3 Important Things to Know When Investing in ETFs

ETFs are cost effective, tax efficient, liquid and can be traded throughout the day (unlike mutual funds). Most investors are familiar with the appealing ETF basics, but here are a few tricks and traps the average Joe investor may not know.

ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) have been called the best thing since sliced bread.

The ETF universe has ballooned to well over 1,300 ETFs, controlling nearly $2 trillion in assets. The $15 trillion mutual fund industry is less than thrilled about the splash ETFs made in their investment pool.

ETFs are popular for a reason, but this article addresses not only the ETF basics, it also reveals some tricks and traps the average investor may not be aware of.

ETF Basics

Know what’s under the hood: The initial success of broad market ETFs, like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSEArca: SPY), sparked much innovation and the need for additional ETF structures.

Today there are five different ETF structures, each with its own pros, cons, and tax treatment. In fact, in recognition of this diversity, what used to be called the ETF universe, has become the ETP (Exchange Traded Product) universe.

A detailed look at the different structures along with advantages and disadvantages is available here: Basic ETF Structures Explained

Diversification:  Most ETPs provide exposure to a basket of stocks or bonds. Most often that basket is linked to an index.

Some ETPs screen their holdings based on certain filters, are actively managed or designed to track the performance of commodities, currencies are other assets classes.

Cost & Tax Advantages: There are exceptions, as you would expect in any group numbering over 1,300, but ETPs in general are more cost and tax effective. The cheapest S&P 500 ETFs costs only 0.05% per year.

Liquidity: ETPs sell like stocks and can be instantly (assuming the market is open and you have a brokerage account) bought or sold with the click of a button. Mutual funds are redeemed (time delay is at least a few hours), often at a price that has yet to be determined.

ETF Tricks & Traps

Like every other investment, ETPs don’t come with a built in protection against moronic decisions.

The emergence of short, leveraged and leveraged short ETPs actually makes it easier for investors to lose (and make) money even faster. The epitome of a two-edged sword.

Due to the structure of short and leveraged ETPs, the odds of landing a profitable trade are not always 50/50.

Some leveraged (short) ETPs have a tendency to enhance returns in a down market, others in an up market. Sideways markets may deliver unpredictable returns, even returns unrelated to the underlying benchmark.

For example, the popular but notoriously declining iPath S&P 500 Short-term VIX ETN (NYSEArca: VXX) has been a trap for many investors.

The first chart below plots VXX against its benchmark, the VIX. I’ve inserted a 50-day SMA to show the basic trend. VXX has been down even though VIX has been trading predominantly sideways.

The second chart plots VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX ETN (NYSEArca: XIV) against its benchmark, which is also the VIX.

You probably get the point. The choice of ETPs can influence the odds of winning beyond the normal odds dealt by the market.

More details about the subtle, but important idiosyncrasies of ETPs is available here: The Must Know Basics of Short & Leveraged ETFs

Know Thy ETF Universe

With over 1,300 ETPs comes the freedom of choice. The following criteria should be considered when on the prowl for the best ETP:

  • Cost
  • Trading volume
  • Performance track record
  • Structure and tax advantages/disadvantages
  • Tracking method (sampling or replication) and accuracy

ETPs also offer exposure to asset classes and currencies that, in the past, used to be off limits for the average investor. So take a stroll through the ETP universe. You may find asset class ‘galaxies’ that may harmonize with your portfolio on planet Earth.

Simon Maierhofer is the publisher of the Profit Radar Report. The Profit Radar Report presents complex market analysis (S&P 500, Dow Jones, gold, silver, euro and bonds) in an easy format. Technical analysis, sentiment indicators, seasonal patterns and common sense are all wrapped up into two or more easy-to-read weekly updates. All Profit Radar Report recommendations resulted in a 59.51% net gain in 2013.

Follow Simon on Twitter @ iSPYETF to get actionable ETF trade ideas delivered for free.

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