Investing with Dimensional in a Mutual Fund versus Exchange-Traded Fund

Mutual Fund versus Exchange-Traded Fund

Dimensional recently announced plans to launch three actively managed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) later this year, complementing our existing suite of mutual funds, separate accounts, and commingled trusts. The introduction of Dimensional ETFs will provide investors greater choice in accessing Dimensional’s systematic investment approach.

ETFs are often compared and contrasted with mutual funds. Our approach to managing ETFs will have the same components of value-add and cost-effective implementation as our approach to managing mutual funds. In this article, we highlight key areas of that approach and describe the nuances of applying it to an ETF structure versus a mutual fund. We also touch on some considerations that may be important to investors evaluating which vehicle to choose, such as implications for tax efficiency, the differences in how mutual funds and ETFs are bought and sold, and the types of costs encountered when investing in the two vehicles.


It’s important to distinguish investment strategy from investment vehicle. Dimensional has a consistent investment philosophy and approach that provides the underpinnings of how we manage portfolios, regardless of the investment vehicle. We have a long track record of designing investment solutions that offer consistent, diversified exposure to the market or market segment in which they invest, while adding value through active implementation. We seek to add value at each step of our investment process, which includes research, portfolio design, daily portfolio management, and trading.

Our research team, working in close collaboration with leading academics, continually deepens our understanding of expected returns through robust theoretical and empirical research. We translate these results into portfolios that are designed to systematically and efficiently pursue higher expected returns, while managing risk and controlling costs. In our daily implementation, portfolio managers consider numerous inputs that inform how we pursue higher expected returns across multiple premiums while giving our traders flexibility when participating in available market liquidity. This flexibility allows them to reduce trading costs. We also aim to enhance the value of our holdings through our integrated approach to corporate actions, securities lending, and strong investment stewardship practices.

We have four decades of expertise, developed through investments in our people, our processes, and the systems that support Dimensional’s approach to managing portfolios. We expect to bring all aspects of our investment process to the management of the Dimensional ETFs. Exhibit 1 lists aspects of our value-added process that we can employ across both our mutual funds and ETFs.


While Dimensional has one investment philosophy and we apply the same investment process across our solutions, there are important differences in how an ETF operates that can provide additional tools for implementing daily rebalancing.

ETF portfolio managers can rebalance their underlying portfolios using the same trading tools as mutual fund managers. An additional tool for rebalancing in an ETF is through the in-kind creation and redemption process facilitated through an authorized participant (AP). For example, in the case of ETF creation activity, the ETF issues creation units of ETF shares to the AP in exchange for a “basket” of securities and cash. Similarly, the ETF can redeem creation units in exchange for a basket of securities and cash. We have flexibility to provide to APs “custom baskets,” or baskets that do not mirror the exact underlying holdings of the ETF portfolio, that take into consideration the same daily inputs that factor into our buy and sell lists for mutual funds. By using baskets to increase and decrease certain portfolio holdings, we can use the in-kind creation/redemption process as one more way to rebalance the ETF portfolio, similar to the way we use client cash flows to rebalance our mutual funds.


Tax efficiency is an important consideration for many investors. The tax efficiency of any portfolio is strongly related to the investment approach. Dimensional’s portfolios are designed to be broadly diversified and lower turnover. That design inherently lends itself to a higher degree of tax efficiency. We believe that we can deliver tax efficient solutions through a low turnover approach and considering income and potential capital gains in our daily process, whether in a mutual fund or an ETF.

Tax efficiency ratios for many of Dimensional’s mutual funds have historically been similar to ETFs’ ratios. To understand what has driven that result, it’s useful to break down tax efficiency into the management of 1) dividend income and 2) short-term and long-term capital gains.

Income distributions are an important component of tax costs and, for portfolios with low turnover, may be at times a larger component of total distributions than capital gains distributions. By considering dividend income when we buy or sell securities and excluding REITs3 from our equity portfolios, dividend distributions from our mutual funds have historically had a higher portion in qualified dividend income (QDI). QDI is taxed at a lower rate than nonqualified dividend income (NQDI). This has often contributed positively to tax efficiency for Dimensional’s mutual funds relative to peer ETFs. Our approach to managing dividend income will be similar across our mutual funds and ETFs.

