An ETF combines the valuation feature of a mutual fund or unit investment trust, which can be purchased or redeemed at the end of each trading day for its net asset value, with the tradability feature of a closed-end fund, which trades throughout the trading day at prices that may be substantially more or less than its net asset value. Closed-end funds are not considered to be exchange-traded funds, even though they are funds and are traded on an exchange. ETFs have been available in the US since 1993 and in Europe since 1999. ETFs traditionally have been index funds, but in 2008 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began to authorize the creation of actively-managed ETFs.
Most investors can buy and sell ETF shares only in market transactions, but institutional investors can redeem large blocks of shares of the ETF (known as "creation units") for a "basket" of the underlying assets or, alternatively, exchange the underlying assets for creation units. This creation and redemption of shares enables institutions to engage in arbitrage that causes the value of the ETF to approximate the net asset value of the underlying assets.
ETFs offer public investors an undivided interest in a pool of securities and other assets and thus are similar in many ways to traditional mutual funds, except that shares in an ETF can be bought and sold throughout the day like stocks on a securities exchange through a broker-dealer. Unlike traditional mutual funds, ETFs do not sell or redeem their individual shares at net asset value, or NAV. Instead, financial institutions purchase and redeem ETF shares directly from the ETF, but only in large blocks, varying in size by ETF from 25,000 to 200,000 shares, called "creation units." Purchases and redemptions of the creation units generally are in kind, with the institutional investor contributing or receiving a basket of securities of the same type and proportion held by the ETF, although some ETFs may require or permit a purchasing or redeeming shareholder to substitute cash for some or all of the securities in the basket of assets.
The ability to purchase and redeem creation units gives ETFs an arbitrage mechanism intended to minimize the potential deviation between the market price and the net asset value of ETF shares. Existing ETFs have transparent portfolios, so institutional investors will know exactly what portfolio assets they must assemble if they wish to purchase a creation unit, and the exchange disseminates the updated net asset value of the shares throughout the trading day, typically at 15-second intervals.
In the United States, most ETFs are structured as open-end management investment companies (the same structure used by mutual funds and money market funds), although a few ETFs, including some of the largest ones, are structured as unit investment trusts. ETFs structured as open-end funds have greater flexibility in constructing a portfolio and are not prohibited from participating in securities lending programs or from using futures and options in achieving their investment objectives. Under existing regulations, a new ETF must receive an order from the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, giving it relief from provisions of the Investment Company Act of 1940 that would not otherwise allow the ETF structure. In 2008, however, the SEC proposed rules that would allow the creation of ETFs without the need for exemptive orders. Under the SEC proposal, an ETF would be defined as a registered open-end management investment company that:
The SEC rule proposal would allow ETFs either to be index funds or to be fully transparent actively managed funds. Historically, all ETFs in the United States have been index funds. In 2008, however, the SEC began issuing exemptive orders to fully transparent actively managed ETFs. The first such order was to PowerShares Actively Managed Exchange-Traded Fund Trust, and the first actively managed ETF in the United States was the Bear Stearns Current Yield Fund, a short-term income fund that began trading on the American Stock Exchange under the symbol YYY on 25 March 2008. The SEC rule proposal indicates that the SEC is not suggesting that it will not consider future applications for exemptive orders for actively managed ETFs that do not satisfy the proposed rule's transparency requirements.
Some ETFs invest primarily in commodities or commodity-based instruments, such as crude oil and precious metals. Although these commodity ETFs are similar in practice to ETFs that invest in securities, they are not "investment companies" under the Investment Company Act of 1940.
Publicly traded grantor trusts, such as Merrill Lynch's HOLDRS securities, are sometimes considered to be ETFs, although they lack many of the characteristics of other ETFs. Investors in a grantor trust have a direct interest in the underlying basket of securities, which does not change except to reflect corporate actions such as stock splits and mergers. Funds of this type are not "investment companies" under the Investment Company Act of 1940.
A similar product, Toronto Index Participation Shares, started trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1990. The shares, which tracked the TSE 35 and later the TSE 100 stocks, proved to be popular. The popularity of these products led the American Stock Exchange to try to develop something that would satisfy SEC regulation in the United States.
Nathan Most, an executive with the exchange, developed Standard & Poor's Depositary Receipts which were introduced in January 1993. Known as SPDRs or "Spiders", the fund became the largest ETF in the world. Other U.S. ETFs quickly followed based on other broad market indexes.
