Since their introduction in 1993, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have exploded in popularity with investors looking for alternatives to mutual funds. Both institutions and individuals could see the benefit of these instruments—a basket of assets designed to track an index—that offered low management fees and higher intraday price visibility. But of course, no investment is perfect, and ETFs have their downsides (low dividends, large bid-ask spreads) too. Identifying the advantages and disadvantages of ETFs can help investors navigate the risks and rewards, and decide whether these securities, now a quarter-century old, make sense for their portfolios.
Advantages of ETFs
There are numerous advantages to ETFs, especially when compared to their mutual fund cousins.
One ETF can give exposure to a group of equities, market segments, or styles. An ETF can track a broader range of stocks, or even attempt to mimic the returns of a country or a group of countries.
Trades Like a Stock
Although the ETF might give the holder the benefits of diversification, it has the trading liquidity of equity. In particular:
- ETFs can be purchased on margin and sold short.
- ETFs trade at a price that is updated throughout the day. An open-ended mutual fund, on the other hand, is priced at the end of the day at the net asset value.
- ETFs also allow you to manage risk by trading futures and options just like a stock.
Because ETFs trade like a stock, you can quickly look up the approximate daily price change using its ticker symbol and compare it to its indexed sector or commodity. Many stock websites also have better interfaces for manipulating charts than commodity websites, and even provide applications for your mobile devices.
ETFs, which are passively managed, have much lower expense ratios compared to actively managed funds, which mutual funds tend to be. What drives up a mutual fund's expense ratio? Costs such as a management fee, shareholder accounting expenses at the fund level, service fees like marketing, paying a board of directors, and load fees for sale and distribution.
Immediately Reinvested Dividends
The dividends of the companies in an open-ended ETF are reinvested immediately, whereas the exact timing for reinvestment can vary for index mutual funds. (One exception: Dividends in unit investment trust ETFs are not automatically reinvested, thus creating a dividend drag.)
Limited Capital Gains Tax
ETFs can be more tax-efficient than mutual funds. As passively managed portfolios, ETFs (and index funds) tend to realize fewer capital gains than actively managed mutual funds. Also, when an ETF buys or sells shares, it's considered an in-kind redemption and does not result in a tax charge.
Mutual funds, on the other hand, are required to distribute capital gains to shareholders if the manager sells securities for a profit. This distribution amount is made according to the proportion of the holders' investment and is taxable. If other mutual fund holders sell before the date of record, the remaining holders divide up the capital gain and thus pay taxes even if the fund overall went down in value.
Lower Discount or Premium in Price
There is a lower chance of ETF share prices being higher or lower than their actual value. ETFs trade throughout the day at a price close to the price of the underlying securities, so if the price is significantly higher or lower than the net asset value, arbitrage will bring the price back in line. Unlike closed-end index funds, ETFs trade based on supply and demand and market makers will capture price discrepancy profits.
Disadvantages of ETFs
While the pros are many, ETFs carry drawbacks too. Among them:
For some sectors or foreign stocks, investors might be limited to large-cap stocks due to a narrow group of equities in the market index. A lack of exposure to mid- and small-cap companies could leave potential growth opportunities out of the reach of ETF investors.
Intraday Pricing Might Be Overkill
Longer-term investors could have a time horizon of 10 to 15 years, so they may not benefit from the intraday pricing changes. Some investors may trade more due to these lagged swings in hourly price. A high swing over a couple hours could induce a trade where pricing at the end of the day could keep irrational fears from distorting an investment objective.
Costs Could Be Higher
Most people compare trading ETFs with trading other funds, but if you compare ETFs to investing in a specific stock, then the costs are higher. The actual commission paid to the broker might be the same, but there is no management fee for a stock. Also, as more niche ETFs are created, they are more likely to follow a low-volume index. This could result in a high bid/ask spread. You might find a better price investing in the actual stocks.
Lower Dividend Yields
There are dividend-paying ETFs, but the yields may not be as high as owning a high-yielding stock or group of stocks. The risks associated with owning ETFs are usually lower, but if an investor can take on the risk, then the dividend yields of stocks can be much higher. While you can pick the stock with the highest dividend yield, ETFs track a broader market, so the overall yield will average out to be lower.
Leveraged ETF Returns Skewed
A leveraged ETF is a fund that uses financial derivatives and debt to amplify the returns of an underlying index. Certain double or triple leveraged ETFs can lose more than double or triple the tracked index. These types of speculative investments need to be carefully evaluated. If the ETF is held for a long time, the actual loss could multiply fast.
For instance, if you own a double leverage natural gas ETF, a 1% change in the price of natural gas should result in a 2% change in the ETF on a daily basis. However, if a leveraged ETF is held for greater than one day, the overall return from the ETF will vary significantly from the overall return on the underlying security.
|Period||Double Leveraged ETF ($)||ETF % Change||Natural Gas Price ($)||Nat. Gas % Change|
|Total % Change||-2.28%||0.00%|
A double-leveraged ETF does not always mean you will see double the return of the index. And the ease of investing in leveraged ETFs could entice individuals with little experience or understanding of the investment vehicle.
The Bottom Line
ETFs are used by a wide variety of investors to build a portfolio or gain exposure to specific sectors. They are like stocks in the way they trade but can also be compared to more broad investments, or even entire indexes, in their price movements. They have many advantages, especially compared to other managed funds such as mutual funds.
But there are also disadvantages to watch out for before placing an order to purchase an ETF. When it comes to diversification and dividends, the options may be more limited. And vehicles like ETFs that live by an index can also die by an index—with no nimble manager to shield performance from a downward move. Finally, the tax implications associated with ETFs (as with any investment) need to be considered when deciding if they are for you.