The Individual Investor's Guide to Exchange-Traded Funds: 2009
The dramatic growth in exchange-traded funds (ETFs) has come to an abrupt halt, although the fund industry did experience some growth over the last year.
Total assets have increased to $640 billion as of July 31, up 9.8% from last year’s $582 billion (excluding HOLDRS), according to the Investment Company Institute, an investment company trade organization. The assets include $258 billion in broad-based U.S. stock ETFs, $128 billion in U.S. sector stock ETFs, $166 billion in global and foreign stock ETFs, and $87 billion in bond ETFs.
Not surprisingly, most of the growth has occurred in the bond category, which saw an 85% increase in total assets over the course of a year. Broad-based stock ETFs actually saw a slight decrease in assets.
This year, AAII tracked over 750 exchange-traded funds (ETFs), including 104 new funds that started trading within the last year. However, for the first time since AAII started tracking ETFs, there were a significant number—58—that have closed.
Because of the large number of ETFs that now have long-term track records, this year’s printed version of the Guide to ETFs includes only ETFs that have over $100 million in net assets and have been in existence for over one year. We have also excluded leveraged and inverse ETFs from the printed version, since they are primarily designed for day traders. All funds, however, are included in the table here and in the downloadable spreadsheet.
Exchange-traded funds are portfolios of securities that are usually passively managed and that track an index, offering an alternative to traditional index mutual funds. Although they are similar to traditional mutual funds in that they consist of a portfolio of securities, ETFs are listed on an exchange and trade just like an individual stock. This provides them with trading flexibility that does not exist with traditional index funds.
The concept is not new. The first exchange-traded fund, the S&P 500-tracking SPDRs (“Spiders,” ticker symbol SPY), was introduced in 1993 and was an immediate hit.
ETFs: The Next Generation
The most notable development this year has been the continued introduction of a small number of ETFs that don’t track an index at all, but rather offer actively managed portfolios.
These funds have not attracted much investor interest, and whether this approach will catch on in any big way with investors is still an open question. But the doors have already been opened, and several more actively managed ETFs are on their way.
Building An ETF Portfolio
For guidance on portfolio building with ETFs, see these two articles:
A large number of this year’s new offerings are an expansion of ETFs with leverage—these ETFs provide investors with magnified exposure or magnified short exposure to various indexes.
However, the performance of these ETFs is highly complex, with most designed for day traders rather than long-term investors. This has prompted concern from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that many investors do not understand the tracking nature of these funds.
Most leveraged and inverse ETFs are designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. However, this can result in performance over longer periods of time that differs significantly from the performance (or inverse of the performance) of the underlying index over that same period of time—an effect that can be magnified in volatile markets. (For more on this, see this issue’s Briefly Noted article.)
The printed version of AAII’s Guide to ETFs does not include leveraged funds, but they do appear in the tables here and in the downloadable spreadsheet.
This year’s new ETF offerings also continue the trend toward covering every conceivable market niche—and then some.
Here is an overview of a couple of the more unusual new ETF types. Keep in mind, however, that while they may sound intriguing, many have yet to attract real investor interest, and have little or no trading volume.
In this year’s guide, new ETFs are listed in the tables here and in the downloadable spreadsheet, but not in the printed version.
Actively Managed ETFs
Actively managed ETFs have been widely anticipated for several years, as the first wave of applications awaited SEC approval.
Promoted as “the next generation of ETF,” they are supposed to bring to actively managed portfolios several of the advantages that index-based ETFs have over their mutual fund counterparts: more tax efficiency, trading flexibility and lower costs.
In addition, the funds’ portfolios must be designed to be transparent—this is, disclosed and readily available to the public so that market makers and traders can constantly know what’s in the portfolio. The theory is that this transparency will keep the ETF share price trading close to the fund’s net asset value (NAV) per share, eliminating (or keeping to a minimum) any premiums or discounts to NAV, a problem that plagues their cousins, the closed-end funds. Whether this theory will hold in the real world remains to be seen, since these kinds of funds have only recently started trading.
The Grail American Beacon Large Cap Value ETF is sponsored by Grail Advisors and is billed as the first ETF to use “traditional active management.” To date, other ETFs that are described as “active” typically use rules-based quantitative analysis to select securities and determine weightings to “enhance” a market index. In contrast, the Grail fund allows its portfolio managers unrestricted selection of securities.
