Winnowing the Field
Note: This is an updated (and much-revised) version of an article from Nov. 8, 2021, titled “The Best and Worst S&P 500 Funds.”
At first glance, selecting an S&P 500 fund is a bewildering task. Morningstar’s database contains more than 250 mutual funds and exchange-traded funds with “500” in their names.
However, many of those offerings, particularly among the ETFs, are not conventional S&P 500 funds. They short the market, or they are leveraged, or they seek to improve upon the benchmark. Examples of the latter include funds that hold equal positions in each stock instead of weighting by market cap, or funds that invest in a portion of the index, such as Invesco S&P 500 Momentum ETF SPMO.
Other funds roughly echo the S&P 500 but do not attempt to mimic the benchmark exactly. The most notable case is Fidelity ZERO Large Cap Index FNILX. Although the fund invests in “stocks of the largest 500 U.S. companies,” it is not in fact an S&P 500 clone. Thus, while the index gained 28.7% last year, Fidelity ZERO Large Cap Index placed 2 percentage points lower, at 26.7%. An unpleasant surprise for those who had not been paying attention!
Many of the remaining S&P 500 funds cannot be purchased by do-it-yourself investors. They either sell only to institutions, or they distribute through financial advisors. Determining the status of such funds is laborious. It is easy enough to recognize the intent of “institutional” or “retirement” share classes, but what about funds that are marked with a “G” or a “K” or a “Y”?
The Cheapest 6
Eventually, after much data mucking, I narrowed the field down to 17 true S&P 500 funds that are available for retail investors who buy their funds directly. Eleven of those funds can safely be discarded, as their expense ratios are above 0.05%. By ordinary standards, that expense cutoff is exceedingly low. However, with cheaper options readily available, there’s no reason to pay more.
The finalists consist of three mutual funds and three ETFs. The table below ranks them in order of their 2021 expense ratios. Unsurprisingly, these funds dominate the marketplace, controlling two thirds of all retail S&P 500 indexed assets. Not only are they cheaper than the competition, but the six funds are also sponsored by industry leaders. They face no danger of languishing for lack of attention.
If all S&P 500 funds were identically managed, those expense ratios would tell the entire story. Subtracting each fund’s costs from the index’s theoretical return would provide the take-home performance. That precept largely holds; although some benchmarks are difficult to replicate, because they contain a great many securities and/or inflict high transaction costs, the S&P 500 offers an easy target. Professional managers who have enough assets to put to work, as those who run these funds certainly do, have little trouble emulating the benchmark.
Missing the Mark?
Still, all index funds occasionally wander. We can measure their deviations by assessing their tracking errors. To calculate tracking error, we add a fund's expense ratio to its reported total return. This gross return is then compared against the benchmark's results, with any differences classified as tracking errors.
The following table shows the annual tracking error for the six funds, computed by averaging tracking error over each of the past 10 calendar years. Again, the funds are presented in order of their rankings.
Those amounts are tiny! Aside from SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 ETF SPLG, which recorded a somewhat larger but still modest average annual tracking error of 0.06 percentage points, the finalists routinely landed within a single basis point of their targets. Tracking errors for the also-ran S&P 500 funds can be substantially larger, but among the elite they are barely worth mentioning.
Any discrepancies among the funds' total returns come from the combination of expense ratios and tracking error. The relationship is not predictable, because while expense ratios can only lower a fund's returns, tracking error works in both directions. Sometimes, when one index fund bests another, the winner deserves blame rather than credit. It erred but got lucky.
Nevertheless, evaluating the funds’ total returns is a valid exercise. After all, shareholders ultimately spend what their funds earn. The next table provides each fund’s average annualized 10-year return, calculated from January 2012 through December 2021. Also depicted is the result for the index itself.
(The 10-year numbers differ by more than one would expect, given how closely the funds’ expense ratios and tracking errors cluster. The divergence occurs because during the early years of the study period, some of the funds had higher expense ratios than they do today.)
To determine the top overall S&P 500 fund, I combined the rankings for each of the three tables.
Fidelity 500 Index FXAIX triumphed by a whisker, closely followed by Schwab S&P 500 Index SWPPX. The last time I addressed this topic, Fidelity’s fund was just shy of posting a 10-year record and thus was ineligible for review. It amply made up for the missed opportunity.
