In 2012, exchange-traded products are ubiquitous in the world of investing. The more than 1,400 products have accumulated billions of dollars, and are widely used by all types of investors, from individuals with relatively small accounts and simple strategies to sophisticated hedge funds managing billions. So it may be hard to believe that the ETF industry is still relatively young; most ETFs have been around for only a handful of years, and it wasn't that long ago that assets were less than $500 billion. Below is a whirlwind history of the ETF industry, starting with the launch of the first exchange-traded product :

January 1993: S&P 500 SPDR (SPY) Debuts

When the first ETF began trading, Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office, gas cost about a dollar a gallon, and the Red Sox were still a decade away from ending their World Series drought. SPY launched with relatively little fanfare, but in the nearly 20 years since has accumulated more than $100 billion in assets.

April 1995: Second ETF Debuts

Just the second man to walk on the moon (Buzz Aldrin) is not nearly as well known as Neil Armstrong, the second ETF launched doesn't stick in the mind of many investors. In the spring of 2004, State Street rolled out its MidCap SPDR (MDY), which seeks to replicate the performance of the S&P MidCap 400 Index. MDY remains quite popular; this fund has about $10 billion in assets, and an average daily volume of about two million shares.

March 1996: iShares Debuts International ETFs

The first iShares ETFs to debut included a suite of international equity ETFs targeting Australia (EWA), Canada (EWC), Sweden (EWD), Hong Kong (EWH), Germany (EWG), Italy (EWI), Japan (EWJ), Belgium (EWK), Switzerland (EWL), Malaysia (EWM), the Netherlands (EWN), Austria (EWO), Spain (EWP), France (EWQ), Singapore (EWS), the United Kingdom (EWU), and Mexico (EWW).

December 1998: Sector SPDRs Debut

Today there are ETFs that deliver access to extremely narrow sub-sectors of the U.S. economy, including smartphones, platinum miners, and social media (SOCL). The first step on the road to this level of sector granularity was taken in late 1998, when a lineup of products targeting the major sectors of the U.S. economy debuted. The Sector SPDRs are pretty straightforward; they split up the S&P 500 by sector.

July 2002: Bond ETFs Debut

Bond ETFs have become tremendously popular in recent years, so it may be hard to believe that these products were born only a decade ago. iShares launched its first four bond ETFs IEF, LQD, SHY, and TLT in the summer of 2002.

LQD remains the largest bond ETF to this day, with about $24 billion in assets. TIP, which launched in December 2003, comes in second with about $23 billion.

November 2004: Gold SPDR (GLD) Launches

The first commodity ETF to debut was GLD, which offers exposure to physical gold bullion. Now the second largest ETF by assets, GLD didn't begin trading for more than a decade after the first ETF hit the market.

The second gold ETF, iShares IAU, debuted only a few months later in January 2005. In this case, the first mover advantage was significant. GLD currently has more than $70 billion in assets, while IAU has only $10 billion.

June 2006: ETNs Enter The Fray

In the middle of 2006 Barclays launched the first two exchange-traded notes: two products offering exposure to commodity futures contracts. The Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index ETN (DJP) and S&P GSCI Total Return Index ETN (GSP) both offer access to diversified baskets of commodity futures contracts, though the mix between the two varies quite a bit.

During the past several years, ETNs have seen their ups and downs. But they are undoubtedly quite popular; as of June 2012 there were more than 200 ETNs with aggregate assets of more than $16 billion.

November 2009: Schwab Debuts Commission Free ETFs

Charles Schwab was a latecomer to the ETF game, but made a splash with the debut of four funds that could be traded commission free within Schwab accounts. In the months that followed, other brokerages quickly followed suit: Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, Vanguard, and E*TRADE all now offer commission free ETF trading.

December 2010: ETF Assets Hit $1 Trillion Mark

In late 2010 the ETF industry hit an inevitable milestone of $1 trillion. Thanks in large part to a stock market rally since bottoming out in early 2009, the the ETF total surpassed $1 trillion and never looked back. Assets have since climbed further, approaching $1.2 trillion and showing no signs of slowing down.

Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.

Related Articles
  1. Stock Analysis

    Analyzing Altria's Return on Equity (ROE) (MO)

    Learn about Altria Group's return on equity (ROE) and analyze net profit margin, asset turnover and financial leverage to determine what is causing its high ROE.
  2. Investing Basics

    Building My Portfolio with BlackRock ETFs and Mutual Funds (ITOT, IXUS)

    Find out how to construct the ideal investment portfolio utilizing BlackRock's tools, resources and its popular low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
  3. Investing News

    Icahn's Bet on Cheniere Energy: Should You Follow?

    Investing legend Carl Icahn continues to lose money on Cheniere Energy, but he's increasing his stake. Should you follow his lead?
  4. Stock Analysis

    Analyzing Google's Return on Equity (ROE) (GOOGL)

    Learn about Alphabet's return on equity. How has its ROE changed over time, how does it compare to its peers and what factors are driving ROE for the company?
  5. Investing News

    Is Buffett's Bet on Oil Right for You? (XOM, PSX)

    Oil stocks are getting trounced, but Warren Buffett still likes one of them. Should you follow the leader?
  6. Investing

    3 Things About International Investing and Currency

    As world monetary policy continues to diverge rocking bottom on interest rates while the Fed raises them, expect currencies to continue their bumpy ride.
  7. Investing News

    Chipotle Served with Criminal Probe

    Chipotle's beat muted expectations and got a clear bill from the CDC, but it now appears that an investigation into its E.coli breakout has expanded.
  8. Stock Analysis

    Analyzing Sprint Corp's Return on Equity (ROE) (S)

    Learn about Sprint's return on equity. Find out why its ROE is negative and how asset turnover and financial leverage impact ROE relative to Sprint's peers.
  9. Stock Analysis

    Why Alphabet is the Best of the 'FANGs' for 2016

    Alphabet just impressed the street, but is it the best FANG stock?
  10. Budgeting

    Plated Review, Is It Worth It?

    Take a closer look at the ready-to-cook meal service, Plated, and learn how the company can help you take the hassle out of home cooking.
RELATED FAQS
  1. Should mutual funds be subject to more regulation?

    Mutual funds, when compared to other types of pooled investments such as hedge funds, have very strict regulations. In fact, ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Do ETFs pay capital gains?

    Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) can generate capital gains that are transferred to shareholders, typically once a year, triggering ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How do real estate hedge funds work?

    A hedge fund is a type of investment vehicle and business structure that aggregates capital from multiple investors and invests ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Are Vanguard ETFs commission-free?

    While some Vanguard exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are available commission-free from third-party brokers, a large portion ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Do Vanguard ETFs require a minimum investment?

    Vanguard completely waives any U.S. dollar minimum amounts to buy its exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and the minimum ETF investment ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Can mutual fund expense ratios be negative?

    Mutual fund expense ratios cannot be negative. An expense ratio is the sum total of all fees charged by an asset management ... Read Full Answer >>
COMPANIES IN THIS ARTICLE
Trading Center