Barclays Global Fund Advisors, a subsidiary of Barclays plc, entered the fray in 1996 with World Equity Benchmark Shares, or WEBS, subsequently renamed iShares MSCI Index Fund Shares. WEBS were particularly innovative because they gave casual investors easy access to foreign markets. While SPDRs were organized as unit investment trusts, WEBS were set up as a mutual fund, the first of their kind.
In 1998, State Street Global Advisors introduced the "Sector Spiders," which follow the nine sectors of the S&P 500.
Since then ETFs have proliferated, tailored to an increasingly specific array of regions, sectors, commodities, bonds, futures, and other asset classes. As of May 2008, there were 680 ETFs in the U.S., with $610 billion in assets, an increase of $125 billion over the previous twelve months.
Some of these advantages derive from the status of most ETFs as index funds.
Most ETFs are index funds that hold securities and attempt to replicate the performance of a stock market index. An index fund seeks to track the performance of an index by holding in its portfolio either the contents of the index or a representative sample of the securities in the index. Some index ETFs, known as leveraged ETFs or short ETFs, use investments in derivatives to seek a return that corresponds to a multiple of, or the inverse (opposite) of, the daily performance of the index. As of February 2008, index ETFs in the United States included 415 domestic equity ETFs, with assets of $350 billion; 160 global/international equity ETFs, with assets of $169 billion; and 53 bond ETFs, with assets of $40 billion.
Some index ETFs invest 100% of their assets proportionately in the securities underlying an index, a manner of investing called "replication." Other index ETFs use "representative sampling," investing 80% to 95% of their assets in the securities of an underlying index and investing the remaining 5% to 20% of their assets in other holdings, such as futures, option and swap contracts, and securities not in the underlying index, that the fund's adviser believes will help the ETF to achieve its investment objective. For index ETFs that invest in indexes with thousands of underlying securities, some index ETFs employ "aggressive sampling" and invest in only a tiny percentage of the underlying securities.
Commodity ETFs invest in commodities, such as precious metals and futures. Among the first commodity ETFs were gold exchange-traded funds, which have been offered in a number of countries. Commodity ETFs generally are index funds, but track non-securities indexes. Because they do not invest in securities, commodity ETFs are not regulated as investment companies under the Investment Company Act of 1940 in the United States, although their public offering is subject to SEC review and they need an SEC no-action letter under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. They may, however, be subject to regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Actively managed ETFs are quite recent and have been offered only since 25 March 2008 in the United States. The actively managed ETFs approved to date are fully transparent, publishing their current securities portfolios on their web sites daily. However, the SEC has indicated that it is willing to consider allowing actively managed ETFs that are not fully transparent in the future.
The fully transparent nature of existing ETFs means that an actively managed ETF is at risk from arbitrage activities by market participants who might choose to front-run its trades. The initial actively traded equity ETFs have addressed this problem by trading only weekly or monthly. Actively traded debt ETFs, which are less susceptible to front-running, trade their holdings more frequently.
The initial actively managed ETFs have received a lukewarm response and have been far less successful at gathering assets than were other novel ETFs. Among the reasons suggested for the initial lack of market interest are the steps required to avoid front-running, the time needed to build performance records, and the failure of actively managed ETFs to give investors new ways to make hard-to-place bets.
An exchange-traded grantor trust share represents a direct interest in a static basket of stocks selected from a particular industry. The leading example is Holding Company Depositary Receipts, or HOLDRS, a proprietary Merrill Lynch product. HOLDRS are neither index funds nor actively-managed; rather, the investor has a direct interest in specific underlying stocks. While HOLDRS have some qualities in common with ETFs, including low costs, low turnover, and tax efficiency, many observers consider HOLDRS to be a separate product from ETFs.
ETFs trade on an exchange. Each transaction is subject to a brokerage commission. Commissions depend on broker, with various "plans" and different conditions, so no simple rule can be given. A "typical" schedule (at least in the United States) is $10 or $20, increasing slowly, or not at all, for larger orders. What is clear, however, due to the quasi-flat charge, amount invested has a great bearing; someone who wishes to invest $100 per month may have 10% of their money vaporized immediately (which is ludicrous), while for someone making a $200K investment, commission may be, essentially, negligible. Generally, mutual funds obtained directly from the fund company itself do not charge a brokerage fee. Where low or no-cost transactions are available, ETFs become very competitive.
