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What are Index Funds, and How Do They Work?

Investing is crucial for wealth accumulation, and index funds are gaining popularity among investors due to their simplicity, diversification, and cost-effectiveness.

  • 43,077 Views | Updated on: Jun 05, 2024

The investment field has witnessed the rise of index funds as a favored option among both inexperienced and experienced investors. These funds present a straightforward and efficient method for constructing a diversified portfolio to achieve competitive returns. Furthermore, index funds typically feature lower management fees as compared to actively managed funds, rendering them a prevalent choice among investors mindful of costs.

Investing is one of the most important tools to increase your wealth. With several options available in the market, index funds are attracting considerable investors. Index funds have revolutionized the field of investment by offering a powerful combination of simplicity, diversification, and cost-effectiveness. These funds are suitable for individuals with low or moderate-risk appetites.

What is an Index Fund?

Index funds are financial instruments that follow a certain index or benchmark, such as the S&P 500. They fall under the category of passive index investing, which means that instead of being actively managed, their portfolios are created to reflect the performance of a specific index.

How do Index Funds Work?

Index funds work by purchasing a portion of every stock in the index they are tracking. For example, if an index fund is tracking the S&P 500, it would purchase a small portion of each of the 500 companies in the index. This helps to diversify the portfolio, reducing the risk of index investing in a single stock. Additionally, the fund is managed passively, meaning that there is no need for a fund manager to make investment decisions, thus reducing the overall cost of management.

The performance of the best index funds is determined by the performance of the underlying index. This means that when the index goes up, the value of the index fund increases, and when the index goes down, the value of the fund decreases. The key idea behind these funds is to capture the overall market returns rather than trying to outperform them. This strategy is based on the belief that always beating the market over the long term is difficult and often requires significant expertise and resources.

What are Index Fund Returns?

Index funds generally have lower fees than actively managed funds, which results in higher index fund returns for investors over time. This is because actively managed funds typically have higher management fees, which can eat into the index funds returns that investors receive. Additionally, index funds are designed to track the performance of a specific index, so their index fund returns are largely determined by the performance of the underlying index.

Index fund returns can be influenced by a variety of factors, including market conditions, interest rates, and economic growth. Historically, these funds have tended to outperform actively managed funds over the long term due to their lower fees and the fact that they are not actively managed. However, it is important to keep in mind that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.

Benefits of Index funds

Index funds offer several benefits that make them attractive investment options for many investors. They offer a simple, cost-effective, and diversified approach to investing that aligns with the long-term goals of many investors. Let us take a look at various advantages of index funds:


Index funds provide exposure to a wide range of securities within a specific market index, such as the S&P 500 or the total stock market. This diversification helps spread risk across multiple assets, reducing the impact of the poor performance of any single stock or sector.

Low Costs

Index funds typically have lower management fees and operating expenses compared to actively managed funds. Since they aim to replicate the performance of an underlying index rather than employing active management strategies, they can pass on cost savings to investors.

Consistent Performance

Over the long term, index funds have historically delivered competitive returns that closely mirror the performance of the underlying index they track. While they may not outperform the market, they also tend to avoid significant underperformance, providing investors with a reliable investment option.


Index funds disclose their holdings regularly, allowing investors to know exactly what assets they own. This transparency provides clarity and helps investors make informed decisions about their portfolios.


Index funds are accessible to investors of all levels, from beginners to experienced professionals. They are available through various investment platforms, including brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and direct investment with fund providers.

Ease of Use

Investing in index funds is straightforward and requires minimal effort on the part of the investor. Once purchased, investors can generally hold index funds for the long term without the need for frequent monitoring or adjustments to their portfolios.

Comparing Index Funds and Active Managed Funds

Index funds aim to correspond to the performance of a specific index, offer low costs, and provide broad market exposure. Actively managed funds, on the other hand, seek to outperform the market through active investment decisions but typically come with higher costs and fees. The choice between the two depends on an investor’s preference for passive or active management, risk tolerance, investment goals, and beliefs about the efficiency of markets.

Let us compare the two based on different parameters:


Index Funds

Actively Managed Funds

Investment Strategy

Passively tracks a market index

Actively selects and buys/sells holdings to outperform the market


Lower expense ratios (typically 0.10% - 0.50%)

Higher expense ratios (typically 1% - 2% or more)


Aims to match market returns

Aims to beat market returns (success rate varies)


Generally considered lower risk (diversified holdings)

Risk varies based on the fund’s holdings and manager’s skill


Portfolio follows a set index, minimal management needed

Requires ongoing research and management by fund professionals

Tax Efficiency

Generally tax-efficient due to lower turnover

May have higher capital gains taxes due to frequent trading


Ideal for long-term investors seeking consistent, low-cost growth

May be suitable for experienced investors seeking potentially higher returns

Final Thoughts

As passive investments, index funds aim to imitate the performance of a particular or targeted index, providing investors with broad market exposure and stable returns. By avoiding the complexities and higher fees associated with actively managed funds, these funds have become a popular choice for both novice and seasoned investors.

With their simple approach, index funds can provide an accessible and cost-effective way for individuals to index funds to invest in the stock market and build wealth over time.

Key Takeaways

  • Index funds purchase a portion of every stock in the index they track, diversifying the portfolio and minimizing the risk associated with investing in individual stocks.
  • These are accessible to investors of all levels through various platforms and require minimal effort.
  • Index funds aim to match market returns with low costs and are closely tied to the performance of the underlying index.
  • Index funds provide investors with broad market exposure and stable returns while avoiding the complexities and higher fees associated with actively managed funds.



How are index fund returns determined?

Index fund returns closely correlate with the performance of the underlying index they track. As the index value fluctuates, so does the value of the index fund. Lower fees compared to actively managed funds contribute to potentially higher returns for investors over time.


Are index funds suitable for all investors?

Index funds are suitable for a wide range of investors, including beginners and experienced professionals. They are particularly attractive to individuals seeking long-term, cost-effective investment options with minimal maintenance requirements.


What is passive investing?

Passive investing involves mimicking the performance of a market index rather than actively attempting to beat it. Index funds follow a passive investment strategy by tracking the performance of an index without frequent buying and selling of securities.

- A Consumer Education Initiative series by Kotak Life

Amit Raje
Written By :
Amit Raje

Amit Raje is an experienced marketer who has worked in various Fintechs and leading Financial companies in India. With focused experience in Digital, Amit has pioneered multiple digital commerce in India. Now, close to two decades later, he is the vice president and head of the D2C business department. He masters the skill of strategic management, also being certified in it from IIMA. He has challenged his challenges and contributed his efforts in this journey of digital transformation.

Amit Raje
Reviewed By :
Prasad Pimple

Prasad Pimple has a decade-long experience in the Life insurance sector and as EVP, Kotak Life heads Digital Business. He is responsible for developing user friendly product journeys, creating consumer awareness and helping consumers in identifying need for life insurance solutions. He has 20+ years of experience in creating and building business verticals across Insurance, Telecom and Banking sectors

In this policy, the investment risk in the investment portfolio is borne by the policyholder.

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