Grail Advisors serves as the fund’s manager, and is sub-advised by American Beacon Advisors. Assets in the new ETF will be allocated among three noted investment managers: Brandywine Global Investment Management, Hotchkis and Wiley Capital Management, and Metropolitan West Capital Management. The fund’s expense ratio is 0.79%.
Grail Advisors intends to expand on its series of active exchange-traded funds later this year.
Asset Allocation ETFs
iShares has introduced the S&P Target Date series of ETFs designed to compete with life cycle mutual funds. These funds invest in iShare ETFs that cover a full range of asset classes (international stocks, U.S. stocks, fixed-income securities and real estate). The funds start with different exposures to the various asset categories, and gradually move along an allocation path that changes as the target retirement date approaches to eventually match the target date asset allocation.
Currently, ETFs cover almost every equity index imaginable. Fixed-income ETFs include short-, intermediate- and long-term Treasuries, corporate bonds, TIPS (Treasury inflation-protected securities), municipal bonds and international bonds.
AAII’s Guide to ETFs includes a listing of exchange-traded funds, along with information on how they work and where you can get more information on them.
The next segment “What You Need to Know About Exchange-Traded Funds,” describes ETFs in more detail.
The special features of fixed-income ETFs are discussed further in “What You Need to Know About Fixed-Income ETFs”.
Our listing of ETFs categorizes each one by the type of index it tracks for easier comparison of similar alternatives.
The printed version of our listing includes all ETFs that have over $100 million in net assets, and that have existed for over one year. The listing includes recent performance, expense ratios, net asset value and the index tracked.
Leveraged and inverse ETFs are included in the tables here and in the downloadable spreadsheet. Similarly, HOLDRS, which technically are not really exchange-traded funds, are included here in the table under the appropriate sector.
A full listing of on-line resources is available in the Hot Links column of this issue.
Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) offer many of the advantages of a traditional index fund. Because they are composed of a basket of securities that track a particular index, ETFs provide diversification within the sector of the index that they track.
And because ETFs now cover almost every sector of the equity markets, they offer an easy and low-cost way to adjust the asset allocation of any portfolio.
How They Work
An exchange-traded fund is similar to a mutual fund in that it consists of a portfolio of securities. Shares in the ETF represent an ownership interest in the underlying basket of securities held by the fund.
ETFs continuously create new shares or redeem existing shares, depending on market demand. However, the creation and redemption process is limited to institutional investors that qualify as Authorized Participants (APs), who deal with the ETF in large, specified quantities called “creation units” and “redemption units.” Although any given basket of securities may be large, consisting of hundreds of different individual stocks, the trading of these baskets is instantaneous over the sophisticated electronic trading platforms that exist today.
New ETF shares are created when the AP provides the fund with a specific basket of securities (the holdings in the index the ETF tracks), and the fund in turn transfers a corresponding number of shares (a creation unit) to the AP; those shares are then sold by the AP on the secondary markets. ETF shares sold in the secondary markets trade on an exchange just like a stock. This is the marketplace individual investors go to when purchasing or selling an ETF.
Similarly, ETF shares are redeemed when the AP provides the ETF with a specific number of ETF shares (a redemption unit), and receives from the ETF the corresponding basket of securities.
Who are these APs?
They primarily consist of institutional traders who are able to make small profits on the arbitrage opportunities between the ETF shares and the underlying basket of securities. Here’s how it works.
The underlying assets in an ETF are priced every 15 seconds, allowing a per unit value of the portfolio to be determined throughout the day. This is known as the intraday indicative value of the fund, and it is similar to a mutual fund’s net asset value (NAV), except that it is determined continuously throughout the day.
Institutional traders closely track these intraday NAVs. If an ETF’s unit price diverges from its intraday NAV, the trader can profit by either delivering the basket of individual securities to the fund (for creation units) and then simultaneously selling ETF shares in the secondary markets, or by buying ETF shares on the secondary markets, and simultaneously receiving the basket of individual securities from the ETF (for redemption units).
