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Fund Spy

Vipers vs. iShares

How do Barclay's and Vanguard's ETF lineups stack up?

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Barclays Global Investors was the first big asset manager to market ETFs to the masses, and the firm's iShares family of ETFs is easily the best-known brand in the business. Vanguard is nipping at Barclays' heels, though. Since launching its first ETF in 2001, the  Viper share class of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund  (VTI), the firm has gone on to roll out more than 20 other ETFs. Moreover, the firm's reputation as the indexing king among retail investors and its uniquely low cost structure may give it an edge going forward. As it stands, many iShares and Vipers ETFs compete head to head for assets. That's great for investors: It gives them additional choices, and it should help keep fees low. But whose lineup has the edge?

This isn't much of a contest. There are a couple dozen Vipers covering most of the domestic-equity style and market-cap spectrum, as well as several sectors. Investors also can cobble together total international stock exposure with three foreign-equity Vipers.

Nobody, however, has more ETFs tracking more stock markets, styles, regions, or industries than iShares. It's also the only ETF family with fixed-income offerings and is branching out into commodities with its iShares Comex Gold (IAU) and a proposed silver ETF. Vanguard offers a tidy tool kit for ETF investors, but iShares is like the Craftsman supersized, multidrawer implement chest.

Dan Culloton does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.