There are now scores of cheap ETFs and by all accounts, investors love these products. Honing in on a specific fee range, even when excluding the two ETFs that do not have annual fees, there are 100 ETFs in the U.S. with expense ratios of 0.02%, or $2 on a $10,000 investment, to 0.08%. That’s a lot of cheap ETFs.
Seductive as cheap ETFs may be, investors owe it to themselves to approach these funds with discerning eyes. Remember, there is a difference between value and value traps. Said another way, not all cheap ETFs are good ETFs. Likewise, there are some expensive ETFs that merit their high fees.
It is a slippery slope for investors. Scores of academic research and data points confirm that over the long term, saving on fees can have a meaningful impact on total returns. What investors need to weigh is saving with a cheap ETF really worth it if there is a better option with a higher fee out there.
In other words, if Fund A costs 0.05% per year and averages annual returns of 5%, but Fund B costs 0.30% a year and averages annual returns of 10%, simple math says Fund B is the better bet.
With that in mind, here are some cheap ETFs that have better, but pricier rivals.
Schwab U.S. Large-Cap Value ETF (SCHV)
Expense ratio: 0.04% per year, or $4 on a $10,000 investment.
The Schwab U.S. Large-Cap Value ETF (NYSEARCA:SCHV) is one of the cheapest ETFs in the value arena. Plus, Schwab clients can realize additional savings because the brokerage allows clients to trade its ETFs (and hundreds of others) commission-free.
On a standalone basis, SCHV is not a bad cheap ETF. It is up 34.4% over the past three years, an admirable showing considering the struggles of value stocks over the course of this bull market. SCHV’s strategy is easy to understand and the fund is appropriate for new and conservative investors alike. So there are plenty of benefits with this fund.
However, it is hard to endorse this cheap ETF knowing that the iShares Edge MSCI USA Value Factor ETF (CBOE:VLUE) is out there. VLUE charges 0.15% per year, still decent among smart beta strategies, and the iShares fund has consistently outperformed SCHV by a wide enough margin that the cheaper ETF’s fee is rendered moot.
Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Expense ratio: 0.12%
Home to $61.3 billion in assets under management, the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (NYSEARCA:VWO) is the largest emerging markets fund in the world. It is also a cheap ETF. For emerging markets investors, there is a lot to like with VWO. It holds over 4,600 stocks and offers exposure to dozens of developing economies, through China is taking on increased prominence in this fund.
As is the case with the aforementioned SCHV, VWO is not a bad cheap ETF per se. The rub with this fund is that there are more compelling options out there with higher price tags. Moreover, at least one of those funds is outperforming VWO by a wide enough margin that the higher fee is warranted.
The JPMorgan Diversified Return Emerging Markets Equity ETF (NYSEARCA:JPEM) is a multi-factor fund that charges 0.45% per year. That fund’s “index uses a multi-factor stock screening process that has historically driven strong performance,” according to the issuer.
Over the past three years, JPEM has outpaced VWO by 360 basis points with less volatility.
iShares Core S&P Mid-Cap ETF (IJH)
Expense ratio: 0.07%
The iShares Core S&P Mid-Cap ETF (NYSEARCA:IJH) is a cheap ETF avenue to mid-cap stocks. Its straight forward approach (it tracks the S&P MidCap 400 Index), coupled with its low fee, make it an appealing avenue to an often overlooked corner of the equity market.
In fact, IJH is one of the cheapest ETFs in the mid-cap space and some competing funds that track the same index have significantly higher fees. The quibble with IJH is that there are better-performing options out there with higher fees, some of which also have significantly lower volatility than IJH.
Sure, the Invesco S&P MidCap Low Volatility ETF (NYSEARCA:XMLV) charges 0.25% per year, but over the past three years, the fund has been almost 300 basis points less volatile than IJH while outperforming the cheap ETF by more than 800 basis points.
iShares National Muni Bond ETF (MUB)
Expense ratio: 0.07%
When shopping for a traditional municipal bond fund, investors should seek a broad, high-quality cheap ETF. The iShares National Muni Bond ETF (NYSEARCA:MUB). Thing is many cheap ETFs in the municipal bond space seem like they are intended for ultra-conservative investors that simply want a vehicle with steady income and slightly higher yields than cash instruments.
Because the VanEck Vectors Municipal Allocation ETF (CBOE:MAAX) is a new fund (it debuted last month), weighing its past performance against MUB and other cheap ETFs in this space is currently impossible. The comparison here is more about potential.
MAAX charges 0.36% per year and because it holds other VanEck municipal bond ETFs, its roster is not only massive in terms of issues, the new ETF also spans durations and features a wide arrange of credit opportunities, both investment-grade and junk. Features like that are not found on many cheap muni ETFs.
Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity ETF (SCHD)
Expense ratio: 0.06%
There are plenty of cheap ETFs in the dividend realm and the Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity ETF (NYSEARCA:SCHD) is one of those funds. SCHD has attracted a following in part to its low fee and its emphasis on domestic stocks that have dividend increase streaks of at least 10 years. Overall, this a sound, cost-effective fund for dividend investors.
Those willing to jump up in fees, however, could be rewarded by the WisdomTree U.S. Quality Dividend Growth Fund (NASDAQ:DGRW), which we highlighted here earlier this month. At that time, we noted DGRW’s underlying index emphasizes “both ROE and return on assets (ROA) as part of the selection requirements. Using ROA as a screening criterion penalizes firms using leverage to drive ROE,” said WisdomTree.
Over the past three years, DGRW, which pays a monthly dividend, has topped the cheap ETF SCHD by almost 700 basis points.
Todd Shriber owns shares of DGRW and VWO