Exchange Traded Funds


Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are very popular for trading since they track or seek to outperform a particular index, sector, commodity, or other asset.

There are literally thousands of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to trade. As of 2020, the number of ETFs worldwide was over 7,600, representing about 7.74 trillion U.S. dollars in assets. The largest ETF, as of April 2021, was the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), with about $353.4 billion in assets.

We apply our rules-based system to the heaviest traded ETFs and issue a trade alert based on our analysis. The following table lists the top 100 most heavily traded exchange-traded products, highlighting the funds that will generally be the most liquid. Generally, ETFs with the highest average volume are used widely as trading vehicles among active traders. Here is a list:


Symbol Name Avg Daily Share Volume (3mo) AUM
SQQQ ProShares UltraPro Short QQQ 122,433,023 $3,038,350.00
TQQQ ProShares UltraPro QQQ 87,582,781 $21,418,300.00
SOXS Direxion Daily Semiconductor Bear 3x Shares 82,319,648 $861,822.00
SPY SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust 79,159,094 $491,089,000.00
SOXL Direxion Daily Semiconductor Bull 3x Shares 67,866,555 $8,807,150.00
TLT iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF 48,913,406 $47,850,600.00
QQQ Invesco QQQ Trust Series I 46,317,430 $246,173,000.00
IWM iShares Russell 2000 ETF 42,087,438 $62,723,000.00
FXI iShares China Large-Cap ETF 40,957,801 $4,220,280.00
XLF Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund 40,407,363 $36,053,300.00
HYG iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF 39,691,328 $18,476,800.00
EEM iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF 29,590,424 $17,212,400.00
SPXU ProShares UltraPro Short S&P500 28,484,119 $753,821.00
LQD iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF 25,331,826 $35,583,900.00
GDX VanEck Gold Miners ETF 24,177,615 $11,621,400.00
SPXS Direxion Daily S&P 500 Bear 3X Shares 23,327,895 $608,138.00
TNA Direxion Daily Small Cap Bull 3X Shares 23,234,430 $2,175,550.00
KWEB KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF 22,985,109 $5,082,160.00
PSQ ProShares Short QQQ 22,902,773 $690,449.00
EWZ iShares MSCI Brazil ETF 22,302,941 $5,668,580.00
UVXY ProShares Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures ETF 21,446,746 $289,604.00
SH ProShares Short S&P500 20,306,131 $1,228,120.00
BITO ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF 19,491,939 $1,787,540.00
QID ProShares UltraShort QQQ 19,196,459 $331,216.00
XLE Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund 19,112,359 $35,691,900.00
ARKK ARK Innovation ETF 18,414,771 $7,689,770.00
SLV iShares Silver Trust 16,615,488 $10,168,500.00
XLU Utilities Select Sector SPDR Fund 16,336,492 $13,369,900.00
TZA Direxion Daily Small Cap Bear 3X Shares 15,845,485 $437,672.00
EFA iShares MSCI EAFE ETF 15,799,195 $50,391,300.00
TSLL Direxion Daily TSLA Bull 1.5X Shares ETF 15,788,658 $686,532.00
KRE SPDR S&P Regional Banking ETF 14,981,798 $3,435,720.00
IEMG iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF 12,115,588 $72,302,800.00
IEF iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF 11,705,241 $28,221,600.00
XBI SPDR S&P Biotech ETF 11,677,183 $6,681,200.00
XLP Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR Fund 11,568,434 $15,135,700.00
VEA Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF 11,440,295 $121,287,000.00
GOVT iShares U.S. Treasury Bond ETF 10,407,688 $22,762,900.00
VWO Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF 10,281,127 $72,836,100.00
GBTC Grayscale Bitcoin Trust 9,722,444 $19,991,300.00
LABD Direxion Daily S&P Biotech Bear 3x Shares 9,677,430 $130,257.00
SPXL Direxion Daily S&P 500 Bull 3X Shares 9,518,881 $3,637,250.00
AGG iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF 9,447,993 $100,728,000.00
