When is direct indexing right for your clients

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When is direct indexing right for your clients?

Vanguard Perspective


February 5, 2024

Direct indexing (also known as personalized or custom indexing) can help you solve some of your clients' most complex financial challenges—but the strategy isn't a good fit for every investor. How can you decide which of your clients and prospects might benefit?

Remember, a direct indexing portfolio is a separately managed account (SMA) based on a benchmark index. Because investors have direct ownership of the individual stocks in their portfolios, they gain opportunities for tax efficiency and personalization that may not be possible with ETFs and mutual funds.

Explore use cases for direct indexing

Consider these four primary use cases where a direct indexing strategy like Vanguard Personalized Indexing could add real value for your clients.

Tax-loss harvesting

Clients directly own the stocks in their direct indexing portfolios. This enables you to sell individual securities in the portfolio at a loss, even in years when the benchmark index's return is positive. Harvesting tax losses in this way can help offset your clients' capital gains at tax time—and help increase their after-tax returns.

S&P 500 return versus % of stocks with positive and negative returns

Bar chart showing the percentage of stocks in the S&P 500 Index that showed positive and negative returns for each year from 1992 through 2023. For most years, the percentage of winning stocks was higher than the percentage of losing stocks. A line graph showing the overall returns for the S&P 500 Index overlays the bars, showing that in positive years for the index, there were still individual stocks that lost value that could be potential sources of TLH alpha.

Source: FactSet, as of December 31, 2023.

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

Vanguard Personalized Indexing automatically scans portfolios each day for tax-loss harvesting and rebalancing opportunities, helping you:

  • Optimize short- and long-term holding periods.
  • Offset capital gains and losses.

Which clients might benefit meaningfully from the daily, security-level tax-loss harvesting offered by Vanguard Personalized Indexing? Consider high-net-worth clients who:

  • Have large enough capital gains regularly arising from assets held outside of their taxable equity accounts. Look for realized capital gains on the order of at least 3% to 4% of taxable equity holdings per year.
  • Have a meaningful share of wealth invested in their taxable equity accounts. Look for clients with at least 20% to 30% of their financial wealth in taxable equities.

For your high-net-worth clients with significant capital gains, daily tax-loss harvesting with Vanguard Personalized Indexing can make a meaningful difference—roughly doubling the amount of harvested losses they generate.* For lower-net-worth investors, the tax efficiency of direct indexing may not outweigh the additional cost and complexity.

Expressing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) preferences

Some of your clients might feel passionate about seeing their personal preferences reflected in their investments and have very specific criteria for personalization that can't be met with off-the-shelf ETFs and mutual funds. Using Vanguard Personalized Indexing, you can tailor portfolios for these clients to precisely reflect their choices:

  • Screen out specific companies, sectors, or industries from a client's portfolio entirely, such as companies that manufacture nuclear weapons or engage in animal testing.
  • Tilt the portfolio to improve its focus on topics that are important to a client, such as weighting the portfolio with companies that are moving toward a lower carbon footprint.

As you customize portfolios for these ESG-oriented clients, make sure they're comfortable with the slight fee premium of direct indexing over an index ESG fund, as well as the potential additional tracking error that could result.

Factor investing

Do you have clients who use (or want to use) factors as part of their investment strategy? For investors who want to overweight their portfolios toward companies with certain characteristics (factors) such as value or momentum, prepackaged ETFs can often be a good option. However, some clients may have customization needs that prohibit using off-the-shelf ETFs. In those cases, direct indexing could be the solution you need.

For example, a client may want to use a combination of factors or to apply those factors in a way that doesn't already exist as a prepackaged solution. You'll need to determine whether the added cost, complexity, and tracking error of factor investing with direct indexing outweighs the potential benefits, such as the satisfaction of holding a customized portfolio and the potential for alpha above that of an index fund.

Large existing positions and positions with large embedded capital gains

Say a new client's portfolio has a concentrated position, or a large amount of highly appreciated stock. Vanguard Personalized Indexing can serve as a tax-efficient way to transition to a diversified portfolio. As your client's concentrated position is gradually sold into a more diversified direct indexing portfolio, harvested losses can be used to offset capital gains generated by those sales.

Diversify large existing stock holdings, minimize taxes

Graphic illustrates how a portfolio with large existing stock holdings could be diversified while minimizing taxes using personalized indexing. Starting with a portfolio with a low cost basis and large capital gains, an advisor could sell a portion to fund a personalized index (SMA). Software immediately starts to harvest tax losses in the SMA. After some time, another portion of the low-cost-basis portfolio can be sold. Capital gains on the sale can be offset by harvested tax losses. Cash proceeds from the sale can be used to further fund the SMA. This process continues automatically until the entire low-cost-basis portfolio is transitioned to a direct index SMA.

