SMAs, ETFs and mutual funds: which one's right for you?

In the ever-changing world of asset management, investors are continually presented with a range of choices to grow and preserve their wealth. Within the broad spectrum of options available, mutual funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs) and separately managed accounts (SMAs) stand out as the most common, accessible and versatile.

These fund structures vary widely however, and understanding their key differences is essential for any investor looking to build an effective and diversified portfolio. In this article, we’ll explore the distinct characteristics, benefits, drawbacks of each and the role they can play in an investor’s portfolio.

Mutual funds

Mutual funds have long been the cornerstone of investment portfolios, offering investors a professionally managed basket of securities at a reasonable fee. They provide several distinct advantages:

Diversification: Mutual funds pool investments from multiple individuals and institutions to purchase a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds and other assets. This can help spread risk and reduce exposure to individual security fluctuations.

Professional management: Skilled fund managers make investment decisions on behalf of investors, with the resources available to conduct thorough research and analysis to ensure the underlying public companies align with the fund’s objectives.

Liquidity: Mutual funds are typically highly liquid, allowing investors to buy or sell shares at the end-of-day net asset value, or NAV. This liquidity ensures investors can access their funds relatively quickly should they need to.

Convenience: Mutual funds are easily accessible and user-friendly, making them an attractive option for investors who prefer to leave the hard work to the experts.


However, mutual funds aren’t perfect and come with some potential drawbacks worth noting. These can include:

Fees: Many mutual funds charge management fees and other expenses, which can eat into returns over time.

Trading constraints: While most mutual funds are liquid, investors can only buy or sell units in the fund daily after the market closes. While this can be enough for most investors, the lack of intraday trading can limit an investor’s ability to respond quickly to market developments.

Capital gains: The assets held within mutual funds can generate capital gains, even if the investor doesn’t sell, which can result in unforeseen taxes for investors. 


Overall: Mutual funds are well suited to investors who prioritize professional management, diversification, and long-term investment objectives. They are particularly attractive for retirement accounts, where the ease of automatic investing diversified exposure can be beneficial.


Selecting the right fund structure for your circumstances

Understanding the differences between mutual funds, ETFs and SMAs

Table highlights the key differences between mutual funds, ETFs and SMAs

Source: Manulife Investment Management. For illustrative purposes only. *Traditional ETFs tell the public what assets they hold each day; Non-transparent and semi-transparent ETFs don’t.


ETFs became popular in the 1990s by combining the best features of both mutual funds and investing in individual stocks. They offer some unique advantages, including:

High liquidity: Unlike mutual funds, ETFs can be bought and sold throughout the trading day at market prices. While such high levels of liquidity aren’t necessary for most investors, they can provide valuable for intraday traders.

Transparency: Most ETFs (passive and strategic beta ETFS) disclose their holdings daily, allowing investors to know exactly what assets they hold. This can be particularly appealing to investors who want to actively manage their portfolios.

Lower costs: ETFs typically offer lower expense ratios compared to other forms of investment, which can help maximize returns over the long term.

Tax efficiency: ETFs often offer a tax advantage and can minimize capital gains tax distributions due to the way they’re structured.


While offering many benefits to the average investor, ETFs come with their own set of considerations. These include:

Brokerage commissions: Frequent trading of ETFs can lead to brokerage commissions, which can offset cost savings compared to mutual funds for some investors.

Liquidity variability: While most ETFs are highly liquid, some smaller or specialized ETFs may have lower trading volumes, potentially impacting liquidity.

Degrees of management: While actively managed ETFs are increasingly popular, passive ETFs simply follow the index, why may not be suitable for those who prefer professional management.


Overall: ETFs are a good choice for investors seeking flexibility, transparency and cost efficiency in their portfolios. They’re well-suited for active traders, tactical asset allocation and those looking to target specific market sectors and asset classes. 



SMAs are portfolios of stocks, bonds, and other securities that are designed to meet an investor’s specific objectives and preferences. They’re managed by investment professionals and designed for high-net-worth individuals who have specialized or sophisticated needs and seek tailored investment solutions. While they’ve been used for many years by institutional investors, SMAs are a relatively recent arrival to the retail investment market, but are already proving popular. They offer a customized approach to portfolio management, catering to the specific needs and preferences of individual investors. They offer several distinct advantages:

Customization: SMAs are designed to align with an investor’s specific objectives, risk tolerance and preferences.

