What is an ETF?

Money and Life
(Financial Planning Association of Australia)

Like the idea of effortlessly investing in a lot of listed companies at low cost, with a minimum investment outlay, and the potential to achieve good returns? If this sounds like you, then it could be worth exploring the benefits of buying what are called ETFs (Exchange Trade Funds).

While ETFs are by nature complex investment products, think of them as simply a basket of securities such as listed companies (aka stocks). In very simple terms, when you buy an ETF, you’re actually buying a microscopic version of a particular market index.

Let’s explain how that works. If you invest $500 in an ETF that’s linked to a certain stock market index, let’s say for example, the S&P ASX 200, that means your $500 is split up to closely reflect the largest 200 companies on the ASX.

How much of your $500 is invested in each stock depends on its actual weighting on the S&P ASX 200 Index.

For example, if the big miner BHP Billiton accounts for 10 percent of the S&P ASX 200 Index by market capitalisation (ie how much its listed stock are worth), then 10 percent of your $500 will be invested in this stock, and so on according to the weighting of the other 199 stocks on this index.

What are the benefits and risks of investing in ETFs?

For starters, there’s a lot of variety to choose from when investing in an ETF. You can buy an ETF that tracks a basket of stocks on either a local or overseas stock market. Alternatively, you can even buy an ETF that instead of tracking the performance of a stock market index, tracks either currency exchange rates or the price of a single commodity, like gold or silver.

Secondly, by tracking a market index, your investment is exposed to much greater diversification than buying just one stock. ETFs typically cost you less in fees because their operating expenses are usually considerably lower than other investment products.

The other beauty of buying ETFs is that the (stock) price changes throughout the day (aka in real-time) and you can decide to buy and/or sell your ETFs at any time without entry or exit fees (while the stock market is open).

Another benefit of buying ETFs is you can do so with a minimum up-front investment. As an investor in ETFs, you’ll also receive valuable tax breaks under the capital gains tax (CGT) discount rules. Then there are indirect advantages including franking credits that flow through to you directly via regular distributions.

Despite the benefits of buying ETFs, it’s important to remember that they are designed to track a stock market index (or asset class), and if that stock market index falls in value, the price of your ETF would fall by the same amount.

Similarly, if you decide to buy an ETF that tracks an international stock market index, you need to find out how the entity operating the ETF manages their exposure to overseas currencies, and how your investment is protected if those currencies weaken against the Australian dollar.

How can you invest in ETFs?

ETFs are listed entities, and as such can be bought or sold just like any other listed company anytime during the stock exchange’s trading hours. You can buy as many or as few ETFs as you want. But remember, broker fees will apply and the smaller the parcel of ETFs, the higher the proportion of overall costs the fee will be.

You can buy ETFs by contacting your stockbroker or financial planner, or by trading through an online broker.

Need further help understanding the risks and benefits associated with buying ETFs for your situation? A CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER® professional can guide you through everything you need to know, by making it part of your overall plan for less money stress, and better financial wellbeing.

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