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Role of Exchange Traded Funds in Investor's Portfolio

In last five years or so, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have grown in numbers and it asset values. In my view, ETF is another form of investing vehicle available (among many others) to investing or trading community. The major attraction for ETF has been low cost expenses and fees in comparison to mutual funds and ability in trade during market hours. Like any other investing vehicles, I believe ETFs are good vehicles depending upon how/why an individual investor uses in its portfolio. The simplicity with which you can buy and sell an ETF makes it even more difficult to understand how it is structured, what are its constituents, etc., So before you buy an ETF you much understand why you want to buy it and what role it plays in your portfolio. Broad market exposure and access to alternative assets are two important roles ETF can play in your portfolios.

  • Broad Exposure: ETFs are very good investment vehicle for hedging against broad market performance, broad industry sector, broader country exposure, or any particular asset class. When investing in ETF, investors need to make sure that it represents its intended objective. Many ETFs just invest in few bunch of stocks and expect only those small number of stocks to provide broader exposure. In my viewpoint, ETFs for broad exposure should consist of more than 250 or 300 stocks.
  • Access to Alternative Assets: This is one the significant benefits depending upon how the ETF is constructed. E.g. ETFs based funds for leverages, currencies, commodities, futures, etc are being made available. However, I believe that such ETFs are high risk opportunities. I am not advocating the use of such assets, but merely pointing the fact that such asset classes were not available earlier. Whichever theme one chooses, I believe the asset in ETFs should be basket of stocks or businesses dealing in those particular domains.

ETFs can play these two roles successfully if investors are investing for long haul and understand their structure.

  • Time Horizon: Investment in ETFs should be for long haul. The time horizon should be in the order 10 years, 15 years, or even more. The true benefit of investing ETF is derived when investing for long term. One of the methods to invest in ETF is dollar cost averaging over a period of time. There is a school of thought that investors should buy when an ETF is below intrinsic value or relative PE is less than one. In my view for individual investor, it is next to impossible or futile to go into this exercise. Keep it simple, and hence buy and/or continue to add when it is below 200 day and 365 day moving average.
  • ETF Structure: Understand what an ETF consists of, e.g. common stocks, futures, options, leverages, etc. Many ETFs are closed end funds with high expenses, many provide dividends that include return of capital, many provide short term gains distributions (tax implications), many consist of only 30 or 40 stocks based on capitalization, etc. In addition, investors need to more careful for ETF focusing on emerging markets. Many funds just invest in ADR/GDR/ADS, which is locally available in US and still charge high fees, many only have less than 100 stocks, etc.

If your strategically, ETFs can provide the strengthen investors portfolio and help in asset allocation. At this point in time, I believe ETFs are the best investment vehicles to get exposure to emerging markets. Investors do not need to worry about identifying countries or individual companies in emerging countries. They not only provide individual investors a means to invest, but also a mechanism to buy and sell easily during trading hours.

What role does ETF play your portfolio?

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