCI considers South Korea to still be an emerging market and 15.8% (as of January 27, 2014) of the ETF is allocated to that country.  FTSE considers South Korea to be mature enough to be thought of as a developed economy and no longer should be viewed in the same light as other countries in the emerging markets.  They have reached a level of sophistication in terms of the economy, banking system, and breadth in trading of the stocks there.  Thus, Vanguard does not allocate any money to South Korea.  There are some other slight differences in countries within the two indexes but the aforementioned percentage is definitely significant.  If you are ever confused why the total returns of the VWO and EEM ETFs do not equal even after taking into account investment fees, that is the primary reason why.  Over the course of an entire year, the difference in the total return can be striking depending on the performance of the KOSPI (South Korea’s main stock index).

Investing in the Vanguard version instead of the BlackRock version can be more risky since the relatively more mature stock market of South Korea is not included.  As I have mentioned in the past, I do not advocate the purchase of any particular stock, bond, index mutual fund, or ETF.  With that being said though, it is important to know the differences between two similarly sounding offerings.  If you want to have exposure to the emerging markets, you should not simply look at investment fees.  The expense ratio on the VWO is 0.18% and the 0.67% for the EEM.  Most people would say that the VWO is better because the fees are lower.  However, you are not comparing apples to apples due to the South Korea inclusion issue.

The main takeaway here is to read the prospectus for any index mutual fund or ETF.  Or, at the very least, you should pay careful attention to the fact sheet provided for either.  You should look at what index the index mutual fund or ETF advisor is using.  You can go to the link of that index provider to see what is included (in terms of individual stocks or bonds or countries, etc.), so you are aware of what you are buying.  It is much easier to avoid a purchase of a particular security than to have to sell after an unexpected loss because you purchased the “wrong” thing based upon your risk tolerance and financial goals, and how that particular asset was going to complement your overall portfolio allocation.

I have included links to the major index providers for ease of reference.  There are many others, but these are the major players in the passive investing world.  They are as follows:

1)       Standard & Poor’shttp://us.spindices.com/


2)       Russell Investmentshttp://www.russell.com/indexes/americas/default.page


3)      MSCIhttp://www.msci.com/products/indices/


4)      FTSEhttp://www.ftse.com/Indices/


5)      Barclayshttps://ecommerce.barcap.com/indices/index.dxml