This institutional trading and arbitraging process helps keep the prices of ETFs on the secondary markets very close to their actual NAV. In fact, the amount of divergence between an ETF’s intraday NAV and its share price is related primarily to the liquidity of the ETF’s underlying basket of securities. For ETFs that track indexes with less-liquid holdings, arbitraging is more difficult and therefore divergence is more likely to be greater.
ETFs have several unique advantages over traditional index funds.
Lower Costs at the Fund Level
Although index mutual funds have low annual expense ratios, ETFs typically—but not always—have even lower ratios. Like their traditional index fund counterparts, most ETFs are passively managed and, therefore, do not have high management fees.
Unlike traditional index funds, ETFs are traded on an exchange and, therefore, the fund does not have to buy and sell securities to accommodate shareholder purchases and redemptions. This also results in lower annual taxable distributions by the fund, as well as lower costs.
And although an investor must pay commissions to buy and sell shares, ETFs do not impose annual 12b-1 fees.
Because they are exchange-traded, ETFs have the same trading flexibility as an individual stock:
- They can be bought and sold at intraday market prices, unlike traditional mutual funds which are bought and sold at end-of-day prices;
- They can be purchased on margin;
- They can be sold short; and
- They can be traded using stop orders and limit orders, which allow investors to specify the price points at which they are willing to buy and sell shares.
Exchange-traded funds carry many of the risks of traditional index mutual funds. In particular, they face market risk—the risk that the sector of the market that they are tracking may drop based on a variety of factors such as economic conditions and global events, investor sentiment and sector-specific factors. ETFs also face other risks.
The market share price of an exchange-traded fund is determined by the forces of supply and demand and, therefore, investors may purchase shares at a premium or discount to the fund’s net asset value. However, arbitrage by large institutional traders tends to keep these low. Discounts and premiums to NAV are related primarily to the liquidity of the ETF’s underlying basket of securities.
Tracking error refers to the fact that an index fund’s returns can sometimes fall short of (or exceed) the benchmark returns. Most index-based tradable funds track their benchmarks closely, as do low-cost traditional index funds.
Some portfolios may exhibit larger tracking errors than typical. Such discrepancies are not necessarily a drawback for investors, especially if limited alternatives exist for gaining exposure to a tiny segment of the stock market. Yet it’s important to understand why these deviations exist.
Three primary factors account for tr
- Sampling: A fund may sample the universe tracked by the index rather than employ full replication.
- SEC- and IRS-mandated diversification requirements: Investment company regulations state that a single company may account for no more than 25% of a fund’s total assets. Thus, if a company makes up more than 25% of a market’s index, that stock would be underweighted by the fund. To optimize a portfolio, the manager may increase weightings of other portfolio components or even go outside the index.
- Expenses: Even if a fund identically weights all the stocks in its benchmark, performance will be reduced by the expense ratio (i.e., net return equals gross return of index less expenses).
One other factor that can result in tracking errors for some ETFs is dividend payments. An exchange-traded fund typically pays out dividends received from the underlying stocks it holds on a quarterly basis, but the underlying stocks pay dividends throughout the quarter. Therefore, these funds may hold cash for various time periods throughout the quarter, even though the underlying benchmark index is not composed of cash.
Most ETFs are designed to replicate the holdings and correspond to the performance and yield of an underlying index, although several ETFs are designed to track the price of a commodity or currency.
Benchmarks tracked by exchange-traded funds fall into four gener
- Broad-based indexes: A wide cross-section of equities from a broad range of industries is included in these benchmarks. Style-specific “growth” and “value” options exist for certain benchmarks; you can choose between large-cap, mid-cap, small-cap and micro-cap firms; there are indexes that focus on dividends, and others that use methods other than market capitalizations to weight the holdings in the index; lastly there are proprietary indexes that focus on specific strategies or market segments.
- Sector indexes: A specific industry or stock group, such as real estate or telecommunications, is the focus.
- International indexes: Global stock indexes, regional indexes and country-specific equity indexes are included. A group of exchange-traded funds does not track foreign indexes but rather foreign currencies.
- Bond indexes: Currently bond indexes are tracked covering a wide swath of the bond market, including several Treasury indexes of varying maturities, a TIPS (Treasury inflation-protected securities) index, and multiple municipal bond indexes.
