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Exchange traded fund ETF Explained – What is it, features, history and characteristics

Last Updated on 10 February, 2024 by Rejaul Karim

What is an exchange-traded fund

An exchange-traded fund, or ETF, is a collection of securities that tracks an index, and is traded on a major stock exchange. An ETF is available to invest in a commodity, bonds, stocks or a basket of assets as an index fund. An exchange-traded fund is a marketable security; therefore, it has an associated cost that enables it to be effortlessly bought and sold. ETFs are considered attractive as investments owing to their low prices, tax efficiency, and stock-like properties.

Providers of the ETF only trade ETFs directly from or to official applicants, who are large broker-dealers with whom they have signed contracts. Similar to a mutual fund, an ETF permits stockholders to spread their capital around without depending too much on any personal stock or bond, or possessing any commodities directly.

Official members usually wish to invest in the ETF stocks for the long-term, but they act as liquidity providers on the open market, using their capability to exchange creation units with their underlying securities to supply liquidity of the ETF stocks and assist to ensure that their intraday market price approximates the net asset value of the underlying assets. Further investors, such as individuals utilizing a retail broker, purchase or sell ETF shares on this secondary market.

Exchange traded fund ETF Explained - What is it, features, history and characteristics

An ETF is named as an exchange-traded fund since it’s purchased or sold on an exchange just as shares. The cost of an ETF’s stocks will change throughout the trading day as the stocks are traded on the market. This is unlike mutual funds, which are not traded on an exchange, and trade solely once per day afterward the markets close. However, an ETF has an expense rate, meaning that a proportion of the fund’s assets are utilized to cover organization and further costs, just as in mutual funds.

Features of an exchange-traded fund

An ETF combines the estimation characteristic of a mutual fund or unit investment trust, which can be purchased or sold at the end of each trading day for its net asset value, with the tradability feature of a closed-end fund, which trades through the trading day at prices that may be more or less than its net asset price. Closed-end funds are not regarded as ETFs, though they are funds and are traded on an exchange. Since 1993, exchange-traded funds have been available in the US and since 1999, in Europe. ETFs usually have been indexing funds, however in 2008 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission started to approve the formation of actively administered ETFs.

An ETF is a kind of fund that holds numerous primary assets, rather than only one like a stock. Since there are several assets within an ETF, they can be a widespread option for diversification. It owns shares such as, stocks, bonds, gold bars etc. and separates possession of itself into stocks that are held by investors. The details of the structure (such as a company or trust) will differ according to country, and even within one country there may be multiple available structures. The investors indirectly possess the properties of the fund, and they will characteristically receive an annual report. Investors are authorized to a portion of the profits, such as interest or dividends, and they may get a residual price in case the fund is liquidated. Their proprietorship interest in the fund can simply be traded.

History of an exchange-traded fund

Exchange-traded funds had their creation first in 1989 with Index Participation Shares, an S&P 500 commission that dealt on the American Stock Exchange and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. This product, nevertheless, was short-lived after a lawsuit by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was successful in stopping sales in the United States.

In 1990, a similar product, Toronto Index Participation Shares, began buying or selling on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE). The shares, which tracked the TSE 35 and later the TSE 100 indices, demonstrated to be common. The fame of these products contributed to the American Stock Exchange to attempt to progress something that would satisfy SEC regulation in the United States.

In January 1993, Nathan Most and Steven Bloom, beneath the administration of Ivers Riley, intended and improved Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipts (NYSE Arca: SPY). Identified as SPDRs or “Spiders”, the fund turned out to be the principal ETF in the world. They announced the MidCap SPDRs in May 1995 (NYSE Arca: MDY).

Barclays Global Investors, a subsidiary of Barclays PLC, in combination with MSCI and as its sponsor, a Boston-based third-party provider, Funds Distributor Inc., involved in the market in 1996 with World Equity Benchmark Shares (WEBS), which converted into iShares MSCI Index Fund Shares. WEBS tracked MSCI country indices, originally 17, of the funds’ index supplier, Morgan Stanley. WEBS were especially groundbreaking because they gave casual shareholders simple admission to external markets. While SPDRs were systematized as unit investment trusts, WEBS were established as a mutual fund, the first of their type.

In 1998, State Street Global Advisors familiarized “Sector Spiders”, which track nine subdivisions of the S&P 500. Also, in 1998, the “Dow Diamonds” (NYSE Arca: DIA) were presented, following the famous Dow Jones Industrial Average. In 1999, the persuasive “cubes” (NASDAQ: QQQ), were started trying to duplicate the movement of the NASDAQ-100.

In 2000, Barclays Global Investors put a substantial attempt behind the ETF marketplace, with a strong importance on education and distribution to reach long-term shareholders. The iShares line was begun in early 2000s. Within five years iShares had surpassed the properties of any other ETF competitor in the U.S. and Europe. Barclays Global Investors was traded to BlackRock in 2009.