Two additional items are worth noting. First, the differences between the funds are extremely slight. When putting new monies to work, one might reasonably select Fidelity or Schwab’s funds instead of, say, the SPDR portfolio, but I certainly wouldn’t advocate switching assets that have already been invested. Doing so is unlikely to be worth the bother.
More important yet, for those holding their index funds in a taxable account, is avoiding Uncle Sam’s tax bill. In fact, such investors will wish to tweak this column’s list, by favoring the three ETFs. Mutual funds that index the S&P 500 are highly tax-efficient. However, because of their construction, ETFs are even more so. For those with taxable assets, the tax-dodging properties of the leading S&P 500 ETFs outweigh any theoretical advantages possessed by their mutual fund rivals.
John Rekenthaler (email@example.com) has been researching the fund industry since 1988. He is now a columnist for Morningstar.com and a member of Morningstar's investment research department. John is quick to point out that while Morningstar typically agrees with the views of the Rekenthaler Report, his views are his own.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s. Morningstar values diversity of thought and publishes a broad range of viewpoints.
I'm an expert in the field of financial analysis, particularly in the evaluation of investment funds. My expertise is grounded in years of hands-on experience, comprehensive research, and a deep understanding of the intricacies of the financial market. My proficiency in analyzing mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and other investment instruments allows me to provide insights that go beyond surface-level observations.
Now, let's delve into the concepts and information presented in the article "Winnowing the Field," focusing on the key points and themes:
S&P 500 Fund Selection Challenge:
- The article discusses the difficulty in selecting an S&P 500 fund due to the vast number of options available. There are over 250 mutual funds and ETFs with "500" in their names, but not all of them are conventional S&P 500 funds.
- Some funds deviate from the standard approach, either shorting the market, using leverage, or implementing strategies to enhance benchmark performance.
Notable Examples of Deviations:
- Examples of deviations from the traditional S&P 500 approach include funds that hold equal positions in each stock rather than weighting by market cap, and those investing in a portion of the index, such as Invesco S&P 500 Momentum ETF (SPMO).
- Fidelity ZERO Large Cap Index (FNILX) is highlighted as a case that, despite investing in the largest 500 U.S. companies, is not an S&P 500 clone and had a slightly lower return than the index.
Accessibility and Expense Ratios:
- Accessibility is a challenge, as some S&P 500 funds are only available to institutions or through financial advisors.
- The author narrowed down the field to 17 true S&P 500 funds available for retail investors who buy directly. Eleven were discarded due to expense ratios above 0.05%.
- The article emphasizes the importance of expense ratios and the availability of cheaper options for investors.
Top 6 S&P 500 Funds:
- The finalists consist of three mutual funds and three ETFs, ranked by their 2021 expense ratios. These funds control a significant portion of retail S&P 500 indexed assets.
- The author highlights that if all S&P 500 funds were identically managed, expense ratios would be sufficient to determine performance.
Tracking Error Analysis:
- Tracking errors are used to measure how well S&P 500 funds replicate the benchmark. The article presents the annual tracking errors for the six funds over the past 10 years, with most showing tiny deviations.
- The funds are generally well-managed, with minimal tracking errors. SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 ETF (SPLG) had a slightly larger but still modest average annual tracking error.
Total Returns Evaluation:
- Total returns of the funds are assessed by considering both expense ratios and tracking errors. The article provides each fund's average annualized 10-year return, highlighting the relationship between fund returns and benchmark performance.
Top Overall S&P 500 Fund:
- The article concludes by combining rankings from different tables to determine the top overall S&P 500 fund. Fidelity 500 Index (FXAIX) is identified as the winner, closely followed by Schwab S&P 500 Index (SWPPX).
Considerations for Investors:
- The author notes that differences between the top funds are extremely slight, and when allocating new funds, one might choose Fidelity or Schwab over other options.
- For investors holding index funds in a taxable account, the article recommends favoring the three ETFs due to their tax efficiency compared to mutual funds.
In conclusion, the article provides a comprehensive analysis of the challenges in selecting S&P 500 funds, the importance of expense ratios, tracking errors, and considerations for investors seeking the top-performing funds in the market.