XLI Industrial Select Sector SPDR Fund 9,426,573 $15,746,400.00
FNGD MicroSectors FANG+™ Index -3X Inverse Leveraged ETN 9,366,616 $129,332.00
VXX iPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN 9,330,401 $279,579.00
BIL SPDR Bloomberg 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF 9,205,176 $33,642,600.00
XLV Health Care Select Sector SPDR Fund 8,610,376 $38,887,900.00
JDST Direxion Daily Junior Gold Miners Index Bear 2X Shares 8,493,185 $106,048.00
BKLN Invesco Senior Loan ETF 8,362,794 $6,549,930.00
IEFA iShares Core MSCI EAFE ETF 8,308,203 $105,934,000.00
VCIT Vanguard Intermediate-Term Corporate Bond ETF 8,296,965 $46,735,300.00
BOIL ProShares Ultra Bloomberg Natural Gas 8,009,024 $625,882.00
SDOW ProShares UltraPro Short Dow30 7,948,014 $416,703.00
SMH VanEck Semiconductor ETF 7,903,729 $13,589,500.00
GDXJ VanEck Junior Gold Miners ETF 7,763,197 $3,865,350.00
TMF Direxion Daily 20+ Year Treasury Bull 3X Shares 7,686,086 $4,289,270.00
BND Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF 7,436,664 $104,747,000.00
IYR iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF 7,317,760 $4,247,200.00
JNK SPDR Bloomberg High Yield Bond ETF 7,159,660 $8,984,410.00
SDS ProShares UltraShort S&P500 7,142,709 $710,005.00
VTEB Vanguard Tax-Exempt Bond ETF 7,054,854 $31,574,500.00
GLD SPDR Gold Shares 7,051,563 $55,683,600.00
XLK Technology Select Sector SPDR Fund 7,045,524 $62,618,000.00
UPRO ProShares UltraPro S&P500 7,024,930 $3,031,330.00
RSP Invesco S&P 500® Equal Weight ETF 7,022,667 $48,806,900.00
XRT SPDR S&P Retail ETF 7,021,217 $490,736.00
YINN Direxion Daily FTSE China Bull 3X Shares 6,771,660 $883,886.00
EWJ iShares MSCI Japan ETF 6,711,451 $14,955,800.00
EMB iShares J.P. Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF 6,678,176 $14,964,600.00
SPDN Direxion Daily S&P 500 Bear 1x Shares 6,653,697 $189,644.00
UNG United States Natural Gas Fund LP 6,572,206 $763,205.00
XLRE Real Estate Select Sector SPDR Fund 6,390,133 $5,789,150.00
SPLG SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 ETF 6,337,378 $27,614,600.00
XLC Communication Services Select Sector SPDR Fund 5,998,735 $17,030,200.00
MSOS AdvisorShares Pure US Cannabis ETF 5,980,501 $852,965.00
JETS U.S. Global Jets ETF 5,865,365 $1,349,500.00
TECS Direxion Daily Technology Bear 3X Shares 5,672,156 $106,025.00
USHY iShares Broad USD High Yield Corporate Bond ETF 5,640,495 $11,925,100.00
SHY iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF 5,607,439 $25,532,100.00
PDBC Invesco Optimum Yield Diversified Commodity Strategy No K-1 ETF 5,563,979 $4,686,620.00
XLB Materials Select Sector SPDR Fund 5,531,743 $5,484,100.00
IAU iShares Gold Trust 5,478,773 $25,706,000.00
XLY Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR Fund 5,285,689 $18,397,000.00
VNQ Vanguard Real Estate ETF 5,206,551 $32,569,500.00
IVV iShares Core S&P 500 ETF 5,172,862 $420,084,000.00
IJR iShares Core S&P Small-Cap ETF 5,148,125 $76,473,900.00
USFR WisdomTree Floating Rate Treasury Fund 5,120,705 $17,262,600.00
MUB iShares National Muni Bond ETF 5,084,906 $36,789,000.00
SPIB SPDR Portfolio Intermediate Term Corporate Bond ETF 5,018,519 $7,894,450.00
PGX Invesco Preferred ETF 5,010,786 $4,498,580.00
MCHI iShares MSCI China ETF 4,981,089 $5,225,950.00
USO United States Oil Fund LP 4,909,249 $1,397,460.00
VOO Vanguard S&P 500 ETF 4,904,949 $391,298,000.00
PFF iShares Preferred & Income Securities ETF 4,833,887 $14,078,700.00
VCSH Vanguard Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF 4,794,592 $36,286,300.00
SPTL SPDR Portfolio Long Term Treasury ETF 4,787,992 $8,164,580.00
TSLY YieldMax TSLA Option Income Strategy ETF 4,678,188 $738,208.00
ACWI iShares MSCI ACWI ETF 4,671,857 $18,681,000.00
SJNK SPDR Bloomberg Short Term High Yield Bond ETF 4,398,557 $4,243,360.00

Let's discuss the pros and cons, and a full explanation of the Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).

