Understanding ETF Basics

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Contributor, Benzinga
November 29, 2023

If you're new to investing, you may have heard about exchange-traded funds (ETFs) but may not be entirely sure what they are, how they work or how to invest in them. Exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, have gained popularity in recent years as a low-cost and efficient way to invest in a diversified portfolio of assets. Whether you're a seasoned investor looking to diversify your holdings or a beginner just starting out, understanding ETF basics is essential. In this article, Benzinga covers the basics of ETFs and answers common questions to help you get started.

What are Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)?

An ETF is a type of investment fund that is traded on an exchange like a stock. ETFs are made up of a basket of securities, such as stocks, bonds or commodities, and are designed to track the performance of a particular index or market sector. For example, an ETF that tracks the S&P 500 index would invest in the 500 stocks that make up that index, providing investors with exposure to the overall performance of the U.S. stock market.

ETFs are popular with investors because they offer many benefits over other types of investments, such as mutual funds or individual stocks. Some of the advantages of ETFs include:

  • Diversification: By investing in an ETF, you can gain exposure to a broad range of securities, which can help spread out your risk and reduce the impact of any one stock or bond on your portfolio.
  • Lower costs: ETFs typically have lower fees and expenses than mutual funds, making them an attractive option for cost-conscious investors.
  • Flexibility: ETFs can be bought and sold like stocks, which means you can trade them throughout the day and take advantage of market fluctuations.

How Do ETFs Work?

ETFs are designed to track the performance of a particular index or market sector, such as the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the Nasdaq exchange. To do this, the ETF invests in the underlying securities that make up the index or sector it is tracking.

For example, an ETF that tracks the S&P 500 would invest in the 500 stocks that make up that index in the same proportion as the index. If a stock makes up 2% of the S&P 500, then the ETF would invest 2% of its assets in that stock.

The value of an ETF's shares is determined by the value of the underlying securities in the fund. If the securities go up in value, the ETF's shares will also go up in value. If the securities go down in value, the ETF's shares will drop.

Pros and Cons of Investing in ETFs

While ETFs can be a great way to expand your portfolio they also come with some risk. It's important to weigh the pros and cons and know your investment objective before getting started. Let's dive into the pros and cons of ETF investing.


  • Diversification: ETFs offer exposure to a wide range of assets, reducing the risk of putting all your money in a single investment.
  • Lower costs: ETFs typically have lower expense ratios compared to mutual funds, making them a more cost-effective investment option.
  • Liquidity: ETFs trade on stock exchanges like individual stocks, providing investors with the ability to buy and sell shares throughout the trading day at market prices.
  • Transparency: ETFs disclose their holdings on a daily basis, allowing investors to know exactly what assets they own.


  • Market volatility: Like any investment, ETFs are susceptible to market fluctuations and can experience significant price swings.
  • Tracking error: Some ETFs may not perfectly replicate the performance of their underlying index, resulting in a tracking error that can affect returns.
  • Limited control: Investors have no control over the individual securities held within an ETF, as the fund manager makes all the investment decisions.
  • Dividend taxation: Depending on the country, dividends received from ETFs may be subject to taxation, which can impact overall returns.

How Do I Invest in ETFs?

Investing in ETFs is relatively easy and can be done through an online or traditional brokerage account. Before investing, you'll want to do some research to find an ETF that meets your investment objectives, such as tracking a particular index or investing in a specific sector.

Once you've found an ETF you're interested in, you can buy shares just like you would buy a stock. Place an order through your brokerage account, specifying the number of shares you want to purchase and the price you're willing to pay.

Types of ETFs

There are various types of these investment funds to be aware of.

  • Equity ETFs: These types of ETFs invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks. They can focus on specific sectors, regions, or market capitalizations, allowing investors to gain exposure to a particular segment of the stock market.
  • Bond ETFs: Bond ETFs invest in a diversified portfolio of fixed-income securities, such as government bonds, corporate bonds, or municipal bonds. They provide investors with exposure to the bond market while offering the benefits of diversification and liquidity.
  • Commodity ETFs: Commodity ETFs invest in physical commodities like gold, silver, oil, or agricultural products. They aim to track the performance of the underlying commodity prices. Commodity ETFs allow investors to gain exposure to commodities without the need for physical ownership or futures contracts.
  • Currency ETFs: Currency ETFs track the performance of foreign currencies relative to a base currency, such as the U.S. dollar. They provide investors with a way to gain exposure to the foreign exchange market and hedge against currency risk.
  • Sector ETFs: Sector ETFs focus on specific sectors of the economy, such as technology, healthcare, or energy. They allow investors to target their investments in industries they believe will outperform the broader market.
  • International ETFs: International ETFs invest in stocks or bonds of companies or governments outside the investor's home country. They provide exposure to global markets and allow investors to diversify their portfolios internationally.
  • Style ETFs: Style ETFs, also known as factor ETFs, focus on specific investment styles, such as value, growth, or momentum. They aim to capture the performance of stocks that exhibit certain characteristics or factors.
  • Dividend ETFs: Dividend ETFs invest in stocks that pay regular dividends. They provide investors with income-generating opportunities and can be a suitable choice for those seeking dividend-focused investment strategies.
  • Real Estate ETFs: Real Estate ETFs invest in real estate investment trusts (REITs) or other real estate-related securities. They provide exposure to the real estate market without the need for direct property ownership.
  • Hybrid ETFs: Hybrid ETFs combine multiple asset classes within a single fund. They offer investors a diversified portfolio across different investment types, such as stocks, bonds, and commodities, in a single investment vehicle.

What is the Best ETF for Beginners?

The best ETF for beginners depends on the investor’s specific goals and risk tolerance. However, some popular ETFs for beginners include the Schwab U.S. Broad Market ETF (SCHB), Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), and iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV).

These three funds provide investors with broad exposure to the U.S. stock markets at low costs and minimal effort. All three of these funds are highly diversified, with weights across many sectors such as Information Technology, Financials, Materials, Consumer Discretionary and Industrials. This type of investment fund has been well-established over time with low expense ratios ranging from 0.03% to 0.04%.

Where to Buy ETFs

Are ETFs the Right Investing Strategy for You?

Now that you have explored ETF's structure, advantages, and potential drawbacks, you can be more empowered as a novice investor with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions in the world of finance.

ETFs offer an accessible and diversified way to invest in various asset classes, making them an excellent option for those looking to build a balanced portfolio. By understanding the fundamentals outlined in this article, you can embark on an investment journey with confidence, knowing that ETFs can play a valuable role in financial strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions


Can I trade ETFs throughout the day?


Yes, ETFs can be bought and sold throughout the day, just like stocks.


Are ETFs riskier than mutual funds?


ETFs can be riskier than mutual funds, depending on the specific ETF and the index or sector it is tracking. However, ETFs can also offer lower costs and more flexibility than mutual funds.


Do ETFs pay dividends?


Yes, some ETFs pay dividends, depending on the securities they hold.