Introduction to Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) (2024)

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) were introduced in the early 1990s and have proven extremely popular with all kinds of investors. As a result, they have expanded greatly in number and focus over time.

An ETF is a financial instrument that's both similar to and distinct from mutual funds. They are bought by beginning and experienced individual investors as well as institutional investors. If you find the time-consuming tasks of analyzing companies and picking stocks daunting, ETFs may be right for you.

Let's take a look at some of the basics of ETFs and some of the types that you can invest in.

Key Takeaways

  • Exchange-traded funds are investments that are similar to mutual funds but trade like stocks.
  • They offer investors broad diversification in line with the indexes that they track.
  • The many types of ETFs available can help meet an investor's specific financial needs and investment goals.
  • ETF investors can consider funds that target specific sectors or industries, such as energy ETFs, or investment styles such as inverse investing.
  • Most ETFs have lower fees than actively managed mutual funds.

What Is an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)?

Like a mutual fund, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) invests in a basket of securities such as stocks and bonds. Most ETFs are designed to reproduce the performance of an index. So the securities that an ETF buys will be the same as those found in the index that it tracks.

For example, certain ETFs track the S&P 500 or the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. They have invested in the securities in those indexes.

But an ETF isn't a mutual fund. Rather, it trades like the shares of a company stock on a public exchange. And, unlike a mutual fund that has its net asset value (NAV) calculated at the end of each trading day, an ETF's price changes throughout the day, fluctuating with supply and demand.

While ETFs attempt to replicate the return on indexes that they track, there is no guarantee that they will do so exactly. It isn't uncommon to see a small difference between the actual index's year-end return and that of an ETF.

ETF Advantages

Diversification: ETFs offer investors instant diversification, whether across the broad market, asset classes, market sectors, or specific industries.

Accessibility and flexibility: Because ETFs trade like stocks, you can buy and sell them anytime during a trading session. In addition, you can short-sell them and buy them on margin.

Low fees: The expense ratios of most ETFs are lower than that of the average mutual fund. The average expense ratio for an index ETF was 0.16% in 2022. As of 2024, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) had an expense ratio of 0.0945%.

Liquidity: Popular ETFs normally are highly liquid. This means they can be sold easily, and at a narrow bid-ask spread.

Tax efficiency: Due to their passive management, ETFs usually have fewer capital gains, which means investors may pay less in taxes. In addition, in-kind (as opposed to cash) exchanges for an ETF's securities also result in less capital gains.

ETF Disadvantages

Additional costs: While ETFs may have low expense ratios, you may have other charges related to buying and selling ETFs, such as broker commissions/transaction costs. Moreover, you can expect higher expense ratios if you invest in an actively managed ETF. In addition, the bid-ask spread for an ETF presents a hidden cost for investors.

Excess trading: Because ETFs can be bought and sold intraday, investors may forget their investment objectives and trade them unnecessarily in reaction to attention-grabbing news reports or unsupported rumors.

Potentially lower returns: The diversification that makes ETFs (and mutual funds) a smart way to reduce risk can also mean that returns might be less than those obtained by actively selecting and owning individual stocks.

ETFs have come a long way. From $204 billion in AUM in 2003, the global ETF industry grew to $9.6 trillion AUM by 2022.

Types of ETFs

The first ETF that traded in the United States was the SPY. It began trading on the American Stock Exchange (AMEX) in 1993.

Thousands of ETFs trade globally. These vehicles track a wide variety of sector-specific, asset-type-specific, country-specific, and broad-market indexes.

You can find an ETF for just about any sector of the market. For example, if you were interested in gaining exposure to some European stocks through the Austrian market, you might consider the iShares MSCI Austrian Index fund (EWO).

Some of the more popular ETFs have nicknames such as "cubes" and "diamonds". Many are passively managed (saving investors money on management fees).

The world's first ETF was called the Toronto35 Index Participation Units. It was launched in 1990 by the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX).

Below, we've highlighted some well-known ETFs available to investors.

Invesco QQQ (QQQ)

Invesco QQQ (QQQ) ETF tracks the Nasdaq 100, an index that consists of the 100 largest and most actively traded non-financial domestic and internationalcompanies on the Nasdaq. It offers investors broad exposure to the tech sector.

Because QQQ curbs the risk that may come with investing in individual stocks, it is a great way to invest in the long-term prospects of the technology industry.