The Vanguard Group involved in the market in 2001. The first fund was Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (NYSE Arca: VTI), which has turned out to be absolutely popular, and they made the Vanguard Extended Market Index ETF (VXF). Some of Vanguard’s ETFs are a portion class of a present mutual fund.

iShares made the first bond funds in July 2002, based on US Treasury bonds and corporate bonds, such as iShares iBoxx $ Invst Grade Crp Bond (LQD). They also established a TIPS fund. In 2007, they announced funds based on junk and muni stocks; about the same time SPDR and Vanguard got in gear and formed numerous stock funds.

Since then ETFs have flourished, personalized to a progressively specific range of regions, sectors, commodities, bonds, futures, and other asset classes. As of January 2014, there were over 1,500 ETFs traded in the U.S., with over $1.7 trillion in assets. The U.S. ETF resources went above $2 trillion, In December 2014.

Characteristics of an exchange-traded fund

Exchange-traded funds can possess hundreds or thousands of stocks throughout several industries, or it could be insulated to one certain commerce or sector. Some funds primarily concentrate on solely U.S. offerings, while others have a comprehensive outlook. As an example, banking-focused ETFs would contain stocks of numerous banks through the industry.

There are several categories of ETFs existing to stockholders that can be used for revenue generation, speculation, price growths, and to hedge or moderately offset risk in a depositor’s portfolio. Below are various examples of the kinds of ETFs.

  • Bond ETFs involve state stocks, commercial stocks, and government and local stocks—named as municipal stocks. There are various benefits to bond ETFs such as the reasonable trading commissions, but this advantage can be undesirably offset by fees if traded across a third party.
  • Industry ETFs follow a certain industry such as banking, technology, or the petroleum and gas sectors.
  • Commodity ETFs invest in commodities including crude oil or gold.
  • Currency ETFs invest in foreign currencies such as the Euro or Canadian dollar.
  • Inverse ETFs try to receive gains from stock recessions by shorting stocks. Shorting is selling a stock, expecting a decrease in price, and purchasing it again at a lower price.


Exchange-traded funds commonly ensure the simple diversification, low expenditure rates, and tax productivity of index funds, while still keeping all the structures of usual stock, such as limit orders, short selling, and other opportunities. Since ETFs can be cautiously assimilated, held, and disposed of, some investors invest in ETF bonds as a long-term investment for asset allocation purposes, while other depositors purchase and sell ETF stocks regularly to hedge risk over short periods or perform market timing investment policies. Amongst the advantages of ETFs are the following:


  • Lower costs: ETFs usually have lower prices than other investment products because most ETFs are not actively managed and because ETFs are insulated from the costs of having to buy and sell securities to accommodate investor purchases and redemptions. ETFs naturally have lower marketing, distribution and accounting expenditures, and most ETFs do not have 12b-1 payments.
  • Trading flexibility: ETFs can be traded at current market values at any time within the trading day, unlike mutual funds and unit investment trusts, which can only be bought and sold at the end of the trading day. As publicly traded securities, their stocks can be acquired on margin and traded short, allowing the usage of hedging approaches, and traded by means of stop orders and limit orders, which permit investors to specify the price points at which they are willing to purchase and sell.
  • Tax efficiency: ETFs normally produce moderately low capital gains, because they typically have low turnover of their portfolio securities. While this is a benefit, they share with other index funds, their tax efficiency is further improved because they do not have to sell securities to meet shareholder payments.
  • Market exposure and diversification: ETFs offer a reasonable means to rebalance portfolio allocations and to “equitize” cash by investing it swiftly. An index ETF intrinsically offers diversification across an entire index. ETFs offer exposure to a various number of markets, with broad-based indices, broad-based worldwide and country-specific directories, industry sector-specific indices, bond catalogues, and commodities.
  • Transparency: ETFs, whether index funds or actively managed, have transparent portfolios and are assessed at frequent intervals across the trading day.
  • Some of these benefits originate from the position of most ETFs as index funds.

Exchange-traded funds maintain lower average prices because it would be expensive for a stockholder to purchase all of the shares held in an ETF portfolio separately. Investors only need to implement one transaction to purchase and one transaction to trade, which contributes to fewer broker commissions since there are only a few trades being done by shareholders. Brokers characteristically charge a commission for every trade. Some brokers even offer no-commission transaction on certain low-cost ETFs diminishing prices for stockholders even further.

An ETF’s proportion of expenditure is the cost to function and administer the fund. ETFs typically have low expenditures since they follow an index. As an instance, if an ETF follows the S&P 500 index, it might comprehend all 500 shares from the S&P making it a passively-managed fund and less time-intensive. Nevertheless, not all ETFs track an index in a passive manner.

