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Exchange-traded funds

Exchange traded funds (ETFs) are investment funds that hold a collection of underlying assets, such as shares, commodities and bonds. ETF portfolios are held by corporations which issue shares (a portion of ownership) of the fund. These shares give investors exposure to the underlying assets. For most ETFs, the strategy is passive style management.

ETFs are quoted on exchanges and can be bought and sold like any other share or stock. The fund’s share price very closely follows the price of the underlying assets. If they wish, investors can adopt buy and hold strategies with ETFs for long-term growth. Although ETF trading​ sometimes pays dividends, a majority of those earnings are kept within the fund. Investors are entitled to a portion of the profits, for example through earned interest. ETFs are transparent, as all fund holdings are declared on a daily basis.

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What is an ETF?

ETFs are investment funds that can track a broad index, sub-sector of that index or an industry sector, for example financials, commodities or energy stocks. Gold and crude oil ETFs are one example of gaining exposure to underlying commodities, as well as more scarce water ETFs​.

The popularity of ETFs has been on the rise since they first appeared. From 2006 to 2017, net issuance of these funds in the US has gone up from $74 billion to $471 billion. In the first quarter of 2016, global assets under management for ETFs amounted to $3 trillion across 64 exchanges in 51 countries globally. Depending on regulations, the legal structure of the fund will usually be an investment company or corporation. Varying structures often exist side by side in the same jurisdiction.

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ETF vs mutual fund

Exchange-traded funds offer cost efficiency because of the way the fund is set up. APs bear the costs involved in buying the underlying assets, whereas a mutual fund will pay fees to the bank or financial institution every time they buy or sell assets. The AP then profits from the bid-offer spread of the quoted shares.

Depending on jurisdiction, ETFs may offer a more tax-efficient alternative to conventional mutual funds. The US provides some tax benefits when investing in ETFs, compared to traditional funds, but the same is not true in all jurisdictions.

Traditional funds tend to be more broad-based when it comes to the assets it contains in order to satisfy diversification of risk. This is compared to more specific ETF assets. With ETFs, one can gain exposure to a portfolio as specific as a smartphone index or real estate index. The extensive range of ETFs allows for more control in one’s diversification strategies. High minimum investments are often required to enter mutual funds, whereas ETFs do not have such limitations. This means that even a small portfolio can be diversified at an efficient cost.

Leveraged ETFs

Rather than buying the funds outright, some brokers offer the chance to trade on ETF prices using leverage, and there are also funds that invest in short positions. So, if a trader is bearish on a specific market or asset, they could buy shares that profit from a fall in price. These funds can be used to hedge long positions already held or to make speculative investments to the downside.

Traders can also hedge a specific sector of a broad index ETF. If one is long an ETF tracking the S&P 500, but concerned that a particular sector within the index will perform poorly, they could find an ETF that tracks the inverse return of that sub-sector. Buying shares in that ETF would hedge a fall in price of the original ETF.

Open an account to start trading on the underlying price movements of ETF funds. We offer exchange-traded funds on our Next Generation trading platform, including some of the most popular ETFs right now.

Advantages of exchange-traded funds

  • ETFs are a low cost investment choice. Some ETF fees are as low as 0.3%, compared to the average 1.4% paid to mutual funds. One will of course still pay a fee to their broker to buy an ETF, but this fee is usually similar to the fees charged to buy and sell mutual funds. The difference in fund fees when implementing a buy and hold portfolio can be substantial, especially when the investment horizon is long term. Saving 1% per year over a 20-year investment horizon has its benefits.
  • ETFs are also easy to enter and exit. The funds are traded over an exchange and shares can be bought and sold with relative ease, as compared to the redemption schedules of some mutual funds. Ease of execution, combined with a vast sample of asset classes and diverse investing strategies, offers a lot of flexibility.
  • Assets are usually liquid and transparent, and fund holdings are declared daily. This means that investors will not have to forego a significant discount to the fair NAV when exiting a market. At the same time, when demand is high, one would not have to pay a large premium to gain access to the fund's assets.
  • ETFs also offer easy access to interest-rate securities. Exposure can also be gained from mutual funds, but when interest rates are on the rise, fund performance begins to suffer. Recently, institutions have been offering funds that have negative duration. In simple terms, this means that these funds gain in price when interest rates are on the rise. It is possible to find ETFs that are set up to gain in price when interest rates go up. Some of the most popular bonds to invest in are influenced by interest rates and therefore, the value of their ETF can increase dramatically.

Risks of ETFs

While ETFs have many advantages, traders should also be aware of any risks associated. Traders should consider that when investing in exchange-traded funds, in some countries, they may be limited to large-cap stocks​ only, given the narrow range of stocks in the market index. Being exposed to only a limited range of stocks may mean an investor loses out on potential growth opportunities.

The benefits of investing in ETFs also depend on what type of trader you are. Intra-day trading​ opportunities created by ETFs could benefit short-term traders, but will be less suitable to a trader looking to profit in the long-term.

Finally, exchange-traded funds can also be affected by market liquidity. It is important to assess the spread between the bid and the ask price​​​. If there is a large spread, this can be a sign of an illiquid investment.

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ETFs vs stocks

ETF trading is often compared to trading other pools of stocks, such as mutual funds. It is possible that the costs associated with trading ETFs might actually be higher. Trading ETFs as opposed to a specific stock however, may include costs like a management fee, which would make costs higher overall. As when trading individual stocks, you will also have to pay a commission charge on trades. Learn more about our trading costs​ before opening a position on our range of exchange-traded funds. 

Factor investing

Factor investing is an approach that involves targeting securities that are associated in driving higher returns. In general, a factor can be thought of as any common characteristic shared by a group of securities, e.g. value, growth, small cap, large cap, momentum, low volatility, sensitivity to interest rate/inflation changes.

Many investors use the approach of factor investing in order to enhance the diversification of their portfolio and gain investment exposure to their chosen factor. Portfolio diversification is a risk-management strategy that can be achieved in a number of ways, with factor investing being one of them. It can involve trading or investing in a variety of different assets with the aim to manage and reduce risk. 

Summary

Exchange-traded funds offer a comparatively cheaper way to invest in a myriad of assets and indices. They offer transparent pricing, where the NAV of ETFs is calculated on a daily basis and holdings are public and published daily. ETFs are also easy to enter and exit as the shares are quoted and traded on exchanges. All these factors contribute to making ETFs an efficient diversification vehicle. The diversification factor offered from the wide range of investment targets runs down to smaller portfolios, which are out-sized by many mutual funds.

CMC Markets Canada Inc. is a member of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC) and member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (CIPF). CFDs are distributed in Canada by CMC Markets Canada Inc. dealer and agent of CMC Markets UK plc. Trading CFDs involve a high degree of risk and investors should be prepared for the risk of losing their entire investment and further amounts. CFD trading is available in jurisdictions in which CMC Markets is registered or exempt from registration, and, in the province of Alberta is available to Accredited Investors only. CMC Markets is an execution only dealer and does not provide investment advice or recommendations regarding the purchase or sale of any CFD. For full details of our fees please refer to our rates schedule. CMC Markets is remunerated through the spread which is the difference between the bid and ask price. Commission and holding costs may also apply.

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