Advertisement

Exchange-traded fund (ETF)

An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is an equity-based product combining the characteristics of an individual share with those of a collective fund.

Updated August 2018

Exchange-traded funds (ETF) are investment funds that are bought and sold on a stock exchange in the same way as you would trade normal shares. Unlike investment trusts, which are also traded on exchanges, ETFs are mostly passive investments.This means their aim is to track the performance of a particular market, rather than to try to beat it, as an active fund does.

Advertisement - Article continues below

ETFs are available on a wide range of indices, sectors, investment themes and commodities (and because of their huge and rapidly growing popularity, index providers are constantly launching new indices for them to track). Given their largely passive structure, ETFs tend to have lower fees than most traditional active funds, and rampant competition is driving the price ever lower.

ETFs come in two types: "physical" and "synthetic". A physical ETF invests in the same assets that it's supposed to track. For example, a FTSE 100 ETF will invest in FTSE 100 stocks in proportion to their weighting in the index itself. A synthetic ETF instead agrees a "swap" with a third party typically an investment bank which agrees to pay the ETF a return based on the performance of the index.

Many investors prefer physical ETFs because they view them as less vulnerable to unexpected risks, such as the possibility that the counterparty to the swap won't pay out. However, synthetic ETFs based in the UK and Europe must hold collateral to back these swaps, which means the risks should be limited.

Physical ETFs are arguably simpler and more transparent, but there are situations in which synthetic ETFs may be superior. For example, when investing in certain emerging markets, some of which restrict foreign investment and share ownership, a swap-based structure may be more cost-effective than investing directly in the underlying shares.

Watch Tim Bennett's video tutorial: What is an exchange-traded fund?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommended

Economic indicators
Glossary

Economic indicators

An economic indicator is any statistic that allows us to analyse how the economy is performing or is likely to perform in future.
31 Jul 2020
Modern monetary theory (MMT)
Glossary

Modern monetary theory (MMT)

Modern Monetary theory, or MMT, has become popular on the left, both in the UK and abroad. (Wags say that it stands for "magic money tree".) 
14 Jul 2020
Modern monetary theory (MMT)
Glossary

Modern monetary theory (MMT)

Modern monetary theory, or MMT, has become popular on the left, both in the UK and abroad. (Wags say that it stands for "magic money tree".) 
14 Jul 2020
Barbell strategy
Glossary

Barbell strategy

A “barbell… investment strategy means weighting a portfolio towards the two extreme ends of an asset class with nothing in the middle.
8 Jul 2020

Most Popular

Eagle Lightweight GT: the reincarnation of the E-type Jag
Toys and gadgets

Eagle Lightweight GT: the reincarnation of the E-type Jag

Jaguar’s classic E-type sports car has been reinvented for the modern age. The result – the Eagle Lightweight GT – is a thing of beauty.
7 Aug 2020
Platinum: the precious metal that looks set to play catch-up with silver and gold
Silver and other precious metals

Platinum: the precious metal that looks set to play catch-up with silver and gold

Gold and silver continue to soar, but there's still time to get in. And there's another precious metal that looks set to go on a bull run too, says Jo…
7 Aug 2020
UK house prices hit a new record high – can it last?
House prices

UK house prices hit a new record high – can it last?

Despite the pandemic, UK house prices have hit a new high. John Stepek looks at what’s driving the surge in prices, and what it means for house prices…
7 Aug 2020