The Best Tracker Funds
** Updated March 4th, 2021**
Let’s get right to the point. John Bogle’s book “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns” was the most impactful investing book I’ve ever read.
The book basically spells out why long-term, buying index tracker funds is far better than stock picking or investing in managed unit trusts and mutual funds. Now don’t get me wrong, I like looking into my crystal ball and stock picking (educated gambling) as much as the next person, but there’s too much evidence that most investors and professionals won’t beat the market over a long period of time.
Stock picking is fine during a bull market when prices are going up. IF you can correctly identify which sectors are profitable, and which stocks within those sectors are profitable. For example, up until the end of February 2021, technology stocks were raging upwards. Then in early March 2021, tech stocks fell and oil stocks rose.
Timing these cyclical stock moves was nearly impossible and required research and luck. The issue is when stock prices are dropping, emotions get involved and bad timing decisions can cost you money. Amature investors tend to sell when prices are plummeting and buy when they are rising.
(I’m currently recording a video series on stock picking where I pony up £5,500 of my own cash and try to beat the returns of my index trackers by stock picking. You can watch the video series here).
Forget what your grandad told you. You know, the advice about letting a financial adviser build you a unit trust or share portfolio filled Threadneedle, Invesco, Artemis, Shell, Marks & Spencer, Rolls Royce and Lloyds Bank. You can’t blame grandad’s advice because that is what his trusted financial adviser told him to do; the same adviser who was paid handsomely from unit trust front and back end incentives (also known as loads), trading commissions and annual trailing commissions.
I’m not here to bash financial advisers. I’d rather see someone with zero investment knowledge sensibly invest through an adviser than not invest all. But you’re not one of the people with zero knowledge. You’re a Financial Thing reader so you don’t have to fall into a fee-paying adviser trap. There is a time tested investment strategy that greatly reduces risk, prevents emotional selling and reduces fees while providing healthy returns.
Choose the best tracker funds instead.
“There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.”
– Warren Buffett
Warren Buffet’s words are extremely insightful. Humans love to complicate things, especially when it comes to investing. The investing world is complicated by design after all.
What’s even better news is this passive index fund strategy can be used during the worst economic times of instability. The Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example.
So why choose the best tracker funds? Three reasons. Index tracker funds have low fees, they outperform most managed funds over a very long period of time and they are tax-efficient.
I once spoke with a financial adviser who argued I was wrong about tracker funds and told me that you get what you pay for with actively managed funds. I questioned exactly what I was getting for all those active management fees and fund manager salaries I was paying and eventually told him I respectfully disagreed to which he responded, “Well, people don’t want tracker funds, they are too boring”.
Here are some staggering fund facts from Morningstars mid 2020 report:
- The large-growth (fund) category has been particularly difficult for active fund managers. More than 60% of the active funds that existed in this category 15 years ago have died, and just 9.9% managed to both survive and outperform their average passively managed peer indexes. (In other words, your U.S. Equity index tracker fund will have beaten 91.9% for all actively managed funds).
- Pricey active large-cap funds are doomed to failure: Just 8% of these funds beat their passive composite over the decade ended June 30, 2020
You can see how, over a 20 year period, only 13.9% of actively managed funds were able to match or beat the index. Not good.
Some large U.S pensions funds are waking up to this stark reality as they move billions of $’s of assets from active to passive. The California Public Employees Retirement System is one such example.
Any financial adviser who advises you to buy actively managed funds might be trying to separate you from your money by way of incentive commissions, management and trading fees. There are countless professional investment fund managers, some of who are paid astronomical annual salaries (some over £1 billion), who have lost money year after year and most managed investment funds have struggled to beat their index benchmarks.
Some actively managed fund advisers have made disastrous stock-picking choices that drove their fund prices into the ground. Neil Woodford would be one such example. But ingenious branding and expensive ads campaigns continue to lure new customers into thinking these managed funds somehow outperform the broad market S&P 500.
Did you know there are over 29,000 unit trust funds available to UK investors with more being added daily? With only a small percentage of these funds outperforming the S&P Total Market index, how could anyone possibly pick the correct funds, let alone understand them? Another issue is one fund might perform gloriously one year while the following year, it could fall flat on its face due to the fund manager picking the wrong shares. Only 12% of active U.S. funds which beat their benchmarks in 2019 did so in 2018.
Artemis’s actively managed US Select Fund is a great example of an actively managed fund that underperformed the S&P 500. This fund gained 29.1% in 2019 while the S&P 500 index gained 33%. The 4% difference in gains might not seem like much but compounded over 20 years, this 4% annual difference would cost you a staggering £329,651!