There are also actively-managed ETFs, where portfolio executives are more included in trading stocks of corporations and changing the holdings within the fund. Typically, a more actively administered fund will have a higher expense ratio than passively-managed ETFs. It is significant that investors determine how the fund is managed, whether it’s actively or passively managed, the resulting percentage of expenditure, and weigh the values versus the ratio of return to ensure it is worth holding.

Different from a mutual fund, an ETF is purchased and sold on a main stock exchange, and the amount you’ll pay to buy stocks is specified just like a common stock: by the instantaneous market value. Mutual funds calculate their net asset value and share price once per day, while ETF pricing is continuously changing.

Like other widespread shares, it is possible to purchase an ETF on margin, or sell shares of an ETF short. Many ETFs have choices available. And, like general stocks, you’ll typically pay your brokerage’s standard commission when investing in an ETF, while this is not the case with mutual funds. Recently, some brokerages started offering a selection of commission-free ETFs, so check with your brokerage if you’re interested.

In addition, many mutual funds have lowest initial investment requirements, while ETFs have no such instructions. The smallest investment you have to make in an ETF is simply the cost of one stock. Many Vanguard mutual funds have minimum initial investment amounts of $3,000, while it’s completely possible to start investing in a corresponding ETF with less than $100, particularly if you find one that’s commission-free.

Risks of an exchange-traded-fund

Furthermore, there are some risks of exchange-traded funds that should be taken into consideration:

The ETF tracking error is the difference between the returns of the ETF and its reference index or asset. A non-zero tracking error thus characterizes a failure to replicate the reference as stated in the ETF prospectus. The tracking error is calculated based on the usual price of the ETF and its situation. It is different than the discount which is the difference between the ETF’s NAV (updated only once a day) and its market fee. Tracking errors are more considerable when the ETF supplier utilizes approaches rather than full replication of the underlying index. Some of the most liquid equity ETFs tend to have better tracking implementation as the underlying is also adequately liquid, enabling for full replication. On the contrary, some ETFs, such as commodities ETFs and their leveraged ETFs, do not essentially employ full replication because the physical assets cannot be stored easily or used to generate a leveraged exposure, or the reference asset or index is illiquid. Futures-based ETFs may also suffer from undesirable roll yields, as seen in the VIX stocks market.

ETFs that purchase and hold commodities or futures of commodities have become widespread. For instance, SPDR Gold Shares ETF (GLD) has 21 million ounces in trust. The silver ETF, SLV, is also very large. The commodity ETFs are in effect consumers of their target commodities, thereby affecting the price in a spurious fashion. In the words of the IMF, “Some market participants believe the growing popularity of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) may have contributed to equity price appreciation in some emerging economies, and warn that leverage embedded in ETFs could pose financial stability risks if equity prices were to decline for a protracted period.”

Synthetic ETFs are appealing regulatory attention from the FSB, the IMF, and the BIS. Areas of concern embrace the deficiency of transparency in products and rising complexity; struggles of interest; and absence of supervisory compliance.

A synthetic ETF has counterparty hazard, because the counterparty is contractually obliged to match the return on the index. The transaction is organized with collateral posted by the swap counterparty. A potential risk is that the investment bank requesting the ETF might post its own collateral, and that collateral could be of uncertain quality. Moreover, the investment bank could use its own exchange desk as counterparty. These forms of set-ups are not acceptable beneath the European guidelines, Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities (UCITS), so the depositor should look for UCITS III-compliant funds.

If you prefer investments that trade straightforwardly and don’t have a high minimum preliminary investment, ETFs can be a decent option for you.

Conclusion about an exchange-traded fund

One concluding word of attention: For the reason of the liquidity of ETFs, many depositors are more interested to trade in and out of ETF positions regularly. ETFs that follow a share or bond index are usually planned to be long-term investments, and it’s significant to treat them that way.


How do ETFs work and what makes them attractive to investors?

ETFs work by tracking the performance of an underlying index or asset and are traded on stock exchanges like individual stocks. They are attractive to investors due to their low costs, tax efficiency, intraday liquidity, and ability to provide exposure to various asset classes and sectors.

What are the benefits of investing in ETFs compared to individual stocks or mutual funds?

Investing in ETFs offers several advantages, including diversification, lower costs, intraday liquidity, tax efficiency, and the ability to implement various investment strategies. ETFs provide access to a wide range of asset classes and sectors, making them suitable for both long-term investors and active traders.

What are the risks associated with investing in ETFs?

While ETFs offer many benefits, they also carry risks such as tracking error, counterparty risk (for synthetic ETFs), and market risk. Additionally, certain ETFs, such as leveraged and inverse ETFs, can be more volatile and may not be suitable for all investors.

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