If you are interested in an ETF, you should make sure that you understand the underlying index (or asset) that it tracks. For example, although DIAMONDS and iShares Dow Jones U.S. Index fund both cover broad-based large-cap stocks, the performance of the underlying indexes will differ—the Dow Jones industrial average (tracked by DIAMONDS) covers only 30 stocks and is price-weighted, while the Dow Jones U.S. index is broader-based and is capitalization weighted.
The Rydex S&P Equal Weight Trust covers an S&P 500 index that gives equal emphasis to all 500 stocks. In contrast, the S&P 500 index is based on market capitalizations, which means the stock performances of larger companies have a greater impact on the index; ETFs tracking the S&P 500 index will perform differently than those following an S&P 500 equal-weight index.
For some ETFs, specialty indexes have been created—for example, the “Dynamic Intellidexes” have been created for many of the PowerShares exchange-traded funds, and the WisdomTree indexes that focus on dividends have been created for the WisdomTree ETFs. Some of these indexes base their holdings and their weightings on fundamental rules rather than market capitalizations, introducing a strategy-based approach to the offering. Rules-based indexes will perform quite differently than a traditional index fund.
Be careful of similar-sounding names. The Select Sector SPDR indexes are different than the S&P Select Industry indexes, which are constructed from a universe of more than 5,000 securities that collectively comprise the S&P Total Market index. The S&P Total Market index measures the performance of common equities listed on New York, American, and NASDAQ exchanges. Each S&P Select Industry index is constructed with an equal-weighted methodology and is rebalanced quarterly, which is designed to prevent a few select stocks from dominating the performance of the index.
The Select Sector SPDR fund indexes, which cover the various sectors of the S&P 500, were designed so that, taken in combination, all nine of the Select Sector SPDR funds make up the S&P 500. These indexes are not the same as the more familiar S&P sector indexes that are published by Standard & Poor’s, although they would likely perform very similarly.
Information on the underlying indexes can be found in each ETF’s prospectus, and in many instances at the fund sponsor’s Web site.
There are three main structures for index ETFs:
- Open-end mutual fund: By far the most common structure, these are registered with the SEC as investment companies.
- Unit investment trust: Also registered with the SEC as investment companies, but far less common. However, the first ETFs were structured this way and, thus, some of the most popular ETFs—PowerShares QQQ, DIAMONDS and certain SPDRs—are structured as unit investment trusts.
- Exchange-traded grantor trust: The most similar to actually owning the underlying shares. These are not registered as investment companies and are not considered “exchange-traded funds” under strict definitions of the term. Examples include the HOLDRs funds, and most of the exchange-traded funds that track an underlying commodity (for example, the iShares COMEX Gold Trust and SPDR Gold Shares) or currency (the CurrencyShares ETFs).
The on-line version of this guide lists the structure for each exchange-traded fund. What’s the advantage of one structure over another?
Open-End & Unit Investment Trusts
The differences between ETFs structured as open-end mutual funds and unit investment trusts are relatively minor.
ETFs structured as open-end mutual funds can reinvest the dividends they receive from their underlying holdings in the fund when they receive them, whereas unit investment trusts cannot. The latter accumulate the dividends and reinvest them quarterly, resulting in a so-called “dividend drag” during rising markets. The drag is not that significant with an S&P 500 index fund because the benchmark yields currently are low; it would be more noticeable with higher-yielding portfolios.
The open-end structure also allows a fund to use stock index futures to equitize its dividend stream, enabling it to be more fully invested in the underlying index.
In addition, stock loans can be made by open-end funds but not by unit investment trusts. The interest generated by such loans theoretically results in lower expenses. Stock lending is most significant for a fund that owns a lot of hard-to-borrow stock.
Exchange-traded funds structured as grantor trusts operate quite a bit differently than ETFs structured as investment companies.
Merrill Lynch’s HOLDRS are the largest group of funds organized as grantor trusts. Many information providers do not define HOLDRS as “exchange-traded funds” but rather list them separately; HOLDRS are included in the on-line listing at AAII.com, but do not appear in the printed listings in this issue.
