The Basics of Investing in Exchange-Traded Funds (ETF)


An exchange traded fund (ETF) is a form of securities that tracks an index, sector, commodity, or other asset and may be bought and sold on a stock exchange much like a regular stock.
An ETF can be set up to track anything from a single commodity’s price to a big and diverse group of securities.
ETFs can even be built to follow certain investment strategies.

The SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), which tracks the S&P 500 Index, is a well-known example. ETFs can hold a variety of investments, such as stocks, commodities, bonds, or a combination of them. An exchange traded fund is a marketable security.

As shares are purchased and sold on the market, the price of an ETF’s shares will fluctuate during the trading day.
Mutual funds, on the other hand, are not traded on a stock exchange and only trade once a day after the markets shut. Furthermore, as compared to mutual funds, ETFs are more cost-effective and liquid.

An ETF is a form of investment that, unlike a stock, holds numerous underlying assets rather than just one. ETFs are a popular alternative for diversification because they contain a variety of assets.

An ETF can own hundreds or thousands of equities from a variety of industries, or it can be focused on a single area or industry. Some funds are only focused on the United States, while others have a global vision. Banking-focused ETFs, for example, would hold stocks from a variety of banks across the industry.

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Types of ETFs

Investors can choose from a variety of ETFs that can generate income, speculate on price gains, and hedge or partially offset risk in their portfolio.
Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular ETFs on the market right now.

Bond ETFs

Bond ETFs offer investors with a steady stream of income. The distribution of their earnings is determined by the performance of the underlying bonds. Government bonds, corporate bonds, and state and local bonds, often known as municipal bonds, are examples.
Bond ETFs, unlike their underlying assets, do not have a set maturity date. They usually trade at a discount or premium to the actual bond price.

Stock ETFs

Stock ETFs are a collection of stocks that track a specific industry or sector. For example, a stock ETF might track automotive or foreign stocks. The goal is to provide diverse exposure to a particular industry, one that comprises both high-performing companies and newcomers with growth potential. Stock ETFs, unlike stock mutual funds, have cheaper costs and do not require actual stock ownership.

Industry ETFs

ETFs that focus on a single industry or sector are as industry or sector ETFs. Companies operating in the energy industry, for example, will be included in an energy sector ETF.
Industry ETFs are designed to provide exposure to an industry’s upside potential by following the performance of companies in that sector. One example is the IT sector, which has seen a recent flood of capital.
At the same hand, because ETFs do not involve direct ownership of shares, the downside of erratic stock performance is also limited. During economic cycles, industry ETFs are also utilized to move in and out of sectors.

Commodity ETFs

Commodity ETFs, as their name suggests, invest in commodities such as crude oil or gold. They have a number of advantages. They first diversify a portfolio, making it easier to hedge against market downturns.
Commodity ETFs, for example, can act as a safety net in the event of a stock market downturn. Second, owning shares in a commodity ETF is less expensive than owning the commodity itself.
This is due to the fact that the former does not require insurance or storage.

Currency ETFs

Currency exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are vehicles that monitor the performance of currency pairs that include both domestic and foreign currencies.
They have a variety of uses. They can be used to speculate on currency prices based on a country’s political and economic trends. Importers and exporters use them to diversify their portfolios or as a hedge against volatility in the FX markets. Some of them are also employed as a form of inflation protection.  Bitcoin even has its own exchange-traded fund (ETF).

Inverse ETFs

By shorting equities, inverse ETFs try to profit from stock falls. Shorting is the act of selling a stock and then repurchasing it at a cheaper price, anticipating a price drop. To short a stock, an inverse ETF employs derivatives.
They are, in essence, wagers on the market’s downfall When the market falls, the value of an inverse ETF rises proportionately. Many inverse ETFs are exchange traded notes (ETNs), not actual ETFs, as investors should be aware.
An ETN is similar to a bond, but it trades like a stock and is backed by a bank. Check with your broker to see if an ETN is a good fit for your investment strategy.

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How to Begin Investing in ETFs

Investing in ETFs has become very simple because to the several platforms available to traders.
To begin investing in ETFs, follow the procedures listed below.

  1. ETFs are available on most online investment platforms, retirement account provider websites, and investing apps such as Robinhood. Most of these platforms offer commission-free trading, which means you won’t have to pay any costs to purchase or sell ETFs. A commission-free purchase or sale, on the other hand, does not imply that the ETF provider would also provide access to their product at no cost.
  2. ETF research is the second and most critical phase in the ETF investing process. Today’s markets provide a wide range of exchange-traded funds (ETFs). One thing to keep in mind during your study is that ETFs are not the same as individual instruments such as stocks or bonds. When investing in an ETF, you must analyze the big picture—in terms of sector or industry. Here are some questions to think about when you conduct your research:
  3. What is your time frame for investing?
  4. Are you investing for income or growth?
  5. Are there particular sectors or financial instruments that excite you?
  6. Consider a trading strategy: If you’re new to ETFs, dollar-cost averaging, or spreading out your investing fees over a period of time, is a decent option.
    This is due to the fact that it smooths out returns over time and ensures a disciplined (rather than haphazard or erratic) approach to investment.
    It also assists new investors in better understanding the subtleties of ETF investment.
    Investors can progress to more complicated tactics like swing trading and sector rotation as they gain experience in trading. 

How to Buy and Sell ETFs

Online brokers and traditional broker-dealers both trade ETFs.
With Investopedia’s list of the best ETF brokers, you can see some of the greatest brokers in the market.
Robo-advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront, which use ETFs in their investment products, offer an alternative to traditional brokers.

Real-World Examples of ETFs

Below are examples of popular ETFs on the market today. Some ETFs track an index of stocks creating a broad portfolio while others target specific industries.

  • The SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) is the oldest surviving and most widely known ETF that tracks the S&P 500 Index.
  • The iShares Russell 2000 (IWM) tracks the Russell 2000 small-cap index.
  • The Invesco QQQ (QQQ) indexes the Nasdaq 100, which typically contains technology stocks.
  • The SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIA) represents the 30 stocks of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
  • Sector ETFs track individual industries such as oil (OIH), energy (XLE), financial services (XLF), REITs (IYR), Biotech (BBH).
  • Commodity ETFs represent commodity markets including crude oil (USO) and natural gas (UNG).
  • Physically backed ETFs: The SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) and the iShares Silver Trust (SLV) hold physical gold and silver bullion in the fund.

Advantages and Disadvantages of ETFs

Because it would be costly for an investor to buy all of the stocks in an ETF portfolio individually, ETFs give reduced average costs. Because investors only make a few trades, they only need to complete one transaction to buy and one transaction to sell, resulting in lower broker commissions. Each trade is usually charged a commission by the broker.
Some brokers even provide no-commission trading on some low-cost ETFs, significantly lowering investor costs.

The expense ratio of an ETF is the cost of operating and managing the fund. Because they mirror an index, ETFs often have low expenses. If an ETF tracks the S&P 500 Index, for example, it may hold all 500 equities in the index, making it a passively managed fund that requires less time. Not all ETFs, however, follow an index in a passive manner.


  • Access to many stocks across various industries
  • Low expense ratios and fewer broker commissions
  • Risk management through diversification
  • ETFs exist that focus on targeted industries

  • Actively managed ETFs have higher fees
  • Single-industry-focus ETFs limit diversification
  • Lack of liquidity hinders transactions

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Actively managed ETFs

There are also actively managed ETFs, in which portfolio managers are more involved in buying and selling stock and modifying the fund’s holdings.
A more actively managed fund will often have a higher expense ratio than an ETF that is passively managed. To make sure the fund is worth holding, investors should look at how it is managed, whether it is actively or passively managed, the resulting expense ratio, and the costs vs the rate of return.

Indexed-stock ETFs

Because there are no minimum deposit requirements, an indexed-stock ETF gives investors with the diversification of an index fund as well as the option to sell short, buy on leverage, and buy as few as one share.
Not all ETFs, however, are equally diversified.
Some may have a high concentration in a single industry, a small number of equities, or assets that are closely connected.

Dividends and ETFs

Though ETFs allow investors to profit from rising and falling stock prices, they also benefit from companies that pay dividends. Dividends are a portion of a company’s earnings that is allocated or paid to investors in exchange for holding their stock. ETF shareholders are entitled to a percentage of the fund’s income, such as interest received or dividends paid, as well as a residual value if the fund is liquidated.

ETFs and taxes

An ETF is more tax-efficient than a mutual fund because most buying and selling occurs through an exchange. The ETF sponsor does not need to redeem shares each time an investor wishes to sell or issue new shares each time an investor wishes to buy. Redeeming shares of a fund can trigger a tax liability, so listing the shares on an exchange can keep tax costs lower.

ETFs market impact

Many new funds have launched as ETFs have grown in popularity among investors, resulting in low trading volumes for some of them. As a result, investors may find it difficult to buy and sell shares of a low-volume ETF.

Concerns have been raised concerning ETFs’ impact on the market and whether their popularity can inflate stock prices and cause fragile bubbles. Some ETFs use portfolio models that haven’t been validated in varied market conditions. It might result in large inflows and outflows from the funds, putting market stability at risk.

Since the financial crisis, ETFs have played a significant role in market volatility and flash crashes.

ETF Creation and Redemption

The creation and redemption system, which involves large specialized investors known as authorized participants, regulates the supply of ETF shares (APs).

When an ETF wants to issue more shares, the AP buys shares of the equities in the fund’s index—such as the S&P 500—and sells or exchanges them for new ETF shares of equal value.
As a result, the AP profitably sells ETF shares on the open market.
The block of shares used in the transaction whereby an AP sells equities to the ETF sponsor in exchange for ETF shares is known as a creation unit.”

Creation when shares trade at a premium 

Consider an ETF that invests in S&P 500 equities and has a share price of $101 at market closing. If the stock value of the ETF’s holdings were only worth $100 a share, the fund’s price of $101 would be trading at a premium to its net asset value (NAV). The NAV is a calculation that determines the entire value of an ETF’s assets or equities.

An authorized participant has an incentive to restore parity between the ETF share price and the fund’s NAV.
To accomplish so, the AP will purchase from the market shares of the equities that the ETF intends to hold in its portfolio and sell them to the fund in exchange for ETF shares.
In this case, the AP is purchasing stock on the open market for $100 per share while also purchasing shares of an ETF on the open market for $101 per share. This is creation, and it increases the amount of ETF shares available on the market. If all other factors stay constant, increasing the quantity of shares available on the market will lower the ETF’s price and bring shares closer to the fund’s NAV. 

ETF redemption

An AP, on the other hand, purchases ETF shares on the open market.
The AP then sells these shares back to the ETF sponsor in exchange for individual stock shares. He or she can subsequently sell on the open market.
As a result, through a procedure known as redemption, the number of ETF shares is lowered.

Demand in the market and whether the ETF is trading at a discount or premium to the value of the fund’s assets determine the amount of redemption and creation activity.

ETFs vs. Mutual Funds vs. Stocks

In a world with constantly changing broker fees and policies, comparing features for ETFs, mutual funds, and stocks can be difficult.
The majority of stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds are available for purchase and sale without a commission.
Funds differ from stocks in that most of them include management fees, which have been moving lower for many years. ETFs have lower average fees than mutual funds in general.

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