Professional management: Although investors in SMAs can dictate what they invest in, the resulting portfolio is managed by skilled fund managers who are able to make decisions on the investor’s behalf.

Transparency: Investors have full visibility into the assets held in their SMA, providing complete control and understanding of what they’re holding in their portfolio.

Tax efficiency: The direct ownership structure of SMAs offers several tax advantages for investors. One advantage is that tax-loss selling can be targeted to the individual’s unique situation to help offset capital gains tax and potentially increase after-tax returns.

Direct ownership: Investors in SMAs own the individual securities in their portfolio, providing the opportunity for enhanced tax planning and customization.


SMAs may not be suitable for everyone however and are generally reserved for accredited investors only. They also come with their own set of considerations, including:

High minimum investments: SMAs typically require higher initial investments than mutual funds or ETFs, which may limit accessibility for some investors. SMAs are intended for high net worth, investment savvy individuals and may not be appropriate for all investors.

Management fees: While SMAs offer greater customization and professional management, that may come at a cost. Management fees may vary due to the personalized nature of the service provided.

SMAs aren’t set-and-forget investments: SMAs require more client attention. While investment managers do most of the legwork, financial professionals generally need to discuss investment strategy with clients in greater detail, reexamine their financial goals, and monitor the account’s progress on a regular basis.


Overall: SMAs may be a good choice for high-net-worth investors and those seeking a personalized and tax-efficient investment strategy.


Choosing the right tool for the job

Each investment vehicle comes with its own set of advantages and drawbacks, and deciding which one is right for you will come down to your personal requirements and goals. Mutual funds offer diversified, professionally managed portfolios suitable for long term investors seeking a hands-off approach. ETFs provide greater liquidity, transparency and cost efficiency, making them a good choice for investors seeking flexibility. SMAs, on the other hand, offer personalized solutions tailored to individual needs, making them an attractive option for high-net-worth investors with specific requirements.

In practice, many investors choose to combine these investment vehicles within a diversified portfolio to harness the strengths of each. This approach can provide the benefits of diversification, professional management, flexibility and customization all in one investment strategy.

As always, the key to successful asset management lies in aligning your investment choices with your individual financial objectives, allowing you to build a robust and effective portfolio that stands the test of time. 

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. The information provided does not take into account the suitability, investment objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person.

All overviews and commentary are intended to be general in nature and for current interest. While helpful, these overviews are no substitute for professional tax, investment or legal advice. Clients and prospects should seek professional advice for their particular situation. Neither Manulife Investment Management, nor any of its affiliates or representatives (collectively “Manulife Investment Management”) is providing tax, investment or legal advice.

This material is intended for the exclusive use of recipients in jurisdictions who are allowed to receive the material under their applicable law. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are subject to change without notice. Our investment teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. These opinions may not necessarily reflect the views of Manulife Investment Management. The information and/or analysis contained in this material has been compiled or arrived at from sources believed to be reliable, but Manulife Investment Management does not make any representation as to their accuracy, correctness, usefulness, or completeness and does not accept liability for any loss arising from the use of the information and/or analysis contained. The information in this material may contain projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets, management discipline, or other expectations, and is only current as of the date indicated. The information in this document, including statements concerning financial market trends, are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Manulife Investment Management disclaims any responsibility to update such information.

Manulife Investment Management shall not assume any liability or responsibility for any direct or indirect loss or damage or any other consequence of any person acting or not acting in reliance on the information contained here. This material was prepared solely for informational purposes, does not constitute a recommendation, professional advice, an offer or an invitation by or on behalf of Manulife Investment Management to any person to buy or sell any security or adopt any investment approach, and is no indication of trading intent in any fund or account managed by Manulife Investment Management. No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee returns or eliminate risk in any market environment. Diversification or asset allocation doesn’t guarantee a profit or protect against the risk of loss in any market. Unless otherwise specified, all data is sourced from Manulife Investment Management. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

This material has not been reviewed by, and is not registered with, any securities or other regulatory authority, and may, where appropriate, be distributed by Manulife Investment Management and its subsidiaries and affiliates, which includes the John Hancock Investment Management brand.

Manulife, Manulife Investment Management, Stylized M Design, and Manulife Investment Management & Stylized M Design are trademarks of The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company and are used by it, and by its affiliates under license.


Manulife Investment Management

Manulife Investment Management

Read bio