HOLDRS do provide diversified exposure to a particular industry, sector or group. However, HOLDRS allow you to keep ownership benefits related to the underlying stocks: the right to vote shares, to receive dividends and to sell the stock when you want to.
HOLDRS also do not track an independent index. When a new HOLDR is developed, an industry, sector or group of securities is identified and the underlying stocks to be included in the HOLDR are then selected for inclusion on the basis of objective criteria—such as market capitalization, liquidity, price-earnings ratio or other measures. The selected stocks may be weighted equally or on a modified market-cap basis.
However, once determined, stock composition does not change unless due to a corporate event such as a merger or spin-off. Because the relative weightings of the stocks are a function of market prices, the relative weightings within the HOLDRS will change substantially over time.
The other unique feature of HOLDRS is that you can take delivery of the underlying securities, if you choose, by canceling your HOLDR. To cancel, you simply instruct your broker to deliver your HOLDRS to the HOLDRS trustee and pay a cancellation fee. The trustee will transmit ownership of the underlying shares to your account. Canceling a HOLDR is not a taxable event.
Several exchange-traded funds are designed to track the price of a commodity, such as gold (iShares COMEX Gold Trust and SPDR Gold Shares), or currency (the CurrencyShares ETFs). These are organized as grantor trusts, where the trusts issue shares representing interests in their net assets, which tend to be the physical holdings of the asset. These funds are not registered under the Investment Company Act, which means they are regulated differently than most other exchange-traded funds.
One important implication of the trust structure concerns taxes: Trust owners are treated as if they own a corresponding share in the underlying asset. In the case of the gold trusts, the asset is taxed as a collectible. Currently, gains from collectibles held over one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 28%, rather than the lower long-term capital gains treatment that is afforded to financial securities.
Several funds do not fit into any of the above structures because of their use of futures contracts to track their underlying assets. The United States Oil Fund and the United States Natural Gas Fund are designed to track the price movements of crude oil and natural gas, with assets that will consist primarily of futures contracts and U.S. Treasuries. The PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking Fund is designed to track commodity pools, with assets that will consist of futures contracts and U.S. Treasuries. Like the gold trusts, these funds are not registered under the Investment Company Act, which means they are regulated differently than most other exchange-traded funds and have additional tax implications.
Because ETFs trade like stocks, you need to know their trading characteristics.
Exchange-traded funds have pricing symbols for three different variables:
- A stock price—the price at which trading occurs.
- An official closing net asset value—with a few exceptions, this quantity is computed as of 4:00 p.m. Eastern time each business day.
- An estimated intraday net asset value—this number is updated every 15 seconds based on the real-time prices of each of a fund’s underlying holdings. It is called “intraday value” for some funds while others call it the “indicative optimized portfolio value.”
Ticker symbols for these funds, along with considerable other trading, performance and structural details, can be found in the individual fund “tear sheets” at the Web site of the exchange on which the fund trades.
Premiums and Discounts to NAV
While premiums and discounts are generally not a major issue, they may be larger in special instances, particularly when the underlying basket of securities is less liquid.
Liquidity and Trading
Liquidity is the ease with which an investment can be bought or sold for a price at or very close to the recent quote.
Some ETFs are based on indexes with holdings that are less liquid. This affects the arbitrage process and thus the creation and redemption of ETF shares by institutional traders, leading to wider spreads. The liquidity of an ETF is thus primarily based on the liquidity of the underlying securities in the ETF’s basket.
What the Listings Show
Exchange & Ticker Symbol
The exchange and ticker symbol are provided next to the fund name. The ticker symbol that is given is for the stock price at which trading occurs. This is the symbol you would use when buying or selling shares.
- Market Return: The one-year return net of expenses for each fund based on its market price, through June 30, 2009. This is the actual return you would have received if you had invested in the fund over that one-year time period. Keep in mind, however, that it does not include brokerage commissions or spread costs you would incur when buying or selling the shares.
- NAV Returns: The three-year annualized return and one-year return net of expenses for each fund based on its net asset value, through June 30, 2009. This provides an indication of how the underlying portfolio of stocks performed over the time period. Funds in which the market return is closer to the NAV return trade with lower discounts and premiums.
- Index Return: The one-year return through June 30, 2009, of the underlying index tracked by the fund.
