How to Cut Fees and Simplify Your Portfolio With One Move

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Photographer: Wild Horse/Getty Images

In investing, simpler is often better -- and cheaper.

That's why a recent money.com article highlighted the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) as one ETF that could do the job of four ETFs for buy-and-hold investors. The $45 billion behemoth is a great choice for getting total U.S. exposure, with 3,680 stocks ranging from micro-caps to large-caps.

Investors may be able to cover even more ground with VTI’s more worldly younger brother, the $3.5 billion Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT). The ETF's 6,249 stocks -- it holds the most stocks of any equity ETF -- hail from 60 different countries. Large-cap stocks make up 85 percent of the fund, with the rest in mid- and small-cap stocks. It tracks the FTSE Global All Cap Index, the broadest equity index in FTSE’s lineup.

Investors still get a good chunk of U.S. exposure -- roughly 50 percent of VT is in the U.S. Another 40 percent is in international developed markets, and 10 percent in emerging markets. After the U.S., Japan and the United Kingdom have the biggest weightings, at eight percent and seven percent, respectively. Further down the country list, smaller countries like Mexico and Malaysia both get a 0.50 percent weighting.

The 0.18 percent expense ratio for VT is well below the ETF average, and roughly seven times less than the average global mutual fund. A $10,000 investment would cost an investor $18 per year in fees. That makes it the cheapest globally focused ETF, and the one holding the most stocks. The costs of investing overseas lifts its expenses above the 0.05 percent charged for VTI.

The biggest rival for VT is the iShares MSCI ACWI Index Fund (ACWI). It has a similar geographic breakdown, and the ETFs have had similar performance. VT’s three-year return is 34.7 percent; ACWI's is 34.3 percent. The two big differences are in depth and fees. ACWI ‘only’ tracks 1,288 stocks, and its 0.34 percent expense ratio is almost double that of VT.

Is Vanguard Total World Stock the only ETF you need? Definitely not. It doesn’t track any bonds, and it doesn’t go as deep into each country’s stock market as ETFs designed to track specific regions do. And its 50 percent allocation to international stocks may be too aggressive for someone in or nearing retirement. But if the goal is to cover as much investing ground as humanly possible with one buy order, VT gets you there.

More stories from Eric Balchunas:

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Eric Balchunas is an exchange-traded-fund analyst at Bloomberg. More ETF data is available here, and weekly ETF podcasts can be found here.

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