Unit Trusts vs ETFs: What are their differences?

Unit trusts and ETFs are often confused as both are vehicles to gain exposure to a basket of individual securities. They can both be active or passive investment products. However, in reality, the two have several differentiating factors.

What is a unit trust? 
A unit trust is a type of financial vehicle where money is collected by the fund manager from many investors to invest in securities like stocks, bonds and other assets. The vehicle is set up under a trust structure, which allows the investor to effectively own the underlying investment held in the vehicles. Unit trusts are often bought and sold through financial advisors and online fund platforms. 

What is an ETF? 
An Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) is traded on the stock exchange, just like stocks. Instead of owning a share in a company, one owns a financial vehicle where money is collected by the fund manager from many investors to invest in securities, similar to unit trusts.

Differentiating factor: How they are traded and their liquidity

The main difference is that exchange-traded funds (ETF) are traded like a stock throughout the day on a stock exchange. As a result, ETFs have a bid-ask spread, and therefore a greater implied cost most of the time, as they are focused on providing investors the opportunity to trade regularly, especially intraday. Unit trusts trade at the net asset value (or the underlying value) of the fund, which is based on the market closing price that day, and is more suitable for long-term investors who do not need intraday liquidity. Index unit trusts and ETFs are designed to closely track benchmark indexes passively at low cost. 

Are unit trusts more expensive than ETFs?
Generally, unit trust providers and distributors may sell unit trusts with high sales charges with high management fees, which may make unit trusts, as a product type, seem more expensive than ETFs. However, there are lower costs share-classes for unit trusts with management fees in-line with or below ETFs for similar and even better-implemented exposure. It's important to understand the fees involved for ETFs and unit trusts, and be critical of what you are buying. 

  • Expense ratio: Annual fee ETFs and unit trusts charge for fund expenses, including management fees, administrative fees, and operating costs. This is deducted from a fund’s net asset value (NAV), and accrued on a daily basis. For unit trusts, this is typically 1-2.5% in Singapore, but can range from 0.05-3.5% per annum depending on the fund. Similar ETFs from different providers, or even the same provider, have highly variable expense ratios. For example, BlackRock’s emerging market ETFs IEMG (iShares Core MSCI EM ETF) and EEM (iShares MSCI EM ETF) have expense ratios of 0.14% and 0.72% respectively.
  • Brokerage fees: Fees charged by banks, financial advisors or brokers for executing the transaction of an ETF or unit trust.
  • Trading costs: A fund’s total expense ratio does not account for trading costs incurred by the fund itself, such as brokerage commissions, bid-ask spreads, and market impact (a large order can move a price disadvantageously). It’s important to choose funds that actively try to minimise these costs through execution and managing turnover

Other potential fees for investing in unit trusts:

  • Upfront/subscription fees: Fees charged upfront by banks/financial advisors/brokers for selling you a fund (typically 2-5% in Singapore)
  • Exit fees: Fees charged by banks/financial advisors/brokers for when you exit a fund position, usually within a given time from investment (typically ~1% in Singapore)
  • “Wrap” fees: Annual fee charged by banks/financial advisors/brokers for use of their platform and/or investment advice (typically 0.20-1%)
  • Trailer fees (sales commissions): Fund managers often pay the bank/financial advisor/broker who sold you the fund an annual fee, which comes out of the expense ratio of the fund and is typically around 50% of the expense ratio for funds that do pay trailer fees.

Endowus helps you invest in unit trusts to optimise your return at the lowest possible cost. Learn how we invest here.