Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have been around only since the 1990s but their explosive popularity and the sheer range of them available have made some investors wonder whether they couldn't just create and manage their own exchange-traded fund.
One of the benefits of the ETF, after all, is its straightforward nature. There's no stockpicker pulling levers behind a curtain. Most funds mirror an index, sticking as closely as possible to the content and the weighting of the index in order to match its returns.
It's difficult but not impossible to launch an ETF. It takes seed money, and it takes skills and knowledge in finance, marketing, and financial regulation. You can even hire a company to help you create, launch and manage your ETF.
- Starting an exchange-traded fund requires significant startup capital and financial expertise.
- You can hire a firm to help create, market, and manage your fund.
- The startup costs include about $2.5 million to purchase shares of the assets in the fund in order to launch it.
- You can start small by creating a person ETF for yourself, even using fractional shares to seed the fund.
- Beginning investors may choose to invest in existing ETFs instead.
The first ETF was the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, which remains an actively traded ETF today.
Creating an ETF: Considerations
An investor who wants to create an ETF must have some strong views on what the makeup of a successful ETF should be. And if they expect to market the ETF to other investors, they must be able to communicate those views effectively.
An exchange-traded fund is an investment in a selection of stocks or other assets. Most track a particular index, like the S&P 500, but they also may be based upon a particular sector or commodity.
By definition, ETFs are not actively managed funds. There is no one deciding from day to day which stocks to add and which to remove from the fund. However, they still require significant time and attention from a manager to ensure that the fund components continue to match the
selection and weightings in the index that it tracks.
If you have cash in the six-figure range or more, and you're determined to start your own ETF, here are some considerations for designing your own ETF:
- Asset class: Will your ETF invest in stocks, bonds, or other types of assets? You can diversify the fund across asset classes, although that is not common.
- Market capitalization: What size companies will the ETF invest in? You can focus on large-, medium-, or small-cap companies, or diversify across market capitalization sizes. Focusing on large-cap stocks generally requires the most seed capital.
- Market sector: Will your ETF focus on a specific industry or invest across sectors? Consider focusing your fund on a market segment in which you have a strong interest and knowledge.
- Fees: What annual fee, known as the expense ratio, will you charge? Most investors understandably pay close attention to the fees they pay for their investments, and ETFs are known for their very low expense ratios compared to mutual funds and other investments.
An ETF manager, also known as a sponsor, designs, develops, and launches the fund. The same person may manage the fund from day to day or partner with another person or firm to do the work.
The ETF manager must submit a detailed plan for the fund to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for its approval. This is an onerous process, although the regulatory rules, which date from 1940, have been updated to reflect the existence of ETFs.
The real money is due when the ETF is actually created. The ETF manager must buy and deposit all of the assets listed in the ETF. The manager will then receive a number of shares in the ETF that equal the value of the shares deposited. These are called "creation units."
Most ETFs are index funds but the reverse is not true. Many index funds are mutual funds, which do not trade on the exchanges as ETFs do. Competition from ETFs has generally caused mutual fund fees to decline.
Platforms to Create Your ETF
Clearly, creating a successful ETF requires expertise in fund management, marketing, and regulatory compliance, among other specialties.
There are web-based services that promise to help you build, launch, and manage an ETF. Among them are ETF Managers Group, Exchange Traded Concepts, and Alpha Architects.
Few people have both the expertise and the cash to create, market, and manage an ETF. But given the resources available now to the individual investor, almost anyone can create an ETF-like personal portfolio. And, who knows? If your investment ideas pass the test of time your mock ETF may grow up to be a real exchange-traded fund.
You can establish a portfolio of stocks that mirrors an index, and then buy and sell those stocks to maintain the weighting of the stocks in the index. It requires time and effort but can be affordable if you use a commission-free trading platform like Robinhood or TD Ameritrade.
The Stock Slices Option
The notion of building a personal ETF becomes more affordable with the availability of stock "slices." Brokerages like Robinhood and even Fidelity and Charles Schwab now allow investors to buy fractional shares in companies.
This means that you can create your personal ETF with fractional shares of stocks, even if one or more of the stocks on your list have a formidable price per share.
Still, if you are like most investors, you probably would prefer to diversify your portfolio without being required to continuously buy and sell securities. If that's the case, then purchasing shares in an existing ETF is likely the most suitable choice.
Is It Possible to Create Your Own ETF?
There were 8,552 exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in 2021, compared to 276 in 2003. Proof that a good idea attracts imitations.
If you have the financial expertise and a stash of seed money, creating an ETF is within your reach. You can even pay a web-based company to guide you through the process and manage your fund for you.
The idea is beautiful in its simplicity: An ETF buys the same stocks that are listed in a selected market index, whether it's the S&P 500 or the FTSE China 50. It is not, therefore, an actively managed fund although it has to be rebalanced regularly in order to continue to reflect the weighting of the index it's based upon.
An ETF is similar to an index mutual fund, except that it can be traded during the day like a stock and its fees are generally lower. ETF fees average 0.52% compared to 1.42% for mutual funds.
How Do ETFs Get Created?
You could create the equivalent of an ETF on your own, by mimicking the holdings in an existing ETF. For example, the Dirextion NASDAQ-100 Equal-Weighted Index ETF (QQQE) mirrors the NASDAQ 100. The list of stocks that are tracked by the NASDAQ 100, and their relative weights in the index, are readily available online.
Opening your ETF up to other investors entails another level of complexity, including filing a registration application with the SEC. Help with this and the technical and marketing aspects of launching an ETF is available through a number of web-based companies.
The startup costs are not insignificant. An ETF sponsor must buy and deposit shares of all of the assets in the ETF, receiving in return an equivalent number of shares in the ETF.
Do ETFs Earn Dividends?
Many ETFs pay dividends. An ETF invests in all of the assets listed in a specific index. If those stocks, bonds, or other assets pay dividends, the ETF collects the dividends and passes them along to their shareholders.
How Much Does It Cost to Start an ETF?
As you might expect, creating an ETF doesn't come cheap. The website ETF.com breaks down expenses into a number of categories:
- $100,000 to $500,000 for SEC regulation costs. The lower end is for plain-vanilla funds that don't stray from the basic strategy of mimicking a single large-cap index.
- About $2.5 million to seed the ETF with initial purchases of assets.
- About $200,000 a year to run and properly oversee the fund.
- A fraction of the fund's value to list it on an exchange. This cost, of course, grows with the value of the fund.
Those are the basics, but they don't include costs like legal fees and marketing expenses, which can be significant.
The Bottom Line
Launching an ETF is possible for an individual investor but it takes deep pockets and a great deal of work. The popularity of these funds has led to creation of a number of services that help investors create, list, market, and manage ETFs.
Those who lack the resources can build a virtual ETF on their own, mimicking an index to create their own personal portfolios.