Exchange Traded Funds – An Investor’s Introductory Guide

July 22, 2008

Mutual funds are the investment vehicle of choice for retirement accounts of many Americans, but there is a new kid on the block. The Exchange Traded Fund or “ETF”, isn’t exactly new, but it has grown in popularity over the past five years with many amateur investors. So, what is it? Is it the right investment for you? Is it better than a mutual fund? I’ll be writing a three-part series covering many of the questions you might have about the exchange traded fund.

What Is An Exchange Traded Fund?

it’s just like a mutual fund, but it trades like a single stock on an exchange. Most exchange traded funds tracks an index such as the S&P 500, but they are traded in real time on an exchange throughout the day. An ETF packages a large amount of investments, and it allows you to trade it like a single company stock. ETF’s package together stocks, bonds, commodities, or a combination of all three.

The Difference Between Mutual Funds and the ETF

When you purchase a mutual fund, you are purchasing it at the net asset value of that fund at the end of the day. When you purchase an ETF, you are purchasing it at the current market price for that given moment in time. This allows you to set up limit and short orders with your broker. Philosophically, mutual funds and exchange traded funds differ in their approach. A mutual fund is born with a pile of cash and a team of analysts who pick a mix of stocks to mirror a given investment strategy. An exchange traded fund starts with an idea, to track an index, and are born from stocks instead of money. At the beginning of the year, exchange traded funds were granted the ability to be actively managed by a fund investor, but there are still very few of these funds.

The Minimum Investment

How many of you decided to buy an index fund? Did you cringe when you saw the minimum investment of $50,000? The minimum investment is usually much lower when you purchase the mutual fund in a retirement account, but it still brings some barrier to entry for those using a dollar-cost averaging method of investment. The ETF has no minimums. You can buy 1,000 shares at a time or just 1 share at a time. Just make sure that your broker doesn’t destroy you with fees.

Taxes and the ETF

They have tax advantages, but it’s complicated to explain. An ETF still incurs capital gains that you need to pay taxes on, unless you bought it in a retirement account. Mutual funds incur capital gains even without buying or selling a single share, and exchange traded funds have a similar thing happen but with a better tax advantage. I have hard time putting the concept into my own words, so here are some notes about why an ETF might pay less tax than a mutual fund from the Motley Fool:

  • In general, the structure of ETFs tends to avoid the kind of outright selling that would trigger undistributed capital gains and other IRS nightmares. To understand why, think back to the ETF structure. For every ETF seller, there’s a buyer.
  • On the other hand, if a flood of investors decide to dump a mutual fund, the fund may need to sell the underlying holdings in order to raise the cash to pay out, and that would bring Uncle Sam with hat in hand. ETFs may also have to drop a few schillings into the taxman’s cap, for instance, when the underlying index is changed.

Is the ETF right you?

Hopefully, I will help you figure this out over the next two parts of the series. The bottom line is that an ETF is more attractive to those who actively manage their own investments and retirement account. If you like to buy funds and let them sit and grow for the next 30 years, then a traditional no-load index fund is best for you. But, if you like the idea of shifting your investments to match the trends of the economy, then the ETF is a nice addition to your overall investment portfolio. Stay tuned for the ten best exchange traded funds and strategies for investing.

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Erik Folgate is a husband and father living in Orlando who's been writing about money online for 6 years. Digging himself out of $20k of debt after college and his former experience in the insurance industry give him some useful insights into personal finance issues.

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