- Tracking Index – NAV Return: The difference between the one-year index return and the fund’s one-year NAV return, an indication of how closely the ETF tracked its underlying index over the time period. Most funds tend to underperform the index, primarily due to expenses. Other factors may also lead to tracking differences. Note that a negative sign indicates a fund outperformed the index.
- RiskGrade: A risk measure that relates the volatility of a particular portfolio to a portfolio of all stocks worldwide during normal market conditions. The base worldwide stock portfolio has a RiskGrade of 100; a portfolio with a RiskGrade of 77 implies that it has a risk 77% as high as the average risk of the worldwide stock portfolio. (For more information, the RiskGrades Web site at www.riskgrades.com provides the mathematical details of the approach.)
- Asset Size: The net assets of the fund presented in millions of dollars. This provides an indication of the exchange-traded fund’s size, popularity and flexibility.
- Expense Ratio: The current reported expense ratio for each fund. Keep in mind that these expenses are at the fund level. To purchase or sell shares, you will incur brokerage commissions.
Whether the fund is structured as an open-end mutual fund, a unit investment trust, a grantor trust, or a special structure.
The underlying index (or other asset) that the fund is structured to track.
The printed version of our listing that appears in the AAII Journal includes all ETFs that have over $100 million in net assets, and that have existed for over one year.
AAII’s Guide to ETFs lists all exchange-traded funds, including those that have under $100 million in assets, HOLDRS, leveraged and inverse funds, and those that are new.
All ETFs are listed in the appropriate category. In addition, the tables here and the downloadable spreadhseets include expanded information on each ETF, including recent trading statistics and the legal structure of the fund.
|What You Need to Know About Fixed-Income ETFs|
This year’s Guide features 37 existing ETFs that track bond indexes, plus 15 new bond ETFs.
Bond ETFs work like their stock counterparts. Each fund has both a trading symbol and an IOPV (indicative optimized portfolio value) ticker. The IOPV approximates the fund’s net asset value and is updated every 15 seconds throughout the trading day. By comparing the IOPV and real-time stock quote for a bond ETF, you can determine any discounts or premiums in share price to net asset value, although creation and redemption of the shares by large institutional traders helps keep these to a minimum.
You can also determine a bond ETF’s end-of-day discount or premium based upon its net asset value (computed daily at the market close) and last traded price. This information can be found most readily at the sponsor’s Web site (see “Hot Links”). Keep in mind, however, that bond quote and price reporting is less well-developed than stock quote and price reporting, making the IOPV and net asset value less reliable for bond ETFs. Fortunately, bond quotes and price data are improving.
As with bonds themselves, the prices of bond ETFs vary inversely with the level of interest rates—i.e., rising rates lead to falling fixed-income security prices and vice versa.
Like most bond funds, fixed-income ETFs do not pay a fixed rate of return and do not guarantee that your investment will be recouped when you cash out. Bond ETFs pay monthly dividends in cash. Individuals interested in reinvesting their dividends should contact their brokers for further information, including any fees.
Bond ETFs offer benefits similar to those of stock ETFs, such as low cost, diversification, the ability to trade shares throughout the day, and the ability to short a portfolio.
Many bond ETFs feature rock-bottom 0.15% expense ratios (or lower)—a major plus for fixed-income portfolios, particularly during times of low returns. The highest expense ratios are found with the foreign fixed-income funds.
Tax efficiency, an advantage for stock ETFs, would not be a relevant consideration with bond ETFs because of their income orientation. Like Treasury securities themselves, Treasury bond ETFs generate income that is subject to federal income tax but should be exempt from state and local income taxes if the fund sponsor and the shareholder meet the state’s administrative requirements.
A few of the bond ETFs replicate their underlying target indexes, but many other bond ETFs use optimized sampling techniques. Because bonds have a given lifespan before they mature, a bond ETF portfolio needs to be reconstituted frequently, reflecting changes in its target index. This process could lead to some capital gains distributions.
You could generally expect a fixed-income ETF to have a higher portfolio turnover rate than the broad-based equity ETFs that track benchmarks such as the S&P 500 index, Dow Jones industrial average, and the Wilshire 5000 index.
Cara Scatizzi is a former associate financial analyst at AAII.