What Is an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)?

An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a type of pooled investment security that operates much like a mutual fund. Typically, ETFs track or seek to outperform a particular index, sector, commodity, or other asset. ETFs differ from mutual funds in that orders are executed throughout a trading day, whereas mutual fund orders can only be executed after market hours. This means that you can place a buy or sell order with your broker during trading hours, and it will execute it. A mutual fund order placed during the day will be executed after the market closes.

An ETF can be structured to track anything from the price of an individual commodity to a large and diverse collection of securities. ETFs can even be designed to track specific investment strategies.

The first ETF was the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), which tracks the S&P 500 Index. It remains a popular ETF with traders and investors today.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a basket of securities that trades on an exchange just like a stock does.
  • ETF share prices fluctuate all day as the ETF is bought and sold; this is different from mutual funds, which only trade once a day after the market closes.
  • ETFs can contain all types of investments, including stocks, commodities, or bonds; some offer U.S.-only holdings, while others are international.
  • ETFs offer low expense ratios and fewer broker commissions than buying the stocks individually.

Understanding Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

Like a mutual fund, an ETF must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Once it is approved, the fund becomes an investment company. The company buys and holds the assets outlined in its filing and securitizes them to sell to investors.

The fund sells shares at whatever cost it determines is best—most are designed to be very affordable. For example, Vanguard's Consumer Staples ETF (VDC) tracks the MSCI US Investable Market Consumer Staples 25/50 Index and has a minimum investment of $1.00. The fund holds shares of all 104 companies on the index, some familiar to most because they produce or sell consumer items. A few of the companies held by VDC are Proctor & Gamble, Costco, Coca-Cola, Walmart, and PepsiCo.

If you were to invest $1.00 in VDC, you would own $1.00 worth of a security representing 104 companies. There is no transfer of ownership when you purchase this security because you're buying a share of the fund, which owns the shares of the underlying companies.

In the United States, most ETFs are set up as open-ended funds and are subject to the Investment Company Act of 1940, except where subsequent rules have modified their regulatory requirements. Open-end funds do not limit the number of investors involved in the product.

Types of ETFs

Various types of ETFs are available to investors that can be used for income generation, speculation, and price increases, and to hedge or partly offset risk in an investor’s portfolio. Here is a brief description of some of the ETFs available on the market today.

Passive and Active ETFs

ETFs are generally characterized as either passive or actively managed. Passive ETFs aim to replicate the performance of a broader index—either a diversified index such as the S&P 500 or a more specific targeted sector or trend. An example of the latter category is gold mining stocks: as of January 2024, there are approximately nine ETFs that focus on companies engaged in gold mining, excluding inverse, leveraged, and funds with low assets under management (AUM).

Actively managed ETFs typically do not target an index of securities, but rather have portfolio managers making decisions about which securities to include in the portfolio. These funds have benefits over passive ETFs but tend to be more expensive to investors. Actively managed ETFs are explored more below.

Bond ETFs

Bond ETFs are used to provide regular income to investors. Their income distribution depends on the performance of underlying bonds. They might include government, corporate, and state and local bonds, usually called municipal bonds (or munis). Unlike their underlying instruments, bond ETFs do not have a maturity date. They generally trade at a premium (higher) or discount (lower) from the actual bond price.

Additionally, ETFs tend to be more cost-effective and more liquid compared to mutual funds.

Stock ETFs

Stock (equity) ETFs are composed of a basket of stocks that track a single industry or sector. For example, a stock ETF might track automotive or foreign stocks. The aim is to provide diversified exposure to a single industry, one that includes high performers and new entrants with growth potential. Unlike stock mutual funds, stock ETFs have lower fees and do not involve actual ownership of securities.

Industry/Sector ETFs

Industry or sector ETFs are funds that focus on a specific sector or industry. For example, an energy sector ETF will include companies operating in that sector. The idea behind industry ETFs is to gain exposure to that industry by tracking the performance of companies operating in that sector.

