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What Are ETFs? Understanding the Basics of Exchange-Traded Funds

Published by honor in category Precious Metal Information Guides on 13.10.2023
Gold price (XAU-GBP)
1,833.74 GBP/oz
- GBP37.20
Silver price (XAG-GBP)
23.72 GBP/oz
- GBP0.49

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) have gained significant popularity among investors. These investment vehicles offer a convenient and flexible way to diversify portfolios and participate in various markets.

This article aims to demystify the concept of ETFs and provide a comprehensive yet accessible overview. Whether you’re a beginner looking to grasp the fundamentals or an experienced investor seeking a refresher, this guide will equip you with the knowledge necessary to navigate the world of ETFs confidently.

In the following sections, we will explore what ETFs are, how they work, their advantages and disadvantages, and their role within an investment strategy. You should understand ETFs and be better prepared to incorporate them into your investment portfolio. So, let’s dive in!

Demystifying ETFs: The Basics Explained

What is an ETF?

  • ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund. It is an investment fund that trades on stock exchanges, like individual stocks.
  • An ETF is designed to track the performance of a specific index, sector, commodity, or asset class. It allows investors to gain exposure to a diversified portfolio of assets without buying each security.
  • ETFs are popular because they offer easy and cost-effective access to a wide range of investments, providing flexibility and liquidity to investors. Let us look at an example to understand ETFs even better.

Example based on Nasdaq 100 index


  • The Nasdaq 100 index is a collection of 100 large, non-financial companies listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. It includes major technology and growth-oriented companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
  • Tracking the performance of these companies, the Nasdaq 100 index shows how the technology sector and these prominent companies are doing in the stock market.
  • An example of an ETF that tracks the Nasdaq 100 index is the Invesco QQQ Trust, commonly called QQQ. By investing in QQQ, investors can gain exposure to the performance of these leading technology and growth-oriented companies.
  • QQQ provides a convenient way for investors to participate in the potential growth of the technology sector and benefit from the overall performance of the Nasdaq 100 index without having to invest in each constituent stock individually.

How do ETFs work?

ETFs are investment funds that combine money from many investors to create a diverse portfolio. They are made to follow the performance of a specific index, sector, commodity, or asset class.

When you invest in an ETF, you’re buying shares of that fund, representing your ownership in its assets.

ETFs are traded on stock exchanges like regular stocks, and their prices change throughout the trading day. The fund manager’s goal is to ensure that the ETF’s price closely matches the value of its assets. To do this, authorised participants (usually big financial institutions) can create or redeem ETF shares in large groups.

New shares are created when more people want to invest in the ETF, and when demand is low, shares can be redeemed.

Investing in ETFs has benefits. First, they offer diversification by holding a mix of different investments. This helps reduce risk because if one investment does poorly, others might do well. Second, ETFs give you easy access to various investments, including different types of assets and markets. This helps you build a balanced portfolio.

Lastly, ETFs are easy to buy and sell throughout the day at market prices. This makes them more flexible than traditional mutual funds, which can only be bought or sold at the end of the day at a fixed value.

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Key Features of ETFs

  • Diversification: ETFs offer instant diversification by holding a basket of assets. This lets investors gain exposure to multiple stocks, bonds, or other assets through a single investment.
  • Transparency: ETFs disclose their holdings daily, allowing investors to see the underlying assets in the fund. This transparency enables investors to make informed decisions about the composition and risk profile of the ETF.
  • Lower Costs: ETFs often have lower expense ratios than actively managed mutual funds. This is because ETFs typically aim to replicate the performance of an index rather than actively selecting and managing individual securities.
  • Tax Efficiency: ETFs are structured in a way that can help minimise capital gains distributions. Due to the creation and redemption mechanism, capital gains are generally realised when shares are sold by individual investors rather than within the ETF itself.
  • Flexibility: ETFs can be bought and sold throughout the trading day at market prices. This allows investors to respond quickly to market conditions and manage their positions more actively.

