What is an ETF?

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An exchange traded fund (ETF) is a regulated investment product holding assets, such as shares or commodities, which can be bought or sold on the stock market in the same way you might buy company shares. It aims to offer investors returns in line with a specific asset class, index or strategy.

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Like managed funds, your money is pooled and managed as a single fund with an agreed investment strategy. You don't own the underlying investments; you own units in the ETF. As ETFs are open-ended, there is no limit to the number you can buy or sell.

ETFs offer the benefit of broad diversification through exposure to hundreds or thousands of individual securities in a single transaction. You can also potentially access alternative investment areas, like commodities or currencies, which historically were only available to institutional investors.

Types of ETFs

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Types of investment strategies

ETFs can follow passive, active or smart beta strategies.

Passive investing

Aims to match the returns of a benchmark index. Traditional ETFs, also called ‘vanilla’ ETFs, are typically passive. An example of a passive ETF would be one following a broad-based index like the S&P/ASX 200.

Active investing

Aims to outperform the market using a fund manager’s research and philosophy to select investments.

Smart beta investing

Aims to outperform the market in specific scenarios using rules or methodology in the form of fixed selection and eligibility criteria. It still tracks a benchmark or index but in a more tailored format. An example of a smart-beta ETF is the ETFS S&P/ASX 300 High Yield Plus ETF, which invests in a selection of companies from the S&P/ASX 300 with high and sustainable yields.

Replication methods

There are two ways for passive ETFs to track an index or benchmark – either physical or synthetic replication.

  • Physical replication: invests in the securities or assets of the index or benchmark.

    • Full replication holds all securities in the exact same proportion, for example all 300 companies from the S&P/ASX 300

    • Sampling replication holds a sample of the securities, which can be more cost-effective for indices with numerous constituents or where the top holdings represent most of the portfolio.

  • Synthetic replication: aims to replicate the index or benchmark performance by holding derivatives rather than the underlying securities, usually in the form of swap agreements.

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Why use an ETF?

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Cost Effectiveness

You have the ability to access a broad range of markets and asset classes without buying a large number of individual assets.

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Liquid and transparent

In general, ETFs are as liquid as the underlying assets they hold, and as stocks are listed on the stock market, you can always see how your investment is performing.

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Easy to use

Buying and selling ETFs is the same as trading shares any time the stock market is open, using normal brokerage accounts.

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Risks of ETFs

It is also important to understand the risks associated with ETFs. A list of some risks, not all exclusive to ETF investing, follows.