One example is the technology sector, which includes companies like Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Taiwan Semiconductor, Cisco, and many others involved in chip manufacturing and software development, to name a few activities. For instance, Blackrock's iShares U.S. Technology ETF (IYW) mirrors the performance of the Russell 1000 Technology RIC 22.5/45 Capped Index and holds 1374 stocks of technology sector companies.

At the same time, the downside of volatile stock performance is also curtailed in an ETF because they do not involve direct ownership of securities. Industry ETFs are also used to rotate in and out of sectors during economic cycles.

Commodity ETFs

As their name indicates, commodity ETFs invest in commodities, including crude oil or gold. Commodity ETFs can diversify a portfolio, making it easier to hedge market downturns. For example, commodity ETFs can provide a cushion during a slump in the stock market.

Holding shares in a commodity ETF is cheaper than physical possession of the commodity. This is because the former does not involve taking possession of commodities, insurance, and storage costs.

Currency ETFs

Currency ETFs are pooled investment vehicles that track the performance of currency pairs consisting of domestic and foreign currencies. Currency ETFs serve multiple purposes. They can be used to speculate on the prices of currencies based on political and economic developments in a country. They are also used to diversify a portfolio or as a hedge against volatility in forex markets by importers and exporters. Some of them are also used to hedge against the threat of inflation.

Bitcoin ETFs

Bitcoin ETFs come in two different forms as of January 2024. The spot bitcoin ETF is relatively new, having been approved by the SEC that month. These ETFs expose investors to bitcoin's price moves in their regular brokerage accounts by purchasing and holding bitcoins as the underlying asset and allowing them to buy shares of the fund.

Bitcoin futures ETFs, approved in 2021, also expose investors to crypto without needing to own the coins. They use futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and mimic the price movements of bitcoin futures contracts.

The SEC remains skeptical about the risk associated with crypto, but these ETFs bring some regulatory safeguards and make it much easier to take part in the crypto market.

Inverse ETFs

Inverse ETFs attempt to earn gains from stock declines by shorting stocks. Shorting is borrowing a stock, selling it while expecting a decline in value, and (hopefully) repurchasing it at a lower price. An inverse ETF uses derivatives to short a stock. Essentially, they are bets that the market will decline.

When the market declines, an inverse ETF increases by a proportionate amount. Investors should be aware that many inverse ETFs are exchange-traded notes (ETNs) and not true ETFs. An ETN is a bond that trades like a stock and is backed by an issuer such as a bank. Be sure to check with your broker to determine if an ETN is a good fit for your portfolio.

Leveraged ETFs

A leveraged ETF seeks to return some multiples (e.g., 2× or 3×) on the return of the underlying investments. For instance, if the S&P 500 rises 1%, a 2× leveraged S&P 500 ETF will return 2% (and if the index falls by 1%, the ETF would lose 2%). These products use debt and derivatives, such as options or futures contracts, to leverage their returns. There are also leveraged inverse ETFs, which seek an inverse multiplied return.

How to Buy ETFs

With an assortment of platforms available to traders, investing in ETFs has become relatively easy. Follow the steps outlined below to begin investing in ETFs.

Find an Investing Platform

ETFs are available on most online investing platforms, retirement account provider sites, and investing apps like Robinhood. Most of these platforms offer commission-free trading, meaning that you don’t have to pay fees to the platform providers to buy or sell ETFs.

However, a commission-free purchase or sale does not mean that the ETF provider will also provide access to their product without associated costs. Some areas where platform services can distinguish their services from others are convenience, services, and product variety.

For example, some smartphone investing apps enable ETF share purchasing at the tap of a button. Well-known brokerages offer extensive educational content that helps new investors become familiar with and research ETFs.

Research ETFs

The second and most important step in ETF investing involves research. There is a wide variety of ETFs available in the markets today. You will need to consider the whole picture—in terms of sector or industry—when you commit to an ETF. Here are some questions you might want to consider during the research process:

  • What is your time frame for investing?
  • Are you investing for income or growth?
  • Are there particular sectors or financial instruments that excite you?

Consider a Trading Strategy

If you are a beginning investor in ETFs, dollar-cost averaging or spreading out your investment costs over a period of time is a good trading strategy. This is because it smooths out returns over a period of time and ensures a disciplined (as opposed to a haphazard or volatile) approach to investing.

It also helps beginning investors learn more about the nuances of ETF investing. When they become more comfortable with trading, investors can move out to more sophisticated strategies like swing trading and sector rotation.