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Understanding these key features of ETFs sets the foundation for exploring their advantages, disadvantages, and the various types of ETFs available in the market.

ETFs vs. Stocks

ETFs and stocks are both traded on stock exchanges, but they have some fundamental differences:


  • ETFs offer built-in diversification since they hold a basket of assets. Investing in an ETF exposes you to multiple stocks or other assets within a single investment. On the other hand, when you buy individual stocks, your investment is concentrated in a specific company.

Trading Flexibility

  • ETFs can be bought and sold throughout the trading day at market prices, just like stocks. This allows investors to respond quickly to market movements and adjust their positions accordingly. In contrast, individual stocks may have limited liquidity and can only be traded during market hours.


  • ETFs typically have lower expense ratios than actively managed mutual funds. However, when it comes to trading costs, buying and selling individual stocks may incur brokerage fees, whereas ETF transactions may have similar costs.


  • Investing in individual stocks exposes you to the specific risks associated with those companies. On the other hand, ETFs spread the risk across a diversified portfolio of assets, reducing the impact of any security’s performance.

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Gold ETFs vs. Gold Bullion

Let’s compare gold bullion and gold ETFs, two investment options related to gold:

Physical Ownership

  • Gold Bullion: With gold bullion, you physically own the gold through bars or coins. You can store it yourself or use secure storage options, but it requires responsibility for safekeeping.
  • Gold ETFs: Gold ETFs represent ownership in gold, but you don’t physically possess the metal. Instead, you own shares of an ETF that tracks the price of gold. The ETF holds the physical gold on your behalf.

Accessibility and Liquidity

  • Gold Bullion: Buying and selling gold bullion may require speaking to a reputable dealer, arranging secure storage, and potentially incurring costs for storage and insurance. Selling physical gold can also involve additional effort.
  • Gold ETFs: Gold ETFs are traded on stock exchanges, making them easily accessible. They offer high liquidity, enabling you to buy or sell shares throughout the trading day at market prices.


  • Gold Bullion: Purchasing gold bullion involves the cost of the gold itself, along with potential expenses for storage, insurance, and security measures. These costs can impact overall returns.
  • Gold ETFs: Gold ETFs typically have lower expenses compared to owning physical gold. They involve management fees but eliminate expenses related to storage and insurance since you don’t possess the physical gold.

Flexibility and Diversification

  • Gold Bullion: Owning physical gold provides a tangible asset and may act as a hedge against inflation or economic uncertainty. However, it lacks the flexibility and diversification that ETFs offer.
  • Gold ETFs: Gold ETFs provide flexibility by allowing you to invest in gold without the logistical challenges of physical ownership. ETFs also offer the potential for diversification as they can hold different assets, providing exposure to the gold market and other investments.

Choosing gold bullion and Gold ETFs depends on personal preferences, convenience, and investment goals. Gold bullion appeals to those who desire physical ownership and value the tangibility of the metal. On the other hand, gold ETFs offer accessibility, liquidity, cost-efficiency, and potential diversification benefits.

Benefits of Investing in ETFs


  • One of the key benefits of investing in ETFs is the built-in diversification they provide. ETFs typically hold a diversified portfolio of assets, such as stocks, bonds, or commodities.
  • By owning shares of an ETF, investors gain exposure to a broad range of securities or an entire market segment, reducing the risk associated with investing in individual stocks or bonds.
  • Diversification helps mitigate the impact of poor performance from any asset within the ETF. Investors can achieve more stable and consistent returns over time by spreading investments across multiple holdings.

You can see different ETF portfolios and allocation examples here (you will be redirected to another page)

Lower Costs

  • ETFs are known for their cost-efficiency compared to other investment options, particularly actively managed mutual funds.
  • ETFs generally have lower expense ratios because they are designed to track an index’s performance rather than relying on active management and research.
  • The lower expenses associated with ETFs can significantly impact long-term returns. Over time, even small differences in expense ratios can compound, leading to higher overall investment returns for ETF investors.
  • Additionally, ETFs often have lower transaction costs. Since they are traded on stock exchanges, investors can take advantage of competitive pricing and potentially lower brokerage fees than trading individual stocks or bonds.

