Exchange Traded Funds (ETF)

An exchange traded fund, or ETF, might best be described as a hybrid between a share of common stock and a mutual fund.  In fact, because of the way ETFs are structured, they present some interesting options to both the novice and seasoned investor.

Defining an Exchange Traded Fund

Generally, ETFs are portfolios of securities (just like a mutual fund) that are actively traded on a stock exchange (just like a share of common stock).  When first introduced, exchange traded funds attempted to duplicate a commonly-known, and well-respected, market index such as the NASDAQ 200 or the S&P 500.

Today, ETFs provide investors with a much wider selection of options including currency, precious metals such as gold or silver, commodities, as well as natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and other energy products.  Even with all this diversity, exchange traded funds share some common characteristics including:

  • They are listed on a stock exchange, and traded continuously.
  • They can trade at a discount, or premium, to the total value of all assets held within the ETF.
  • They are typically based on some well-known stock index, or are well-defined with respect to the allowable investments, which keeps turnover and other fund management costs low.

Benefits of Exchange Traded Funds

Since ETFs are traded like common stock, investors enjoy the flexibility an exchange has to offer.  For example, it's possible to invest in shares on margin, short sell shares, or take a long-term position.  Investors can buy and sell these securities just like common stock, through their broker, and shares in ETFs are traded throughout the exchange day.

Limiting Market Risk

Exchange traded funds also provide the investor with the ability to purchase a portfolio of stocks, thereby eliminating the risk associated with an individual stock.  They are also designed to be efficient because, just like a mutual fund index, they are not actively managed.  The portfolio is only adjusted, or balanced, so it contains the right mix of the index it is mirroring.

These funds do, in fact, enjoy a robust trading market.  The NASDAQ 100 tracks some of the fastest growing technology companies listed on that exchange.  There is a NASDAQ Index tracking stock, QQQ, which is one of the most actively traded funds of this kind in the world.  The latest statistics indicate that over 25 million shares of this fund are traded daily (as of July 2016).

To sum things up, exchange traded funds offer the benefits of a mutual fund index fund, but add the flexibility of stock trades.  This combination is quite attractive to investors.

Federal Income Taxes

According to SEC regulations, there is a small tax advantage ETFs have over mutual funds.  However, when purchasing shares for a non-taxable account, such as a 401(k) account or an IRA, this advantage does not apply.

For example, mutual funds in the United States are required to realize a capital gain that is not necessarily balanced by a loss.  This can happen as new shares of an open-ended mutual fund are created or destroyed through purchases and redemptions.  The fund managers are thereby forced to purchase and redeem shares of stocks that make up the fund on the open market.

The SEC requires all mutual funds to distribute capital gains to the fund's shareholders each quarter, which can have some undesirable capital gains tax implications on a federal income tax return.  Since ETFs are not redeemed by shareholders but exchanged on the open market, the only time capital gain taxes come into play is when that individual shareholder closes out their position.

Disadvantages of Exchange Traded Funds

Just like common stocks, investors need to pay brokerage commissions when ETF shares are traded.  Unlike most mutual funds, embedded fees may also apply, and these can eat into the return on investment.

For example, many funds sell at a bid - ask spread.  Which means an investor can purchase shares at $10.125, but selling is occurring at $10.000.  These funds don't always sell at the Net Asset Value (NAV) of the underlying portfolio, so trades could take place at prices above or below the value of the assets.  This is referred to as selling at a premium or discount.

Because of the commissions and underlying fees, a mutual fund index generally supplies superior returns to the investor.  Commissions will significantly impact the investor's total return if the strategy includes making small, monthly purchases.

Top ETFs on the Market Today

We're going to finish this publication on exchange traded funds by providing a list of some of the more common / popular funds on the market today, as determined by daily trading volumes.  These funds have been broken down into two categories:

  • U.S. Index-Based ETFs
  • Commodity-Based ETFs

The two tables below contain the fund names, stock ticker symbols, as well as the daily trading volume as of July 2016:

U.S. Index-Based ETFs

ETF Name Stock Ticker Trading Volume
SPDR® S&P 500 ETF SPY 126,131,600
iPath® S&P 500 VIX ST Futures™ ETN VXX 73,930,900
VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF GDX 73,188,530
iShares MSCI Emerging Markets EEM 67,680,810
Financial Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLF 48,231,510
iShares MSCI Japan EWJ 44,508,970
iShares Russell 2000 IWM 35,354,050
VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX ST ETN TVIX 35,166,460
PowerShares QQQ ETF QQQ 34,785,640
ProShares Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures UVXY 32,261,760

Commodity-Based ETFs

ETF Name Stock Ticker Trading Volume
United States Oil USO 34,334,370
SPDR® Gold Shares GLD 9,229,923
United States Natural Gas UNG 8,177,456
iShares Silver Trust SLV 7,771,228
iShares Gold Trust IAU 6,899,847
iPath® S&P GSCI® Crude Oil TR ETN OIL 3,704,428
PowerShares DB Commodity Tracking ETF DBC 2,339,760
VelocityShares 3x Long Natural Gas ETN UGAZ 2,197,214
VelocityShares 3x Inverse Crude Oil ETN DWTI 1,881,437
iShares North American Natural Resources IGE 1,234,155

 About the Author - Exchange Traded Funds (Last Reviewed on August 2, 2016)