Online Brokers vs. Traditional Brokers

ETFs trade through both online brokers and traditional broker-dealers. Many sources provide pre-screened brokers in the ETF industry, making it easier to choose your broker. You can also typically purchase ETFs in your retirement account. One alternative to standard brokers is a robo-advisor like Betterment and Wealthfront, which make extensive use of ETFs in their investment products.

A brokerage account allows investors to trade shares of ETFs just as they would trade shares of stocks. Hands-on investors may opt for a traditional brokerage account, while investors looking to take a more passive approach may opt for a robo-advisor. Robo-advisors often include ETFs in their portfolios, although the choice of whether to focus on ETFs or individual stocks may not be up to the investor.

What to Look for in an ETF

After creating a brokerage account, investors will need to fund that account before investing in ETFs. How you fund your brokerage account depends on the broker. After funding your account, you can search for ETFs and make your chosen buys and sells. One of the best ways to narrow your ETF options is to utilize an ETF screening tool—many brokers offer these as a way to sort through the thousands of ETF offerings. You can typically search for ETFs according to some of the following criteria:

  • Volume: Trading volume over a particular period of time allows you to compare the popularity of different funds; the higher the trading volume, the easier it may be to trade that fund.
  • Expenses: The lower the expense ratio, the less of your investment that is given over to administrative costs. While it may be tempting to always search for funds with the lowest expense ratios, sometimes costlier funds (such as actively managed ETFs) have strong enough performance that it more than makes up for the higher fees.
  • Performance: While past performance is not an indication of future returns, this is nonetheless a common metric for comparing ETFs.
  • Holdings: The portfolios of different funds often factor into screener tools as well, allowing customers to compare the different holdings of each possible ETF investment.
  • Commissions: Many ETFs are commission-free, meaning that they can be traded without any fees to complete the trade. However, it is worth checking if this is a potential dealbreaker.

Examples of Popular ETFs

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

  • SPDR S&P 500 (SPY): The oldest surviving and most widely known ETF that tracks the S&P 500 Index.
  • iShares Russell 2000 (IWM): An ETF that tracks the Russell 2000 small-cap index.
  • Invesco QQQ (QQQ) (“cubes”): An ETF that tracks the Nasdaq 100 Index, which typically contains technology stocks.
  • SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIA) (“diamonds”): An ETF that represents the 30 stocks of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
  • Sector ETFs: ETFs that track individual industries and sectors such as oil (OIH), energy (XLE), financial services (XLF), real estate investment trusts (IYR), and biotechnology (BBH).
  • Commodity ETFs: These ETFs represent commodity markets, including gold (GLD), silver (SLV), crude oil (USO), and natural gas (UNG).
  • Country ETFs: Funds that track the primary stock indexes in foreign countries, but they are traded in the United States and denominated in U.S. dollars. Examples include China (MCHI), Brazil (EWZ), Japan (EWJ), and Israel (EIS). Others track a wide breadth of foreign markets, such as ones that track emerging market economies (EEM) and developed market economies (EFA).

Advantages and Disadvantages of ETFs

ETFs provide lower average costs because it would be expensive for an investor to buy all the stocks held in an ETF portfolio individually. Investors only need to execute one transaction to buy and one transaction to sell, which leads to fewer broker commissions because only a few trades are being done by investors.

Brokers typically charge a commission for each trade. Some brokers even offer no-commission trading on certain low-cost ETFs, further reducing costs for investors.

An ETF’s expense ratio is the cost to operate and manage the fund. ETFs typically have low expenses because they track an index—this means there is only turnover within the fund when a company is removed from an index. For example, if an ETF tracks the S&P 500 Index, it might contain all 500 stocks from the S&P, making it a passively managed fund that is less time-intensive to manage. However, not all ETFs track an index in a passive manner; those that are actively managed may have higher expense ratios.

Pros

  • 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

Cons

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

Actively Managed ETFs

There are also actively managed ETFs, wherein portfolio managers are more involved in buying and selling shares of companies and changing the holdings within the fund. Typically, a more actively managed fund will have a higher expense ratio than passively managed ETFs.

To make sure that an ETF is worth holding, it is important that investors determine how the fund is managed, whether it’s actively or passively managed, the resulting expense ratio, and the costs vs. the rate of return.

