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section header ETF fundamentals

subsection header Basics

The costs of ETFs

Like mutual funds, ETFs charge a management expense ratio (MER) to cover ongoing operating expenses.

But they also have some costs that aren't associated with mutual funds.


Operating expenses

ETFs and mutual funds charge fees to cover ongoing operating expenses, such as advisory services, administration and recordkeeping, among other things. These fees are expressed as a percentage of fund assets and are commonly known as the management expense ratio (MER).

ETFs tend to have lower MERs than mutual funds. This is largely because most mutual funds are actively managed and charge higher expense ratios than their index counterparts. As the vast majority of ETFs are index funds, their MERs, on average, are lower than traditional mutual funds.

Another reason ETFs can sometimes offer lower MERs is that ETFs do not incur as many costs to maintain shareholder records, while mutual funds must keep and maintain records of each individual shareholder.


Commissions and sales loads

Unlike mutual funds, ETFs are bought and sold daily, and typically there are charges associated with this service. These charges can be in the form of a flat transaction fee or a fee assessed on an investor's total account balance. Some mutual funds charge sales loads, which are similar to brokerage commissions in that they compensate the broker who sold the fund. A sales load is typically expressed as a percentage of fund assets.


Bid-ask spread

When buying or selling ETF units on an exchange, there is a difference between the price a dealer is willing to pay for an ETF unit (the bid) and the somewhat higher price the dealer will accept to sell that ETF unit (the ask). As a result, an investor will typically buy ETF units for slightly over market price and sell for slightly less.

Bid-ask spreads are typically lower for ETFs that are heavily traded or that own securities that are highly liquid.


Premium/discount volatility

ETF units are designed to trade on an exchange at a market price that approximates the market value of the ETF's underlying assets. Typically, the market price of an ETF's units is slightly higher (trading at a "premium" to) or lower (trading at a "discount" to) than the market value of the ETF's underlying assets.

Keep in mind that it is the change in premium or discount that affects an investor's returns, not the level of premiums and discounts—such as when an investor buys units at a premium and later sells at a discount. There are no premiums or discounts associated with mutual fund units, as they trade only at NAV, once a day.


Comparing costs

To compare the costs of any ETF or mutual fund, try our cost simulation tool that can tally them up over time and show the difference that low costs can make during a multiyear holding period.


Learn about the different types of exchange-traded products, how index and active ETFs are managed and more.


Learn about ETF trading, common order types, premiums and discounts, liquidity considerations and more.


Learn about strategic and tactical uses for ETFs, including asset and sub-asset allocation, portfolio completion, cash equitization and more.

Commissions, management fees, and expenses all may be associated with investment funds. Investment objectives, risks, fees, expenses, and other important information are contained in the prospectus; please read it before investing. Investment funds are not guaranteed, their values change frequently, and past performance may not be repeated. Vanguard funds are managed by Vanguard Investments Canada Inc. and are available across Canada through registered dealers.

This material is for informational purposes only. This material is not intended to be relied upon as research, investment, or tax advice and is not an implied or express recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any security or to adopt any particular investment or portfolio strategy. Any views and opinions expressed do not take into account the particular investment objectives, needs, restrictions and circumstances of a specific investor and, thus, should not be used as the basis of any specific investment recommendation. Investors should consult a financial and/or tax advisor for financial and/or tax information applicable to their specific situation.

All investment funds, including those that seek to track an index are subject to risk, including the possible loss of principal. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market. While the Vanguard ETFs are designed to be as diversified as the original indices they seek to track and can provide greater diversification than an individual investor may achieve independently, any given ETF may not be a diversified investment.

All monetary figures are expressed in Canadian dollars unless otherwise noted.