Most ETFs have a lower expense ratio than comparable mutual funds. Not only does an ETF have lower shareholder-related expenses but, because it does not have to invest cash contributions or fund cash redemptions, an ETF does not have to maintain a cash reserve for redemptions and saves on brokerage expenses. Mutual funds can charge 1% to 3%, or more; index funds are generally lower, while ETFs are almost always in the 0.1% to 1% range. Over the long term, these cost differences can compound into a noticeable difference.
ETFs are almost always compared to no-load funds, for the simple reason that, compared to loaded funds, there is no comparison. A person investing $100K in a load fund may have $5K disappear immediately, which is much higher than any conceivable brokerage commission.
Mutual funds may also charge for too short a holding period, which is nonexistent with ETFs. In fact, ETFs can be bought and sold in the same day, although it's not obvious that it's a good idea. This has made ETFs subject of some criticism, since low fees may cause investors to trade more quickly. In this view, traditional mutual funds are doing investors a favor by charging fees such as front loads.
ETFs are structured for tax efficiency and can be more attractive than mutual funds. In the U.S., whenever a mutual fund realizes a capital gain that is not balanced by a realized loss, the mutual fund must distribute the capital gains to its shareholders. This can happen whenever the mutual fund sells portfolio securities, whether to reallocate its investments or to fund shareholder redemptions. These gains are taxable to all shareholders, even those who reinvest the gains distributions in more shares of the fund. In contrast, ETFs are not redeemed by holders (instead, holders simply sell their ETF shares on the stock market, as they would a stock, or effect a non-taxable redemption of a creation unit for portfolio securities), so that investors generally only realize capital gains when they sell their own shares or when the ETF trades to reflect changes in the underlying index. In most cases, ETFs are more tax-efficient than conventional mutual funds in the same asset classes or categories.
For example, an investor in a mutual fund can only purchase or sell at the end of the day at the mutual fund's closing price. This makes stop-loss orders much less useful for mutual funds, and not all brokers even allow them. An ETF is continually priced throughout the day and therefore is not subject to this disadvantage, allowing the user to react to adverse or beneficial market condition on an intraday basis. This stock-like liquidity allows an investor to trade the ETF for cash throughout regular trading hours, and often after-hours on ECNs. ETF liquidity varies according to trading volume and liquidity of the underlying securities, but very liquid ETFs such as SPDRs can be traded pre-market and after-hours with reasonably tight spreads. These characteristics can be important for investors concerned with liquidity risk.
Another advantage is that ETFs, like closed-end funds, are immune from the market timing problems that have plagued open-end mutual funds. In these timing attacks, investors trade in and out of a mutual fund quickly, exploiting minor variances in price in order to profit at the expense of the long-term shareholders. With an ETF (or closed-end fund) such an operation is not possible—the underlying assets of the fund are not affected by its trading on the market.
Investors can profit from the difference in the share values of the underlying assets of the ETF and the trading price of the ETF's shares. ETF shares will trade at a premium to net asset value when demand is high and at a discount to net asset value when demand is low. In effect, the ETF is providing a system for arbitraging value in the market. As the initial costs are one-off, the ETF vehicle offers some cost advantages over other forms of pooled investment vehicles.
John C. Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group, a leading issuer of index funds (and, since Bogle's retirement, of ETFs), has argued that ETFs represent short-term speculation, that their trading expenses decrease returns to investors, and that most ETFs provide insufficient diversification. He concedes that a broadly diversified ETF that is held over time can be a good investment.
ETFs are dependent on the efficacy of the arbitrage mechanism in order for their share price to track net asset value. While the average deviation between the daily closing price and the daily NAV of ETFs that track domestic indexes is generally less than 2%, the deviations may be more significant for ETFs that track certain foreign indexes.
ETFs offer little or no advantage over index funds for tax-deferred, long-term, retirement investors, because such investors typically conduct little if any trading and tax issues are of little concern for them.
In a survey of investment professionals, the most frequently-cited disadvantage of ETFs was the unknown, untested indexes used by many ETFs, followed by the overwhelming number of choices.
Some critics claim that especially commodity ETFs can be used and are used for unhealthy price manipulations.