For fixed income exposure, there are currently 3 ways to own: Hold the individual bonds, hold a bond fund, or hold a bond ETF. Each has its advantages and drawbacks.
Depending on the type of bonds to be purchased, it may be difficult to achieve adequate diversification in individual bond holdings without a substantial investment (corporate and muni bond managers typically require at least $250,000). Both mutual funds and ETFs provide maximum diversification with minimum investment. ETFs have a slight edge here, as many funds do have investment minimums, and you only need to buy one share of an ETF.
Liquidity is another concern. Again, individual bonds will have the least appeal for best execution. ETFs have similar concerns, because the liquidity of an ETF is based on the liquidity of the underlying assets. Bond funds can always be redeemed at NAV on a daily basis, so if you are interested in bonds that can be quickly bought and sold at NAV, regardless of bond market conditions, bond funds are the best choice.
Expenses and costs also vary greatly. Individual bond portfolios, again, depending on the types of bonds, may be assembled at minimum cost, or may be managed for ongoing fees. ETFs and funds have management fees, which vary from just a few basis points for index funds and ETFs to much higher fees for active funds. It’s important to consider trading costs, including spreads and commissions, for ETFs (related to liquidity).
These basics are simple enough to determine, but they are not enough to make an informed decision. For that, you need to consider why you own bonds, and when and how you plan to divest. Is your investment process tactical, with buying and selling of positions? Or is it more strategic, buy and hold? Are you holding bonds to maturity in a bond ladder?
Consider the scenario of rising interest rates, forcing bond prices down, or, equivalently, a bond selloff in the type of bonds you own:
- If you own the individual bonds and plan to hold to maturity, there is no practical impact on your portfolio. The bond values may drop, but the cash flows for your existing bond portfolio do not change.
- If you own a mutual fund, you can redeem your shares daily at NAV. This option forces the fund company to either raise cash during downturns (a drag on performance), maintain credit for redemptions (an added cost), or sell assets, likely below NAV. If you are selling tactically, you get the best price immediately. If you are a buy-and-hold investor, you will bear the added costs of these sales and your investment may be harmed in the long run.
- If you own an ETF, you can sell intra-day at market prices. The share creation/redemption process will force market prices for the ETF toward actual pricing of the bonds that includes costs of liquidity, so the ETF is likely to sell below NAV. Investors who hold their shares are not impacted by these price movements. Any fire sale pricing will be borne by the authorized participant who is redeeming the shares, and the individuals who are selling to the AP.
Bottom line: If you are a buy and hold investor, an ETF or individual bonds may serve you best. If you make tactical trades, the mutual fund daily NAV redemption feature is your friend.