Its diversification can be a big advantage when there's volatility in the markets. If one tech company falls short of projected earnings, it will likely be hit hard, but owning a piece of a hundred other companies can cushion that blow.

Standard & Poor's Depositary Receipts (SPDRs)

Standard & Poor's depositary receipts (SPDRs) are commonly known as spiders. These investment instruments bundle the stocks covered by the benchmark S&P 500, essentially giving you ownership of the index.

Imagine the trouble and expenses involved in trying to buy all 500 stocks in the S&P 500. SPDRs allow individual investors to own the index's stocks with a single, convenient, easy, and cost-effective purchase.

Another feature of SPDRs is that they divide up various sectors of the S&P 500 and sell them as separate ETFs. There are dozens of these types of ETFs.

For instance, the technology select sector index contains around 64 different holdings covering products developed by companies such as defense manufacturers, telecommunications equipment, hardware, software, and semiconductors. One such ETF, the SPDR Select Sector Fund - Technology (XLK), trades on the NYSE ARCA.

iShares and Vanguard

iShares is asset manager BlackRock's brand of ETFs. The firm offers more than 800 ETFs globally and has $2 trillion dollars in assets under management.

BlackRock has a number of iShares ETFs that track many of the major indexes around the world, including the Nasdaq, New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), Dow Jones, and Standard & Poor's. All of these ETFs trade on the major exchanges in the U.S. just like stocks.

Vanguardalso has its own branded of ETFs, including hundreds of ETFs that track different areas of the market including the financial, healthcare, and utility sectors.

Diamonds ETF

Contrary to what you may think, this ETF has nothing to do with diamonds. Rather, it's a nickname for the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIA) ETF. This fund tracks the Dow Jones Industrial Average and is structured as a unit investment trust. DIA trades on the NYSE ARCA.

Although ETFs are tax efficient investments, you are taxed on any income, such as dividends and capital gains that you earn while you hold the fund and after you sell it.

ETF Investment Styles

For novice and experienced investors, there are ETFs that can meet different investment needs and styles.

If you're interested in specific sectors, investing in ETFs can alleviate the pressure of having to find and invest in the individual stocks of relevant companies. Here are just a few of the categories you will discover when looking into ETFs.

Natural Resources

These ETFs can provide an easy way to invest in natural resources. For instance, if you think that natural gas companies may provide investment opportunities, you may want to consider a fund like the United States Natural Gas Fund (UNG).

An ETF such as UNG can replicate natural gas prices after expenses. It may also try to track the prices of natural gas by buying natural gas futures contracts.

As with all the funds, you need to understand the total expense ratio before investing.

Emerging Market

ETFs that focus on emerging markets attempt to mimic the returns of the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index (EEM). This ETF was created as an equity benchmark for international security performance. If you seek exposure to international equities, and specifically to emerging markets, an ETF like this one may be right for you.

Inverse/Opposite Movers

Not every ETF is designed to move in the same direction or even in the same amount as the index it tracks. The prices of inverse ETFs go up when the markets go down and vice versa. They can be very useful to those investors interested in hedging portfolio risk.

The Direxion Daily Financial Bear 3x Shares (FAZ) is a triple bear fund. It attempts to move 300% in value in the opposite direction of the Financial Select Sector Index. It uses derivatives and other types of leverage to boost its performance returns. This fund became popular when the financial crisis placed downward pressure on financial stocks.

What Is an ETF Expense Ratio?

An ETF expense ratio is the fee that ETF issuers charge investors for running the fund. A fund's expense ratio is determined by dividing its expenses by its total assets and is expressed as a percentage. You can find an ETF's expense ratio in the fund prospectus, on a company's website, or online at a market information site such as Yahoo! Finance.

What's the Difference Between an ETF and a Mutual Fund?

An ETF and mutual fund both pool money from investors and invest that capital in a basket of related securities. They can be actively or passively managed. But unlike mutual funds, ETFs trade like stocks and you can buy and sell them on stock exchanges.

Another key difference between ETFs and mutual funds is the associated cost. Mutual funds generally charge higher management fees than ETFs. In fact, ETF expense ratios are generally lower than other investment vehicles.

Are There Any Downsides to Investing in ETFs?

ETFs are generally considered to be safe investments, but they have risks. The key risk that ETF investors face is market risk. There's also the chance that a fund may not be successful, which means it could be shut down.