Some clients may not be able to sell a concentrated position, for example, if they have an ESOP holding of employer stock or unvested company stock with restrictions on insider selling. You can use Vanguard Personalized Indexing to work around a concentrated position and diversify your clients' holdings, safeguarding them from a downturn in their company or industry.

For example, for an Amazon executive whose portfolio is heavily concentrated in tech stocks, you could build a direct index around that concentration, either excluding Amazon stock specifically or as part of the broader allocation to the tech sector.

Assess your clients' needs

Ask yourself the following questions to help decide whether a current or potential client might benefit from the customization and tax-loss harvesting capabilities of Vanguard Personalized Indexing:

  • Does the potential tax alpha of direct indexing outweigh the extra cost for my client?
  • Does my client have specific exposure needs (ESG or other) that can't be met by pooled products?
  • Does my client have a large existing position that they cannot sell because of restrictions or the tax impact? Would it be more beneficial to complete a portfolio around that position or to slowly transition out of it?
  • Does my client have the ability to sustain any unintended tracking error relative to the starting investment universe?

How you weigh the trade-offs between mutual funds, ETFs, and direct indexing will depend on your clients' goals and risk tolerance.

Vanguard Personalized Indexing: A practitioner's guide for financial advisors

Use this brochure to understand how your clients might benefit from a strategy such as direct indexing versus a mutual fund or an ETF.

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Find your edge with Vanguard Personalized Indexing

Request a demo today to discover how Vanguard Personalized Indexing can help deliver additional value to you and your clients.

* Kevin Khang, Thomas Paradise, and Joel M. Dickson, 2020. Tax-loss harvesting: A portfolio and wealth planning perspective. Valley Forge, Pa.: The Vanguard Group.



  • Vanguard Personalized Indexing Management, LLC (“Vanguard Personalized Indexing Management”), formerly Just Invest, LLC, an SEC-registered investment advisor, is an independently operated wholly-owned subsidiary of The Vanguard Group, Inc. (“Vanguard”). Vanguard Personalized Indexing is an asset management technology that has been developed and is offered solely by Vanguard Personalized Indexing Management.
  • All investing is subject to risk, including possible loss of principal. Be aware that fluctuations in the financial markets and other factors may cause declines in the value of your account. There is no guarantee that any particular asset allocation or mix of funds will meet your investment objectives or provide you with a given level of income. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.
  • Tax-loss harvesting involves certain risks, including, among others, the risk that the new investment could have higher costs than the original investment and could introduce portfolio tracking error into your accounts. There may also be unintended tax implications.  Prospective investors should consult with their tax or legal advisor prior to engaging in any tax-loss harvesting strategy.  Neither Vanguard Personalized Indexing Management nor Vanguard provide tax or legal advice.
  • The information contained herein does not constitute tax advice, and cannot be used by any person to avoid tax penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code. Each person should consult an independent tax advisor about their individual situation before investing in any security.
  • Factor investing is subject to investment style risk, which is the chance that returns from the types of stocks selected will trail returns from U.S. stock markets. Factor investing is subject to the risk that poor security selection will cause underperformance relative to benchmarks or funds with a similar investment objective.
  • ESG portfolios are subject to ESG investment risk, which is the chance that the stocks or bonds screened by the data provider for ESG criteria generally will underperform the market as a whole or, in the aggregate, will trail returns of other portfolios screened for ESG criteria. The data provider’s assessment of a company, based on the company’s level of involvement in a particular industry or the data provider’s own ESG criteria, may differ from that of other portfolios or of the advisor’s or an investor’s assessment of such company. As a result, the companies deemed eligible by the data provider may not reflect the beliefs and values of any particular investor and certain screens may not exhibit positive or favorable ESG characteristics. The evaluation of companies for ESG screening or integration is dependent on the timely and accurate reporting of ESG data by the companies. Successful application of the customized investment strategy will depend on the data provider’s proper identification and analysis of ESG data.
  • For more information on Vanguard Personalized Indexing Management and Vanguard Personalized Indexing, and to access Vanguard Personalized Indexing Management's Form CRS and Form ADV Part 2A and disclosure brochure, please visit the Vanguard Personalized Indexing topic page.

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