Do you know some of the mega-funds hold the same investments but charge different fees? For decades, stock funds were shrouded in hidden fee mystery until the Government finally said enough and forced fund companies to be more fee transparent.
The financial services world is complicated for a reason because if it weren’t, very few people would need financial services.
Previously, I wrote an article about why you should avoid checking share prices and avoid buying single company stocks because it’s too risky.
Look, I love picking single stocks but I also spend countless hours researching. If you want to have a punt on single stocks, make sure it’s a mangeable percentage of your entire investment allocation. But really, if you aren’t an advanced investor, you shouldn’t stock pick.
So if not single stocks, then what?
The answer is to buy the best tracker funds, also known as index tracker funds. They are simple, have historically outperformed most actively managed funds long-term and most importantly, they have low fees, low turnover and are tax-efficient because of the infrequent trading that lowers capital gains taxes.
When you begin looking for the best tracker funds, the financial services industry will try to dissuade and confuse you by offering a myriad of options designed to have you running back to your trusty financial adviser. No one needs a financial adviser to buy index trackers.
So how do you know which are the best tracker funds to buy?
Firstly look for low cost and simplicity. There are many types of index trackers so it’s best to choose something you’re comfortable with and that you understand.
Personally, my best tracker funds list is very short as my entire portfolio contains just two index tracker funds:
Best Tracker Funds #1
- June 23rd, 2009 Launch Price: £100 (accumulation)
- February 24th, 2021 Price: £622.94 (accumulation), £529.03 (income)
- Annual Dividend Yield: 1.28% (gross)
- Fund Type: Passive, accumulation or income
- Annual Fund Ongoing Charge (OCF): 0.10%
- Transaction Cost: 0.02% (paid from inside the fund)
- Purchase Fee: 0% (if purchased on Vanguard’s website)
- Exit Fee: 0%
- Total Fees: 0.27% through Vanguard with accounts less than £250,000, 0.12% through Vanguard with accounts more than £250,000
- Market Allocation: 100% U.S. stocks
- Risk Level: 5/7
- Total Stocks In Funds: 3554
- Benchmark: S&P Total Market Index
- Where To Buy: Vanguard UK or most trading platforms
- Min Investment: £500 directly from Vanguard, £100 minimum for monthly direct debit or 1 share from other platforms
This Vanguard U.S. Equity Index Fund tops my list of the best tracker funds because it holds approximately a wide array of company stocks, everything from behemoths such as Apple and Amazon, staples such as Visa and General Motors, and smaller companies such as Dolby and Ralph Lauren. The fund tracks the S&P Total Market Index and includes stocks from the S&P500, Dow Jones and the Nasdaq. In other words, the fund tracks the broad equity market including large, mid, small and micro-cap stocks.
The fund purchases stocks in a weighted format. For example, the largest weighted stocks are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Tesla make up 16% of the whole index, so the tracker fund owns the same percentage of its holdings in those 5 giant companies. This continues all the way down to the smallest company which represents 0.00001% of the index.
The beauty of this type of fund is that you benefit from diversification and company growth and you receive a dividend yield. You can take the dividend yield as a cash payment (Income Fund) or you can reinvest dividends (Accumulation Fund). Because dividend yields are low, I would advise buying the accumulation fund to take advantage of the power of compounding interest, unless of course, you need the income. The income though is relatively small since the dividend is low.
Vanguard’s US Equity tracker fund seeks to track the indexes passively and will perform as the markets perform.
The beauty of passive index trackers versus managed funds is that you don’t have to gamble on being able to choose one of the few managed funds that stock pick trying to outperform the indexes. Take Neil Woodford’s rise and fall as a lesson in managed fund avoidance. Instead of trying to pick winners from 29,000 unit trusts or mutual funds, pick one tracker fund that owns thousands of stocks in proven companies.
The Vanguard fund is valued in U.S. dollars so you do have some currency exchange rate risk, but the pound has historically favoured well against the dollar and the risk averages out over time. Vanguard has an excellent article explaining currency risk here. (I expect the £ to recover somewhat post Brexit).
So why not invest in a FTSE 100 index tracker?
Historically, the FTSE 100 index has grossly underperformed the S&P 500 index. The FTSE 100 is too small and isn’t diverse. At one time, BP, Shell and HSBC comprised almost 25% of the FTSE 100.