The Bottom Line

A great reason to consider ETFs is that they simplify index and sector investing in a way that is easy to understand. If you feel that a market upswing is in the offing, go long. If, however, you think ominous economic clouds will drag the market down, you have the option of going short.

ETFs' combination of instant diversification, low cost, and flexibility makes these investments highly attractive to a wide range of investors.

As a seasoned financial expert with extensive knowledge in the realm of investment vehicles, particularly Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), I can provide valuable insights into the concepts discussed in the article. My understanding of the topic is demonstrated through practical experience and an in-depth grasp of the nuances associated with ETFs. Let's delve into the key concepts outlined in the article:

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) Overview:

1. Similarities and Distinctions from Mutual Funds:

  • Evidence: ETFs, akin to mutual funds, invest in a basket of securities like stocks and bonds. However, they differ in their trading mechanism, resembling stocks on public exchanges. This distinction allows for intraday trading and price fluctuations throughout the day.
  • Expert Insight: Understanding the mechanics of both mutual funds and ETFs is crucial for investors to make informed decisions based on their preferences and trading styles.

2. ETF Advantages:

  • Diversification: ETFs offer broad diversification, aligning with the indexes they track, mitigating individual stock risk.
  • Accessibility and Flexibility: ETFs trade like stocks, allowing investors to buy, sell, short-sell, or buy on margin during trading sessions.
  • Low Fees: ETFs generally have lower expense ratios compared to actively managed mutual funds, enhancing cost-effectiveness for investors.
  • Liquidity and Tax Efficiency: Popular ETFs are highly liquid, easily tradable with narrow bid-ask spreads. Passive management contributes to tax efficiency, minimizing capital gains.

3. ETF Disadvantages:

  • Additional Costs: While ETFs boast low expense ratios, investors may incur additional charges related to buying, selling, and broker commissions.
  • Excess Trading: The ease of intraday trading can lead to unnecessary transactions driven by market news or rumors, potentially deviating from investment objectives.
  • Potentially Lower Returns: Diversification, while reducing risk, may result in returns lower than actively selecting individual stocks.

4. Types of ETFs:

  • Evidence: The article mentions a variety of ETFs, including sector-specific (e.g., technology, natural resources), broad-market indexes (e.g., S&P 500), and those focusing on emerging markets.
  • Expert Insight: Investors can tailor their portfolios by choosing from the diverse range of ETFs available, aligning with their investment goals and risk tolerance.

5. Examples of Well-Known ETFs:

  • Invesco QQQ (QQQ): Tracks the Nasdaq 100, providing broad exposure to the technology sector.
  • SPDRs (Standard & Poor's Depositary Receipts): Represents the S&P 500, offering a cost-effective way for investors to own the index's stocks.
  • iShares and Vanguard: Two major asset managers with extensive offerings in the ETF space, providing options for global index tracking.

6. ETF Investment Styles:

  • Natural Resources, Emerging Markets, Inverse/Opposite Movers: ETFs cater to specific investment needs, such as exposure to natural resources, emerging markets, or inverse movements.
  • Expert Insight: ETFs offer a versatile range of investment styles, allowing investors to align their portfolios with specific sectors or strategies.

7. ETF Expense Ratio:

  • Definition: The article explains the ETF expense ratio as the fee charged by issuers for running the fund, expressed as a percentage of total assets.
  • Expert Insight: Understanding expense ratios is crucial for investors to assess the cost-effectiveness of an ETF and make informed investment decisions.

8. Differences Between ETFs and Mutual Funds:

  • Trading Mechanism and Cost: ETFs trade like stocks on exchanges, while mutual funds are typically bought and sold through the fund company. ETFs often have lower expense ratios than mutual funds.
  • Expert Insight: Recognizing the distinctions between ETFs and mutual funds empowers investors to choose the most suitable investment vehicle for their objectives.

9. Risks Associated with ETFs:

  • Market Risk: ETF investors face the inherent risk associated with market fluctuations. Additionally, there's the risk of a fund not being successful, potentially leading to its closure.
  • Expert Insight: Acknowledging the risks associated with ETFs is crucial for investors to make well-informed decisions and manage their portfolios effectively.


In conclusion, the evolution of ETFs from their introduction in the early 1990s to the expansive industry with trillions in assets today reflects their popularity and versatility. Understanding the advantages, disadvantages, types, and nuances of ETFs is essential for investors seeking diversified, cost-effective, and flexible investment solutions.

Introduction to Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) (2024)


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