What is an Index Fund? A Complete Guide to Index Funds in India
If you are a beginner in the stock market or a conservative investor, index funds can be a great way to diversify your investment portfolio with minimal cost and effort. In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about index funds, starting from the basics to choosing the suitable one. We will also discuss how it differs from actively managed funds.
What is an Index Fund?
An index fund is a type of mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks and replicates the performance of a specific market index (like NIFTY50/Sensex in India or S&P500 in the US). These funds replicate the performance of an index regardless of the state of the markets. When you invest in an index fund, you automatically own a tiny piece of all the companies in the index. So, if the companies in the index perform well, your investment does too. These funds provide exposure to the broad market at a low cost.
Veteran investor Warren Buffet has recommended index funds as an investment option to park savings for retirement. He argues that investing in an index fund is more sensible for an average investor than picking and investing in individual stocks. This is because index funds provide exposure to the market as a whole.
How do Index Funds Work?
Consider an index fund that replicates/tracks NSE’s Nifty50 Index. There will be 50 stocks in this fund’s portfolio, all of which will have the same weightage as in Nifty50. When you put money in this index fund, that cash is used to invest in every company that makes up the particular index. It gives you a more diverse portfolio than if you were buying individual stocks. The fund's value rises and falls in sync with the index it's based on.
The low expense ratio of an index fund is one of its main unique selling points (USPs). The expense ratio is a small portion of the fund’s total assets that the fund house charges investors for fund management services.
Benefits of Investing in Index Funds
A few of the benefits of Index funds compared to individual investment in stocks are:
By investing in an index fund, you gain exposure to a broad range of assets (stocks or bonds) within the chosen index. All indices other than sectoral indices are well-diversified, and you can reduce the risk of one stock performing poorly.
2. Lower Cost
Index funds are known for their low expense ratios, meaning they have lower fees compared to actively managed funds.
3. Historical Performance
Over the long term, index funds tend to match or outperform many actively managed funds.
4. Time Saver
Investors don't have to spend hours researching stocks since the stocks in index funds are copied from the index in the same proportion.
Index funds provide full transparency into their holdings, allowing investors to see exactly what they own.
Types of Index Funds
There are index funds available for a wide range of market indices, covering different asset classes and regions. Here are some common types:
1. Equity Index Funds
These track stock market indices like the Nifty50 and Sensex. In the past, large-cap stocks have generally outperformed inflation. But they have also shown significant volatility over short and medium-term timeframes.
2. Bond Index Funds
Bond index funds replicate the performance of bonds or fixed-income securities. For example, the S&P BSE India Bond Index tracks local currency-denominated government and corporate bonds from India. This type of index fund is ideal for investors looking for stability in investments and regular interest payments.
3. Sectoral Index Funds
Sectoral index funds provide exposure to specific sectors of the economy like banking, technology, healthcare, or real estate. For example, an index fund based on Nifty Financial Services is a sectoral index fund that tracks the performance of financial services companies in India.
However, these funds are generally riskier than diversified funds because they are more narrowly focused. The fund's performance relies on how well that particular sector does.
4. Global Index Funds
Global index funds invest in global indices such as the S&P500 and NASDAQ 100. These funds offer an opportunity to easily invest in multi-national companies.
5. Commodity Index Fund
Commodity Index Funds track commodity indices. You can invest in commodities such as gold, oil, or agricultural products easily through these funds.
How to Choose the Right Index Fund?
Selecting the right index fund is crucial for achieving your investment goals. A few points to keep in mind while choosing an index fund are:
1. Determine Your Goal
The first step before choosing an index fund is to determine your investment goal. College fees, buying a dream car or home, securing retirement funds, etc. can be examples of investment goals. Your goal will influence which index fund is best for you.
2. Risk Tolerance
Consider how comfortable you are with risk. If you prefer lower risk, consider bond index funds. On the other hand, if you can handle some fluctuations (volatility) in your investments, equity index funds might be the better choice for you.
3. Expense Ratios
Compare the fees across various index funds. Lower fees result in more of your money being invested. The expense ratio is a metric that reflects the fees and additional costs you incur with the mutual fund company.
4. Track Record
Check the fund's historical performance. While past performance doesn't guarantee future results, it can provide valuable insights. It's important to note that the performance of an index fund will never exceed the chosen index because expenses reduce the overall returns it generates.
Ensure the index fund aligns with your desired level of diversification for your investment portfolio.
Index Fund vs Actively Managed Funds
The key differences between index funds vs. actively managed funds are:
|Index Funds||Actively Managed Funds|
|Replicates the holdings of a specific index||Fund managers make decisions based on research and analysis|
|Expense ratio is generally lower due to passive management||Expense ratio will be higher due to active management and research costs|
|Lower risk due to broad diversification||Risk varies depending on the fund manager's decisions|
|Discourages market timing, focuses on long-term investing||May involve market timing and tactical allocation|
|Generally aims to match the performance of the index||Seeks to outperform the market or a benchmark index|
Historical Performance of Index Funds
Index funds typically deliver returns that closely mirror the performance of the underlying indices they track. Looking at historical data, it's evident that the majority of actively managed funds have struggled to outperform these indices, which is why many investors opt for index funds.
Over the past 30 years, index funds based on the S&P 500 have delivered a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 10.7% per year. Meanwhile, index funds based on Nifty50 have given a return of 12% CAGR in the last 15 years.
To learn more about the best index funds to invest in India, click here.
How to Invest in Index Funds in India
Here's a simple guide on how to invest in index funds in India:
- Start by selecting a reliable brokerage platform (like Zerodha or Groww). Ensure that the broker offers access to a variety of index funds.
- To invest in index funds, you'll need a Demat and trading account. These accounts will hold your investments electronically and enable you to buy and sell index fund units.
- Research and pick an index fund that aligns with your investment goals and risk tolerance. Popular choices include Nifty 50 index funds, Sensex index funds, and sector-specific index funds.
- Use your broker's trading platform to place buy orders for the index fund you've chosen. Specify the number of units or the amount you wish to invest.
- Index funds are designed for long-term investing. Stay committed to your investment strategy and avoid making impulsive decisions based on short-term market fluctuations.
Tax Considerations on Index Funds
Taxes on index funds are levied both on capital gains and dividends. Dividends are combined with the investor's taxable income and taxed according to their income category. Capital gains, on the other hand, are subject to separate taxation.