The FTSE 100 has historically underperformed the USA’s S&P 500 by large percentages:
Regarding stock market returns, all we can look at is history and while history is no indicator of the future, you can see how historically the FTSE 100 index (light blue line) has grossly underperformed America’s S&P 500 index (dark blue line). That being said, some people are only comfortable buying UK investment products, so always do what is right for you.
What about a global index tracker?
Choosing Fidelity’s Global Tracker Fund would be my second equity tracker choice but the Global Funds have historically underperformed the US tracker’s by about 3.5% per year since 2012:
I prefer the Fidelity Global index tracker because of the diversity as the fund invests in 1600+ stocks versus Vanguard’s version which only invests in 198 stocks. Fidelity’s global tracker invests in about 60% of U.S markets so you’ll get exposure to both US and world stocks.
If I had a reliable working crystal ball, I might think that Global stocks will outperform US stocks because of Covd-19, but this is purely my speculation.
Best Tracker Funds #2
- June 23rd, 2009 Launch Price: £100
- November 22nd, 2020 Price: £162.83 (accumulation), £139.51 (income)
- Annual Dividend Yield: 1.53% (Gross)
- Fund Type: Passive, accumulation or income
- Annual Fee: 0.15% (if purchased through Vanguard)
- Annual Transaction Cost: 0.14% (paid from inside the fund)
- Entry / Exit Fee: 0%
- Total fees: 0.44% for accounts less than £250,000, 0.29% for accounts more than £250,000
- Market Allocation: 100% international government and corporate bonds
- Risk Level: 3/7
- Total Bonds In Fund: 12,780+
- Benchmark: Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Float Adjusted Index Hedged
- Min Investment: £500 directly from Vanguard, £100 minimum for monthly direct debit or 1 share from other platforms
- Where To Buy: Vanguard UK or most trading platforms
The Vanguard Global Bond Index Fund is #2 on my best tracker funds list because the fees are low and the fund invests in thousands of international government and corporate bonds. It’s a great fund for bond diversification.
Understand that bond funds have their critics as you won’t make great returns during certain economic, plus bond funds are more boring than your grandma’s knitting lessons. But you won’t lose of your bond funds value in a bear market either. So what’s the point in owning own a bond fund?
Well if you’re young you shouldn’t because you have decades to recover from a stock market crash or correction, but if you are older and closing in on retirement, you should consider bonds to protect your capital.
I own bond funds because they can act as an insurance policy and a hedge against stock market corrections such as the ones experienced due to Covid-19 and in 2009.
If you own a bond fund during the Covid-19 crisis, you will understand the benefits.
For example, the U.S. equivalent Vanguard Total Bond Fund gained 3.45% during the 2008-09 market crash while most managed equity funds lost 45%. When markets are falling, you can exchange some of your bond fund holdings into stock funds when the worst is over. Think of bond funds like insurance, you hope you won’t need them but you’ll be glad you have them when the markets are falling out of the sky.
It’s important to understand bond index trackers can still fluctuate in price depending on interest rates but the fluctuations shouldn’t be so volatile. From June 1st, 2019 to May 31st, 2020, this bond fund returned 5.8%.
Depending on your risk tolerance, you could use cryptocurrency (Bitcoin is my preferred coin) instead of bond funds which has been my new strategy. But that’s a different topic.
So why not a UK bond fund?
A UK Government bond fund is higher risk than a global fund because it is far less diverse. For example, Vanguard’s UK Government Bond Fund only holds 58 bonds versus the 10,000+ bonds in the Global Fund.
Here are the return comparisons both funds launched in 2009:
There have been times the UK Government bond fund has outperformed the global fund but the UK fund is risk rated one point higher at 4/7 making it more volatile. The UK fund price is also at risk if the UK experiences post-Brexit adverse economic conditions.
If you still feel you want to hold some more UK bonds, a mix of the Global Bond and UK Bond funds would be a good solution.
Why Vanguard or Fidelity?
Customers have entrusted over $5+ trillion to Vanguard making them one of the largest fund companies in the world. Aside from Vanguard’s stability and reputation, company founder Jack Bogle was the man responsible for launching the very first index tracker fund back in the 1970’s.
Vanguard & Fidelity have a long history of low cost investing. Other companies offer low fees as an introductory rate, then quietly hike their fees. If you do invest in a company other than Vanguard, pick the companies with the lowest fees as most offer identical products.
If you want to open a joint or corporate account, Vanguard doesn’t offer these so Fidelity would be a good solution. Fidelity offers joint accounts for up to three people.
There are other companies that offer index trackers, just check the fees.