Selling securities to rebalance the portfolio or meet redemptions has the potential to result in distributable capital gains in both mutual funds and ETFs. Dimensional portfolios generally have minimal short-term capital gains. This is also the case for many ETFs and, therefore, this component has little effect on differences in tax efficiency between Dimensional mutual funds and competitor ETFs.

Dimensional mutual funds have also been generally very tax efficient on long-term capital gains, although ETFs are largely able to limit long-term capital gain distribution to zero or close to zero. In-kind redemptions can reduce or eliminate the need to sell an appreciated security. While in-kind redemptions are available to both mutual funds and ETFs, they have been used with much greater frequency by ETFs. In an ETF, when an AP redeems creation units in exchange for a basket of securities, those securities are redeemed in-kind out of the ETF, which means the ETF can reduce its holdings of these securities without triggering a capital gains distribution. Investors in an ETF may instead eventually pay a gain upon selling shares of the ETF itself. As a result, investors in ETFs have greater control over the timing of capital gains, although the value of this flexibility depends on the particular investor’s circumstances.


The decision to invest in a mutual fund versus an ETF depends in part on an investor’s preference for one vehicle type over the other. Mutual funds and ETFs have similarities and differences. Both are investment funds that are registered with the SEC under the Investment Company Act of 1940 (40 Act), and the majority of the rules under the 40 Act apply to both of them. Differences between ETFs and mutual funds include how investors buy and sell them, how prices are set, and the types of costs investors should consider.

Access and Price

Mutual funds are bought and sold directly with the fund manager at the end of the day. Investors in mutual funds invest and redeem only at the net asset value (NAV). Unlike mutual funds, ETF shares are traded on a national stock exchange and can be bought and sold throughout the day and at market prices that may be at a premium (above the NAV) or discount (below the NAV). Larger ETF orders may be executed through authorized participants based on NAV.

Cost Structure

In assessing costs of investing in ETFs versus mutual funds, it’s useful to consider the types of direct costs investors face and the timing of when they are incurred. For example, both vehicles charge an expense ratio, which accounts for the management fee and other administrative costs. Expense ratios are costs investors incur throughout the holding period.

Investors also face potential costs when transacting in the vehicle, on entry and exit. For example, investors typically pay a brokerage commission when buying or selling mutual funds. In contrast, many brokerage platforms now charge low or sometimes no commissions to buy or sell ETFs, but, as with trading any stock, there are other trading costs to consider, such as bid/ask spreads and market impact.

In addition to the direct, or explicit, costs an investor incurs for each vehicle, investors should consider the cost effectiveness of the underlying portfolio. High transaction costs in the underlying portfolio lead to lower returns for investors, all else equal. In both a mutual fund and an ETF, Dimensional considers costs at every step of the process, from broadly diversified and low turnover portfolio design, to flexible portfolio management and trading that take into consideration information in markets daily and use cash flows from client activity and other sources to help rebalance portfolios.

In sum, in either an ETF or mutual fund, Dimensional invests with a consistent investment philosophy and approach to pursuing higher expected returns for investors. Offering both vehicle structures allows investors to choose the vehicle most suitable for their unique circumstances and preferences.

  1. Profitability is a measure of current profitability based on information from individual companies’ income statements.
  2. Securities lending involves risks – including counterparty risk – and possible loss. Revenue is guaranteed and may fluctuate. Lending activities are conducted by the custodians for the funds.
  3. Real estate investment trusts.

The information is provided for registered investment advisors and institutional investors and is not intended for public use. Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This material is for informational purposes only. A registration statement relating to the Dimensional ETF Trust has been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission but has not yet become effective. Information about the Dimensional ETF Trust is not complete and may be changed. These securities may not be sold, nor may offers to buy be accepted prior to the time the registration statement becomes effective.

Risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. These risks are described in the Principal Risks section of the prospectus. Dimensional funds are distributed by DFA Securities LLC.