The Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US Small-Cap Index Fund (Admiral Shares) (symbol VFSAX) and the Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US Small-Cap ETF (symbol VSS) are two of the largest and most popular International small-cap index funds. Some compare VFSAX vs VSS not realizing that they are just two different share classes of the same portfolio.
A quick reminder that this site does NOT provide investment recommendations. Fund comparisons (such as this one) are not conducted to identify the “best” fund (since that will vary from investor to investor based on investor-specific factors). Rather, these fund comparison posts are designed to identify and distinguish between the fund details that matter versus the ones that don’t.
The Short Answer
VFSAX and VSS are different share classes of the same portfolio, which is made possible by Vanguard’s ETF share class structure. The decision to buy one or the other depends on investor-specific factors (some of which are listed below).
The Longer Answer
Vanguard ETFs are structured as share classes of their mutual funds. This is a patented structure that is scheduled to expire in 2023, so we may see this structure more frequently in the near future. In other words, VFSAX and VSS are not two funds pursuing an identical strategy; they are the same fund!
Historical Performance: VFSAX vs VSS
VSS was launched on April 2, 2009, while VFSAX was launched on April 7, 2019. Since the common inception date (the latter of the two inception dates), performance has been very close: 3.19% vs 3.11% annually. Despite changes in fees and expenses over this time period, there is only about a .35% difference in cumulative performance since inception! Looking at the chart of VFSAX vs VSS below, it is obvious that they are nearly identical.
Differences Between VFSAX and VSS
Since the two funds are actually two share classes of the same fund, I will skip the usual comparisons here. The geographic exposures, sector weights, market cap coverage so on is identical because the two funds are shares in the same portfolio. There are some resources on the internet indicating otherwise, but these are incorrect.
Some investors may point out that the expense ratios between Vanguard’s Admiral Shares and Vanguard’s ETFs differ. This is true, but it is also reflected in the net performance chart above. At a certain level, differences in expense ration do not matter. A small absolute difference (in basis points) is essentially meaningless (even if it appears large on a percentage basis) and is often smaller than the bid-ask spread (see transaction costs below). Expenses do matter, but I would not sweat infinitesimally small differences (and they’ll show up in net performance anyways).
Factors to Consider
ETFs are free to trade at many brokers and custodians, including Vanguard. However, many brokers and custodians still charge commissions and/or transaction fees to buy/sell mutual funds. To my knowledge, Vanguard does not participate in the pay-to-play arrangements that would allow their mutual funds to trade for free on many platforms. So if an investor account is at Vanguard, it is free to trade VFSAX or VSS. However, only VSS is free to trade in non-Vanguard accounts.
There is a bid-ask spread when trading ETFs, but this spread is typically less than .01% for VSS and individual investor trades will not generally be large enough to “move” the market. In the case of VSS, individual investors should not have a problem trading.
Tax Efficiency & Capital Gain Distributions
ETFs are typically more tax-efficient than mutual funds, due to their ability to avoid realizing capital gains through like-kind redemptions (a process that is beyond the scope of this post). However, since Vanguard ETFs are a share class of their mutual funds, the mutual funds are able to benefit from this feature of the ETF. In other words, VSS is able to extend its tax benefits to VFSAX. A more in-depth explanation of Vanguard mutual fund tax-efficiency can be found here.
VFSAX has never paid a capital gain distribution! I noticed some posts on the internet saying that VSS is more tax-efficient than VFSAX, but this incorrect as neither fund has ever made a capital gains distribution.
Tax Loss Harvesting
My personal preference is to keep a portfolio entirely mutual funds or entirely ETFs, due to the mechanics of settlement during tax loss harvesting. If an ETF has declined in value and an investor sells it, the trade and cash proceeds will not settle for two business days (T+2). That investor may want to “replace” the sold ETF immediately and attempt to buy another ETF or mutual fund simultaneously.
However, mutual funds settle on T+1 basis, so cash for the mutual purchase would be due in one business day (which is one day earlier than the cash from the ETF sale is received). This can obviously cause problems and (even though this issue can be addressed with careful planning) I find it easier to keep accounts invested in similar vehicles. In this case, if a portfolio is all mutual funds, I might lean more towards VFSAX. If all ETFs, I might lean more towards VSS.
On this topic, investors should probably avoid using these two funds as tax loss harvesting substitutes for one another since they would likely be considered “substantially identical.”
VFSAX does have a stated minimum initial purchase of $3,000, so that may be a factor for some investors looking to initiate a position. The minimum purchase size for VSS is typically one share, although fractional shares are becoming more common.
Investors can trade ETFs intraday, as well as in the pre-market and after-hours trading sessions. Investors can only buy/sell mutual funds once per day. This is not necessarily a major factor for long-term investors however.
Final Thoughts: VFSAX vs VSS
VFSAX and VSS are literally the same. However, investors should consider the above factors when deciding which one is best for them.