Special Considerations

Indexed-Stock ETFs

Not all indexed-stock ETFs are equally diversified. Some may contain a heavy concentration in one industry, a small group of stocks, or assets that are highly correlated to each other. This might adversely affect your diversification strategy or returns. For example, if a sector or industry that you're more invested in takes a downturn, the rest of your portfolio might not be able to provide a buffer against losses.

Dividends and ETFs

Though ETFs allow investors to gain as stock prices rise and fall, they also benefit from companies that pay dividends. Dividends are a portion of earnings allocated or paid by companies to investors for holding their stock. ETF shareholders are entitled to a proportion of the profits, such as earned interest or dividends paid, and may get 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 occur through an exchange, and 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. In the case of a mutual fund, each time an investor sells their shares, they sell it back to the fund and incur a tax liability that must be paid by the shareholders of the fund.

ETFs’ Market Impact

Because ETFs have become increasingly popular with investors, there are many available. The result of too many ETFs on the market is that some will have lower trading volumes than others. If you're invested in an ETF with a lower trading volume, you may not as easily buy and sell shares as you would in one with a higher volume.

Concerns have surfaced about the influence of ETFs on the market and whether demand for these funds can inflate stock values and create fragile bubbles. Some ETFs rely on portfolio models that are untested in different market conditions and can lead to extreme inflows and outflows from the funds, which have a negative impact on market stability.

Since the financial crisis, ETFs have played major roles in market flash crashes and instability. Problems with ETFs were significant factors in the flash crashes and market declines in May 2010, August 2015, and February 2018.

ETF Creation and Redemption

The supply of ETF shares is regulated through a mechanism known as creation and redemption, which involves large specialized investors called authorized participants (APs).

ETF Creation

When an ETF wants to issue additional shares, the AP buys shares of the stocks from the index—such as the S&P 500 tracked by the fund—and sells or exchanges them to the ETF for new ETF shares at an equal value. In turn, the AP sells the ETF shares in the market for a profit. When an AP sells stocks to the ETF sponsor in return for shares in the ETF, the block of shares used in the transaction is called a creation unit.

Creation When Shares Trade at a Premium

Imagine an ETF that invests in the stocks of the S&P 500 and has a share price of $101 at the close of the market. If the value of the stocks that the ETF owns was only worth $100 on a per-share basis, then the fund’s price of $101 was trading at a premium to the fund’s net asset value (NAV). The NAV is an accounting mechanism that determines the overall value of the assets or stocks in an ETF.

An AP is incentivized to bring the ETF share price back into equilibrium with the fund’s NAV. To do this, the AP will buy shares of the stocks that the ETF wants to hold in its portfolio from the market and sell them to the fund in return for shares of the ETF.

In this example, the AP is buying stock on the open market worth $100 per share but getting shares of the ETF that are trading on the open market for $101 per share. This process is called creation and increases the number of ETF shares on the market. Assuming everything else remains the same, increasing the number of shares available on the market will reduce the price of the ETF and bring shares in line with the NAV of the fund.

ETF Redemption

Conversely, an AP also buys shares of the ETF on the open market. The AP then sells these shares back to the ETF sponsor in exchange for individual stock shares that the AP can sell on the open market. As a result, the number of ETF shares is reduced through the process called redemption.

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

Redemption When Shares Trade at a Discount

Imagine an ETF that holds the stocks in the Russell 2000 small-cap index and is currently trading for $99 per share. If the value of the stocks that the ETF holds in the fund is $100 per share, then the ETF is trading at a discount to its NAV.

To bring the ETF’s share price back to its NAV, an AP will buy shares of the ETF on the open market and sell them back to the ETF in return for shares of the underlying stock portfolio. In this example, the AP is able to buy ownership of $100 worth of stock in exchange for ETF shares that it bought for $99. This process, called redemption, decreases the supply of ETF shares on the market. Ceterus paribus (all else remaining the same), when the supply of ETF shares is decreased, the price should rise and get closer to its NAV.

ETFs vs. Mutual Funds vs. Stocks

Comparing features for ETFs, mutual funds, and stocks can be a challenge in a world of ever-changing broker fees and policies. Most stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds can be bought and sold without a commission. Funds and ETFs differ from stocks because of the management fees that most of them carry, though they have been trending lower for many years. In general, ETFs tend to have lower average fees than mutual funds. Here is a comparison of other similarities and differences.

