Index funds now rule the market — here's why they're a smart and popular way to invest


For the first time ever, the amount of money invested in funds that track the market has surpassed the amount managed by people who pick stocks, according to data from research firm Morningstar. Or, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, index funds are the new kings of Wall Street.

Index funds that track the performance of a particular market index, like the S&P 500, have grown in popularity in recent decades as people have found success investing in the market, rather than in individual stocks. As of August 31, Morningstar figures show that U.S. index funds have $4.27 trillion in assets, compared with $4.25 trillion for actively managed funds that have the goal of beating the market.

Index funds are a form of passive investing because they allow investors to buy a lot of stocks at once and hold them for the long term. What's more, they have have lower associated costs than actively managed funds.

The first index funds were mutual funds introduced in the 1970s by John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Group. Nowadays, they and many exchange-traded funds (ETFs), which are also considered index funds, have become a popular way to invest. Accounting firm PwC estimates that, in 2018, 36% of money in the market was invested in such passive funds.

Here's why index funds make sense for most investors:

Index funds don't require you to be an expert

While professional investors make a living by trying to outperform the market, that strategy is difficult to successfully execute over a long time period. Even famed billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose stock picks are closely followed, has said that index funds make "the most sense practically all the time."

That's because, though individual stock prices can fluctuate wildly, the broader index has tended to go up over time — and with index funds, you don't have to pick the winning stocks to benefit from the market's overall gains. The S&P 500, an index representing the 500 largest U.S. companies, has delivered average annual returns of almost 10% going back 90-plus years.

The past decade in particular has been an excellent time to invest in index funds. Since bottoming out in March 2009, the S&P 500 has surged more than 340%.

If you'd invested $500 back then in an ETF that tracks this benchmark index — and reinvested your dividends, or the quarterly profit you're paid by the fund holder — your investment would be worth more than $2,700 today.

You won't lose money to hefty fees

Index funds pool money from a group of investors and then buy the individual stocks or other securities that make up a particular index. That model helps to reduce the associated costs that fund managers charge, compared to those funds where someone is actively strategizing which investments to include.

Fees matter because they can cut into your overall return. Among equity mutual funds — those made up of stocks — the average expense ratio for index funds was 0.08% in 2018, compared with 0.76% for actively managed funds, according to figures from the Investment Company Institute. That works out to $0.70 for every $1,000 invested versus $7.60.

By not paying a lot for someone to pick and choose your investments, you get to keep more money to reinvest in your portfolio.

What is an ETF and should you invest in one?

Index funds are a simple way to diversify

With an index fund, the mix of stocks — what's known as its diversification — helps to minimize your portfolio's related risk. That means your portfolio's value is less likely to fluctuate wildly, because an index like the S&P 500 typically moves up or down less than 1% on any given day.

You could buy all components of an index individually, but you'd spend a lot of money doing so. With an index fund, you can get all those stocks with the click of a button.

More from Grow: