Fidelity vs. Vanguard
Which Funds Are Best for You?
Fidelity vs. Vanguard. Contrafund vs. 500 Index. Active vs. passive investing. The hidden pitfalls and profit potential of both… and what difference could it make to you?
We’ve spent more than 25 years specializing in both Fidelity and Vanguard mutual funds, and that gives us the experience and perspective to compare the two companies’ funds and managers, strengths and weaknesses, pitfalls and profit potential.
We’ve learned over years of wealth management for thousands of clients like you that there is no simple, one-size fits-all answer. Both companies have done an outstanding job delivering long-term value to shareholders—albeit with distinctly different philosophies. In fact, we believe that investors who focus on the question of “Who’s biggest?” or “Who’s best?” miss a more important point: It’s not a matter of which fund company is better. It’s a matter of which company’s funds are best for you.
This report can help you decide. Inside we detail:
- Key issues to consider when selecting a mutual fund company
- Snapshots of both Vanguard and Fidelity
- Discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each company’s products and services
- And, finally, a brief questionnaire for determining which funds match your needs.
Advantages of Fund Family Investing
The average mutual fund shareholder invests with more than one fund family. In fact, most Fidelity investors also own Vanguard funds and vice versa. So why choose between the two? If one company is good, aren’t two better?
The answer depends on you and your investment goals. There’s no reason you can’t have accounts with both Fidelity and Vanguard (among others). You’ll have two (or more) sets of statements to review, multiple phone numbers to remember, several websites to navigate and hundreds of funds to understand and monitor. It’s a major undertaking, no doubt, but far from impossible.
But there is a benefit to consolidating: Savings and simplicity.
Sure you can get used to reviewing multiple sets of statements each month, but you have to ask yourself what added benefit you’re receiving by having to learn and review two reporting systems. For the average investor, either Vanguard or Fidelity has ample funds to construct a diversified portfolio. What’s more—through their brokerage systems, Fidelity account holders are able to purchase Vanguard funds and Vanguard account holders are able to purchase Fidelity funds—so consolidating with one or the other does not necessarily mean narrowing your investment options.
Of course, not all fund companies are equal. But Fidelity and Vanguard are the industry leaders. When dealing with smaller fund companies you have to consider the breadth of offerings (is it truly a full-service provider?), security (a strong balance sheet can protect against financial missteps that might bankrupt a smaller company) and resources (especially research capabilities and online access and support).
For example, back in the ‘90s, Janus was seen as an up-and-coming fund company that thrived during the technology boom, only to suffer disproportionate losses and shareholder defections when the bubble burst. Why? Portfolio inbreeding.
Sure, Janus had a large menu of funds. Unfortunately, it turned out that their funds didn’t provide much variety. Managers from different funds were frequently buying the same technology stocks as their peers—presumably those favored by the research department. This is called “portfolio inbreeding” or “group think,” and the result was that many Janus investors investing in a number of different Janus funds were not nearly as diversified as they thought they were. When the bear market took hold, they got mauled.
Which Funds Are Right for You?
Our brief questionnaire below can help you determine whether Fidelity or Vanguard funds are right for you. Some of the most important issues to consider:
- Municipal and tax-free bond funds: If you’re on a fixed income and rely on your after-tax returns for living expenses, you should carefully consider whether Vanguard or Fidelity has the right mix of state-specific tax-deferred funds for you.
- 401(k) (or other retirement) plan: If you have a 401(k) plan at work with either Vanguard or Fidelity, you may want to open an individual account with the same company. It will make record-keeping much easier.
- Sector funds: Are you an aggressive investor interested in investing in certain sectors or industry groups? If so, you should consider which funds best meet your investing needs. For example, if you’re looking for a health care fund, Vanguard has one of the historically best available. But if you’re looking for a niche sector fund, forget it: Vanguard only offers broad market sector funds. But with $100,000 minimums (as opposed to $2,500 on Fidelity sector funds), they’re targeted at large institutions and would not be appropriate for most individual investors. Fidelity has more than 40 sector funds. In 2004, Vanguard introduced 10 new sector index funds. But with $100,000 minimums (as opposed to $2,500 on Fidelity sector funds), they’re targeted at large institutions and would not be appropriate for most individual investors. Fidelity has more than 40 sector funds, while Vanguard offers 12 sector index funds.
- Index funds: Do you believe that actively managed funds can beat the market over extended periods of time? Or are you an indexer at heart (primarily concerned with matching the market’s returns)? If you have a large percentage of your assets indexed, Vanguard offers the most choices: From its flagship S&P 500 fund to small-cap, international, emerging market and bond indexes—but surprisingly, Fidelity has numerous index funds as well, many of which have lower expense ratios than Vanguard’s.
- Brokerage: Although both Vanguard and Fidelity now offer mutual fund supermarkets (featuring selections from other fund families), Fidelity has embraced the initiative to a much greater degree than Vanguard. The same goes for its brokerage services if you intend to buy individual stocks and bonds and/or options.
Fidelity is happy to offer one-stop shopping, even if it means sharing assets and fees with competitors. Vanguard has only entered the fray in large measure in reaction to market forces. For many years, Vanguard’s goal was for investors to invest in Vanguard funds and never trade—but Vanguard changed to openly courting traders by adding nearly 2,000 commission-free ETFs from competitors to its brokerage platform in 2018. Fidelity took this approach years earlier.
- Innovation: Fidelity is a new product innovator. It was the first to offer sector funds, ETFs and asset management services. While it was visionary in creating the index fund, Vanguard, on the other hand, tends to be more cautious about moving into new markets. It’s only when Founder John Bogle stepped down as chairman that Vanguard made its entry into ETFs, one of the fastest growing segments of the financial services industry. While Vanguard may be more progressive now than any other time in its history, its cost-conscious culture ensures that it will never be the early-adopter that Fidelity is.
Snapshot: Fidelity Investments
With nearly $4 trillion under management and more than 500 funds, Fidelity Investments is one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world. The old-line Boston firm also ranks as the top provider of workplace retirement savings plans and the number two discount broker.
Traditionally, Fidelity’s success has been built on active management and top-performing stock mutual funds. With a history of well-known investment stars outperforming their benchmarks over long periods of time, it’s no wonder Fidelity is considered the 800-pound gorilla of the active investing world. With size comes additional benefits. Due to the volume of transactions they make, Fidelity managers and traders are often given preferential pricing and access to the best private placements and IPOs.
But Fidelity’s success can be attributed to more than just excellent investment performance. Its competitive, individualistic culture has cultivated many successful “homegrown” portfolio managers who share ideas and resources but invest independently of their colleagues. Also, Fidelity’s commitment to technology and product development has created state-of-the-art customer service systems and frequent new product introductions.
Why Fidelity Funds?
- Aggressive: Fidelity made its reputation cultivating star equity managers. The company still has the broadest array of top-performing stock funds anywhere.
- Choice: With more than 500 funds, including 40 sector funds, the nation’s second-largest mutual fund supermarket and the top-rated discount brokerage, Fidelity has a fund to match any objective or risk tolerance.
- Technology: With a $2.5 billion annual technology budget, it’s no surprise that Fidelity continues to set the standard for the industry.
- Research: No firm spends more money or dedicates more resources to research than Fidelity. Their homegrown managers schooled in the “Fidelity way” are among the best, which is a double-edged sword: Fidelity also has the most manager defections.
- Personalized Service: Fidelity offers top-notch personalized service to shareholders both on the phone and in its 190-plus branches nationwide, and its online access and resources are second to none.
Snapshot: The Vanguard Group
The Vanguard Group is the world’s largest mutual fund company. Vanguard’s success is built primarily on low-cost, passively managed index funds. As a staunch advocate of the efficient market theory (which holds that most active managers will fail to outperform the broad market over time), John Bogle, the late founder of Vanguard, built a loyal following of index enthusiasts. His successors have followed the company line and carried on his legacy as advocates for low-cost investment options.
Simply labeling Vanguard an “index shop,” however, does not tell the full story. Unlike Fidelity, Vanguard cultivates relationships with some of the top independent managers in the business. The end result is a group of superstar managers that think and act independently from one another. It is only through these sub-advisory relationships with Vanguard that individual investors gain access to institutional managers that often require minimums of $10 million or more when managing private accounts.
Why Vanguard Funds?
- More conservative: Vanguard is best known as a fixed-income and indexing shop. Our clients know better (About 20%— more than $1 trillion—of Vanguard’s assets are in actively managed funds), but Vanguard still mainly appeals most to conservative investors.
- Low cost: John Bogle made a successful career out of saving investors money. Vanguard’s “mutual” ownership structure (management company owned by member funds) has a built-in cost advantage.
- Institutional quality outside managers: We highlighted the dangers of “portfolio inbreeding” at Janus. By delegating investment management to sub-advisers, Vanguard side-steps this problem. Most Vanguard managers are highly respected institutional managers who are only available to individual investors through the Vanguard funds they manage.
- Index funds: If you’re an indexer, Vanguard has more options than Fidelity.
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