Evaluating ETFs

The ETF space has grown at a tremendous pace in recent years, reaching $10 trillion in invested assets in 2022. The dramatic increase in options available to ETF investors has complicated the process of evaluating which funds may be best for you. Below are a few considerations you may wish to keep in mind when comparing ETFs.

Expenses

The expense ratio of an ETF reflects how much you will pay toward the fund's operation and management. Although passive funds tend to have lower expense ratios than actively managed ETFs, there is still a wide range of expense ratios even within these categories. Comparing expense ratios is a key consideration in the overall investment potential of an ETF.

Diversification

Nearly all ETFs provide diversification benefits relative to an individual stock purchase. Still, some ETFs are highly concentrated—either in the number of different securities they hold or in the weighting of those securities. For example, a fund that concentrates half of its assets in two or three positions may offer less diversification than a fund with fewer total portfolio constituents but broader asset distribution.

Liquidity

ETFs with very low AUM or low daily trading averages tend to incur higher trading costs due to liquidity barriers. This is an important factor to consider when comparing funds that may otherwise be similar in strategy or portfolio content.

Buying ETFs in the UK

The U.K. ETF market is one of the largest and most diverse in Europe, with more than 2,500 ETFs listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) that offer exposure to various asset classes and markets, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, real estate, and alternative investments.

One of the main advantages of buying ETFs in the U.K. is that they are eligible for inclusion in Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), which are tax-efficient savings vehicles that allow investors to invest up to £20,000 per year without paying any income or capital gains tax on their returns.

Another benefit is that ETFs attract no stamp duty, which is a tax levied on ordinary share transactions in the U.K.

As a U.K. investor, you can buy shares in U.S.-listed companies from the U.K., but due to local and European regulations, you're not allowed to purchase U.S.-listed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in the U.K.

But, there are U.K.-based ETFs that track U.S. markets, as long as it has the 'UCITS' moniker in the name. This means the fund is fully regulated in the U.K. and allowed to track U.S. investments.

For broad-based exposure to U.K. equities, there are several UCITS ETFs that track the FTSE 100 index, which consists of the 100 largest publicly listed companies in the country. For example, the HSBC FTSE UCITS ETF is listed on the London Stock Exchange and trades under the ticker symbol HUKX. The ETF has an ongoing charge of 0.07% and a dividend yield of 3.62% as of January 2024.

Other ETFs are available that track the FTSE All-Share index, which tracks all UK-based companies admitted to the main market of the London Stock Exchange, and the MSCI UK index, which tracks large and mid cap equity market performance of United Kingdom.

What Was the First Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)?

The distinction of being the first exchange-traded fund (ETF) is often given to the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) launched by State Street Global Advisors on Jan. 22, 1993. There were, however, some precursors to the SPY, notably securities called Index Participation Units listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) that tracked the Toronto 35 Index that appeared in 1990.

How Is an ETF Different From an Index Fund?

An index fund usually refers to a mutual fund that tracks an index. An index ETF is constructed in much the same way and will hold the stocks of an index, tracking it. However, the difference between an index fund and an ETF is that an ETF tends to be more cost-effective and liquid than an index mutual fund. You can also buy an ETF from a broker who will execute the trade throughout the trading day, while a mutual fund trades via a broker only at the close of each trading day.

How Do ETFs Work?

An ETF provider creates an ETF based on a particular methodology and sells shares of that fund to investors. The provider buys and sells the constituent securities of the ETF's portfolio. While investors do not own the underlying assets, they may still be eligible for dividend payments, reinvestments, and other benefits.

What Is an ETF Account?

In most cases, creating a special account to invest in ETFs is unnecessary. One of the primary draws of ETFs is that they are more liquid because they can be traded throughout the day and with the flexibility of stocks. For this reason, it is typically possible to invest in ETFs with a basic brokerage account.

What Does an ETF Cost?

It depends on the costs incurred by the fund in its daily operations. ETFs charge costs that are translated into an expense ratio, which is paid by investors. Many ETFs have expense ratios of less than 1.0%, like Blockrock's ETFs, the highest of which is the iShares India 50 ETF at 0.89%.

The Bottom Line

Exchange-traded funds represent a cost-effective way to gain exposure to a broad basket of securities with a limited budget. You can build a portfolio that holds one, many, or only ETFs. Instead of buying individual stocks, you can simply buy shares of a fund that targets a representative cross-section of the wider market. However, there are some additional expenses to keep in mind when investing in an ETF.