Best way to buy trackers
Vanguard: £500 minimum on each fund, £100 minimum for monthly direct debit and you can purchase any amount manually after you initial £500 purchase.
Fidelity: £25 minimum on each fund then you can purchase any amount after your initial deposit.
Trading 212: £1 minimum deposit, you can buy ETF’s instead of the trackers (Click this link to receive a free share worth up to £100 by depositing £1).
Stake: £1 minimum deposit, you can buy ETF’s instead of the trackers (Click this link to receive a free Nike, GoPro or Dropbox share).
You can invest directly with Vanguard but each fund has a £500 minimum initial purchase. If you want to purchase less than £500 in each fund to start, I’d recommend opening an account with Fidelity where you can purchase the Fidelity Index US Fund which is similar to Vanguard’s version and only has a £25 minimum.
If you don’t want to use Fidelity, I’d recommend Trading 212 or you can use the Compare Fund Platforms tool to see which brokerage is the most cost-effective. I used to use Iweb because each trade is only £5 but now Trading 212 offers free trades. After you reach the £500 fund minimums it’s more cost-effective to transfer to Vanguard if your current trading platform doesn’t charge you transfer fees.
If you have to buy through a brokerage platform, a discount broker will save you lots of money over the long run because you can avoid annual platform fees. For example, Charles Stanley charges an annual 0.25% platform fee (balances under £250,000) which really adds up over the years even though it doesn’t sound like much.
If you don’t trade often and your account balance is under £80,000, you’re better off investing directly through Vanguard since their annual account fee is only 0.15% (you can read more about this here). Low fees are crucial to successful long-term investing.
You can also buy trackers in the form of ETF’s or Exchange Traded Funds on Trading 212. I personally don’t buy these because ETF’s can be traded like stocks so their price can fluctuate and I don’t like the temptation of easy liquidation.
So that’s how I invest in the stock market; two index tracker funds and I’m done.
Here’s a walkthrough video tutorial of how to purchase index trackers on Vanguard’s platform.
How much to invest?
So how do you decide how much to put into each type of the best index trackers? Stock tracker funds can be much riskier and more volatile than certain bond tracker funds but the payoff is greater. For example, here’s how Vanguard’s stock tracker and bond trackers performed during the financial crisis between May 2008 and May 2009 (I used the US equivalent funds as the Vanguard UK funds didn’t exist at the time):
As you can see the stock index fund suffered far worse losses than the bond fund. A stock tracker fund will fall as much as the entire market falls whereas a bond fund tends to be less volatile.
The way to decide what allocation works for you is to think about risk tolerance and this is different for everyone.
Some methods suggest taking your age and using that for the percentage of bond funds you should own.
Example: A 35 year-old would own 65% stock index funds and 35% bond index funds. You can adjust that based on your risk tolerance. I’m in my mid 40’s and own about 35% in bond funds. As you get older you can adjust this as needed (we call this rebalancing). A 20 to 30-year-old can afford to take more risk since they have time to rebound if disaster strikes, so their portfolio might be 90% stocks and 10% bonds.
Another method suggests age minus 10 or 20. It’s really up to you. Personally, my allocation lies somewhere in the 70-80% stocks and 20-30% bonds.
When considering bond trackers, I avoid strictly corporate bond funds as these bonds are debt held against private companies and don’t pay high enough returns to warrant the extra risk. The global bond fund I use has a high mix of government and a lower mix of corporate bonds.
Consider kissing those risky single stock portfolios goodbye and buying and holding the best tracker funds. This strategy provides less risk, less emotional stress and lower fees and is a very effective way to achieve retirement wealth. Even the greatest investor in the world, Warren Buffet, agrees:
“The trick is not to pick the right company, the trick is to essentially buy all the big companies through the S&P 500 and to do it consistently and to do it in a very, very low cost waY”
CNBC Interview May 2017
This article highlights why index trackers are a great investing solution that has been time tested. Take time to research the trackers as there are many offered by many different companies. Make sure you pay attention to what the trackers hold in their portfolios and the fees. As always, you should never invest in anything you don’t understand.
I love feedback, so if you find any errors or omissions or have any website improvement suggestions, I invite you to contact me and be a part of contributing to this website.
Disclaimer: This page is for information purposes only. This information is not financial advice and has been prepared without taking your objectives, financial situation or needs into account. You should consider its appropriateness for your circumstances. All investing carries risks. Opinions expressed in this review are opinions based on my own personal experiences. The FSCS does not cover index trackers or peer to peer lending and your capital is at risk. Please don’t invest more than you can afford to lose.