Five questions to ask before plunging in to an ETF

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been available on the ASX for over 2 decades, but in recent years, this category’s variety and representation within Australian portfolios have grown rapidly.

By offering exposure to different global markets, industry sectors and strategic themes, as well as non-equities asset classes like bonds and commodities, ETFs can provide relatively low-cost “building blocks” for a diversified portfolio.

However, as with any investment, it’s very important to understand what you are putting your money into, and to ensure that it suits your specific needs.  Here are five questions to ask yourself, or your financial adviser, before you purchase an ETF.

Question 1: Does it accurately capture the market exposure that I want?

You wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, so make sure to look beyond the ETF’s name to properly assess the underlying exposure of the product. Common misunderstandings include:

  • Mistaking a “picks and shovels” exposure, through owning suppliers and supporters of a sector, for that sector’s output. For example, a portfolio of cryptocurrency miners and exchange operators is not the same as a direct investment into cryptocurrency;
  • Confusion between ETFs linked to a commodity’s spot price, which is the price for immediate delivery, and those representing a futures curve, which will move with expectations for longer-term pricing; and
  • Overlooking exchange rate movements, which can influence your returns from anything not priced in Australian dollars. This impact can be neutralised with a currency-hedged ETF.

Question 2: Is the exposure active, passive, or somewhere in between?

Early ETFs were purely passive, usually linked to an equities index like the S&P/ASX 200, but now, there are also actively managed portfolios within an ETF structure. “Smart beta” portfolios which apply rules-based investment strategies are becoming more common too, for example, one might invest in a basket of stocks which screen well on quality factors. The exposure type affects fee levels and return potential, with passive ETFs tending to be the cheapest, but lacking the potential to outperform an index benchmark.

Question 3: How liquid is this product?

It is possible for the price of an ETF to diverge from that of its underlying exposure, particularly in volatile market conditions such as the COVID-19 panic in early 2020. To ensure that investors can get in and out of a product when they want to, ETF providers often employ a Market Maker, an institution which quotes separate prices to buy and sell units. Generally, ETFs with a smaller pool of units on issue are more likely to have poor liquidity, and this can show up in a wide spread between the buy and sell prices. Using “at-limit” orders when trading ETFs can help ensure that you receive the price you expect.

Question 4: How does the fee compare to alternatives, and what are the trade-offs?

Low cost is a major benefit of ETFs, but when you have several to choose from, it’s worth understanding why one’s management fee is cheaper. Active management usually costs more, and ETFs linked to a major market benchmark are sometimes priced higher because the index provider takes a cut of the total fee. Unusual products may carry a scarcity premium, while new or smaller-scale offerings may have lower fees, both to compensate for their initially poor liquidity, and also to entice more patronage over time.

Question 5: How does it fit with the rest of my portfolio?

Any new investment should be considered in the context of your existing portfolio. ETFs can provide valuable diversification, but they can also be a source of inadvertent overlap or concentrated exposure to certain sectors or factors. For example, ETFs linked to the S&P 500 index, the NASDAQ 100 and an actively-managed global growth strategy might overlap in high exposure to the Big Tech stocks, so this combination might not provide adequate diversification.


Author: Nick Field

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

DISCLOSURE AT THE DATE OF PUBLICATION: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services.  LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research and their representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

WARNINGS: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to general advice and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness.  If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

DISCLAIMER: No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this document is current as at the date of publication. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of publication but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2022 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

Register for our FREE newsletter to receive investment insights, education, and SMSF trustee updates