An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is an investment fund traded on stock exchanges, much like stocks. An ETF holds assets such as stocks, commodities, or bonds and generally operates with an arbitrage mechanism designed to keep it trading close to its net asset value, although deviations can occasionally occur. Most ETFs track an index, such as a stock index or bond index. ETFs may be attractive as investments because of their low costs, tax efficiency, and stock-like features.
ETF distributors only buy or sell ETFs directly from or to authorized participants, which are large broker-dealers with whom they have entered into agreements—and then, only in creation units, which are large blocks of tens of thousands of ETF shares, usually exchanged in-kind with baskets of the underlying securities. Authorized participants may wish to invest in the ETF shares for the long term, but they usually act as market makers on the open market, using their ability to exchange creation units with their underlying securities to provide liquidity of the ETF shares and help ensure that their intraday market price approximates the net asset value of the underlying assets. Other investors, such as individuals using a retail broker, trade ETF shares on this secondary market.
ETFs 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 stock exchange through a broker-dealer. Unlike traditional mutual funds, ETFs do not sell or redeem their individual shares at net asset value (NAV). Instead, financial institutions purchase and redeem ETF shares directly from the ETF, but only in large blocks (such as 50,000 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.
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.
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 (TSE) in 1990. The shares, which tracked the TSE 35 and later the TSE 100 indices, 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.
on stocks, bonds, commodities, or currencies. 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. As of June 2012, in the United States, about 1200 index ETFs exist, with about 50 actively managed ETFs. Index ETF assets are about $1.2 trillion, compared with about $7 billion for actively managed ETFs. Some index ETFs, known as leveraged ETFs or inverse 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.
ETFs can also be sector funds. These can be broad sectors, like finance and technology, or specific niche areas, like green power. They can also be for one country or global. Critics have said that no one needs a sector fund. This point is not really specific to ETFs; the issues are the same as with mutual funds. The funds are popular since people can put their money into the latest fashionable trend, rather than investing in boring areas with no "cachet".
Commodity ETFs (CETFs or ETCs) invest in commodities, such as precious metals, agricultural products, or hydrocarbons. Among the first commodity ETFs were gold exchange-traded funds, which have been offered in a number of countries. The idea of a Gold ETF was first officially conceptualised by Benchmark Asset Management Company Private Ltd in India when they filed a proposal with the SEBI in May 2002. The first gold exchange-traded fund was Gold Bullion Securities launched on the ASX in 2003, and the first silver exchange-traded fund was iShares Silver Trust launched on the NYSE in 2006. As of November 2010 a commodity ETF, namely SPDR Gold Shares, was the second-largest ETF by market capitalization.
Commodity ETFs trade just like shares, are simple and efficient and provide exposure to an ever-increasing range of commodities and commodity indices, including energy, metals, softs and agriculture. However, it is important for an investor to realize that there are often other factors that affect the price of a commodity ETF that might not be immediately apparent. For example, buyers of an oil ETF such as USO might think that as long as oil goes up, they will profit roughly linearly. What isn't clear to the novice investor is the method by which these funds gain exposure to their underlying commodities. In the case of many commodity funds, they simply roll so-called front-month futures contracts from month to month. This does give exposure to the commodity, but subjects the investor to risks involved in different prices along the term structure, such as a high cost to roll.
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 as daily reports of the ETF's holdings reveals its manager's trading strategy. The initial actively managed equity ETFs addressed this problem by trading only weekly or monthly. Actively managed debt ETFs, which are less susceptible to front-running, trade their holdings more frequently.