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Investing in ETFs (How To Pick The Best ETF)

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With thousands of ETFs available to investors, choosing the right fund can be a daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be – if you take it step by step you can quickly narrow the list down to those that best meet your needs.

Your first step should be to make sure you know exactly what ETFs are, their objectives, and the different types of funds available. We covered these topics in detail here.

When searching for suitable ETFs you can use fund screeners like ETFdb, ETF.com or Yahoo’s screening tool. With these tools you can begin filtering the list according to the fund characteristics listed below.

Index Fund ETFs

Passively managed ETFs – which is most of them – track an index. So, when you invest in an ETF, what you are really doing is deciding to track an index. So deciding on the right index track is the most important step.

If you are about to make your first investment in ETFs, your immediate goal should be diversified exposure to stocks. The stock market has outperformed all other asset classes over the long term and very few investors manage to beat the returns of headline stock market indexes. For this reason, your starting point should be an ETF that tracks a headline index of the largest companies.

For most investors, the S&P500 index is a good place to start, as it includes the 500 largest and most successful companies in North America. However, you could also consider a global index like the MSCI world index. You could also spread your investments across a US index, a European index, and a global index.

Bear in mind that some global indexes exclude US stocks, while others don’t. If you only want to invest in one global fund, then you should include one with US exposure. If you want to invest in a US fund and a global fund, a global ex-US fund would be more appropriate.

Some ETFs track indexes that are constructed specifically for the fund. That is fine, but you should check that the index is weighted by market capitalization and includes at least 75% of the value of all listed stocks in a given market.

Specialized ETFs

 Obviously, there are lots of other ETFs that don’t track broad market indexes. Some funds track specific asset classes, sectors, regions, or countries, while others filter securities by other criteria. These funds can all be added to a core portfolio of general equity ETFs to try to improve on performance or reduce risk.

This is where your knowledge and experience come in. As you learn more about investing, you can add more sophisticated products to your portfolio. To start with you may want to add a bond ETF, and increase your exposure to one or two sectors, but you shouldn’t be in a rush to do more than that.

Performance and tracking error

Most investment products come with a warning along the lines of “past performance may not be indicative of future performance.” This is as true for ETFs as it is for any other product. In fact, the recent performance of an ETF shouldn’t really be a concern at all.

The objective of passive investing is to passively track the performance of the stock market – not to chase the funds that performed well recently.

For ETFs something that does count is the tracking error. This measures the difference between the performance of the fund and the performance of the index it tracks. Tracking error results from certain trading expenses and liquidity issues in the underlying market. If an index includes securities with low liquidity, the tracking error is likely to be higher.

Minor tracking errors are to be expected and usually make little difference to performance over the long term. However, if the tracking error is more than 1% a year, you may want to pay closer attention.

The tracking error needs to be considered along with the objectives of the fund and the index performance. If an index returns 50% and the tracking error is 2%, that’s not a very big deal. But if an index returns 5% and the tracking error is 2%, you could be losing out on 40% of your expected return.

Why Expense Ratio Matters

One of the biggest selling points for ETFs is their low fees. In the past, it was common for mutual funds to charge annual management fees of well over 1%, but nowadays ETF investors can get away with fees as low as 0.1% –  a 90% decline in fees. In fact, some funds don’t even charge a management fee.

The reality is that any expense ratio below 0.15% can be considered cheap. As long as the expense ratio is below that level, cheaper is not necessarily better. If you are deciding between two funds and one charges 0.07% while the other charges 0.12%, other factors are probably more important than the fee.

The situation changes when you start considering more specialized funds. Sector focused funds charge 0.15 to 0.3%, while industry-focused funds charge in the region of 0.3% to 0.6%. More sophisticated funds like smart beta, leveraged and inverse funds charge up to 1.5%, and actively managed funds can charge as much as 5%!

For any ETF with an expense ratio greater than 0.2%, you will need to weigh up the fee against the supposed advantages of investing in the fund. A higher fee may well be justified, but you also need to be sure the fund will do what it’s supposed to do. This is where past performance may be of some value – not necessarily in terms of returns, but volatility, dividend yield, and other metrics.

Your anticipated holding period is also relevant when considering fees. If the holding period is short, you will effectively be paying a tiny fraction of the annual management fee – but you will be paying commission more often.

Additional Fees to Calculate

In theory, the expense ratio of an ETF includes all management fees and the operational costs of managing a fund. There are however certain costs that are not included. The largest of these are the transaction fees incurred by the fund when securities are bought and sold, including commissions, the bid-offer spread, and costs built into derivative products.

These costs will be reflected in the tracking error, but typically the more sophisticated the fund is, the higher these costs will be.

Liquidity of ETFs and AUM

The liquidity of an ETF and the liquidity of the securities it holds affect the entry and exit price for ETF investors. If the bid and offer price is close to the fund’s NAV, you will incur little additional expense when you buy or sell shares in the ETF. So, funds with tight spreads are a lot cheaper to own.

The bid-offer spread for an ETF is maintained by market makers who also create and redeem units to satisfy demand. Two factors affect their ability to maintain a tight spread. Firstly, larger funds have more ongoing supply and demand from other investors which makes it easier to maintain a tight spread. As a rule of thumb, a fund should ideally have assets of $100 million or more, but definitely not less than $10 million.

The second factor is the liquidity of the securities in the fund. Market makers can also create and redeem units to maintain a liquid market. When they do so, they buy and sell the securities for the fund. If the bid-offer spread for those securities is very wide, the cost will translate into a wider spread for the ETF itself.

Issuer and fund structure

Exchange traded funds exist as separate entities from their issuers, and investors are well protected by the legislation under which they are regulated. However, an issuer can still manage the fund inefficiently, which will lead to higher transaction costs. For this reason, you should consider the track record of the issuer.

The global ETF giants are iShares/Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street/SPDR, and Invesco. Other prominent issuers are XTrackers, Schwab, First Trust, VanEck, Lyxor, WisdomTree, and ProShares. In addition, large global banks like JP Morgan and UBS issue ETFs. These companies all have good track records, but if you are considering a fund from another issuer, you may want to do some research on the company and its reputation.

If a fund you are considering is an ETN (exchange traded note) the creditworthiness and financial health of the issuer is also worth investigating.

Conclusion

It’s always worth remembering your goals when choosing ETFs. Leveraged and inverse ETFs are for the most part trading tools. If your objective is to trade the market actively, then these may be appropriate tools. But, if your objective is to build a long-term investment portfolio, then your priority should be cost-effective ETFs that track indexes that will compound over the long term. The trap that investors often fall into is chasing ‘hot’ sectors and industries or investing in funds with strong historical performance. For long term investors, an index with exposure to lots of sectors and to profitable companies with a proven business model, will be better placed to weather the storms that will inevitably occur along the way.

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Richard Bowman is a writer, analyst and investor based in Cape Town, South Africa. He has over 18 years’ experience in asset management, stockbroking, financial media and systematic trading. Richard combines fundamental, quantitative and technical analysis with a dash of common sense.

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