Flexibility and Liquidity

  • ETFs offer investors a high level of flexibility and liquidity. Unlike mutual funds, which are typically bought or sold at the end of the trading day at the net asset value (NAV), ETFs can be bought or sold throughout the trading day at market prices.
  • This intraday tradability allows investors to react quickly to market conditions, take advantage of short-term trading opportunities, or adjust their investment positions as needed. It also provides the ability to implement specific investment strategies, such as hedging or tactical asset allocation.
  • Furthermore, ETFs tend to have high liquidity due to their ability to be traded on stock exchanges. This means that investors can easily buy or sell ETF shares without significantly impacting their market prices, providing ample liquidity for small and large investments.
  • The combination of flexibility and liquidity makes ETFs a versatile investment option suitable for various investment goals and trading preferences.
  • By understanding the different types of ETFs and how they track specific markets or sectors, investors can tailor their investment strategies and gain exposure to targeted areas of the market that align with their investment objectives and risk tolerance.

Potential Risks and Considerations

Market Volatility

Market Volatility

Like any other investment, one of the key risks associated with investing in ETFs is market volatility. ETFs, especially those tracking equity markets, can be subject to price fluctuations and market downturns. During periods of heightened market volatility, the value of ETF shares can decline, potentially resulting in investor losses.

Investors must know the underlying market risks and understand that ETFs are not immune to market volatility. Conducting thorough research, diversifying investments, and having a long-term investment perspective can help mitigate the impact of market volatility.

Tracking Errors

While ETFs aim to track the performance of a specific index or benchmark, there can be instances of tracking errors. Tracking errors occur when the ETF’s actual performance deviates from the performance of the underlying index.

Tracking errors can be caused by factors such as management fees, trading costs, imperfect replication of the index, or differences in the timing of portfolio rebalancing. These deviations can impact the ETF’s returns relative to the index it seeks to track.

Investors should carefully evaluate an ETF’s historical tracking performance, review its tracking error disclosures, and consider factors affecting the ETF’s ability to replicate the index accurately.

Understanding Expense Ratios

While ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than actively managed mutual funds, investors should still understand the expense structure of the ETFs they invest in. Expense ratios represent the annual fees the ETF provider charges for managing the fund.

Assessing the expense ratio of the ETF’s investment strategy, tracking methodology, and performance is crucial. Higher expense ratios can eat into investment returns over time, so investors should consider the cost-effectiveness of the ETF and compare it with alternative options.

Additionally, investors should be aware of any additional costs associated with trading ETFs, such as brokerage fees or commissions, which can impact the overall cost of investing.

Investors can make informed decisions when incorporating ETFs into their investment portfolios by carefully evaluating and understanding these risks and considerations. It’s essential to consider individual investment goals and risk tolerance and conduct thorough research before investing in any financial product.

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Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) have become popular due to their unique features and benefits. Throughout this guide, we have demystified the basics of ETFs, explained how they work, and explored their advantages and considerations.

ETFs offer investors diversification by providing exposure to a basket of assets, reducing risk compared to investing in individual securities. They also tend to have lower costs than actively managed mutual funds, making them a cost-effective investment option. ETFs provide flexibility and liquidity, allowing investors to trade throughout the day and respond quickly to market conditions.

We discussed different ETFs, including index ETFs that track market indices, sector ETFs focusing on specific sectors, bond ETFs for fixed-income exposure, and commodity ETFs offering access to commodities. Understanding these types helps investors align their investments with specific market segments or themes.

However, it’s important to recognize the potential risks associated with ETF investing. Market volatility can impact ETF prices, and tracking errors may occur, resulting in deviations from the underlying index’s performance. Evaluating expense ratios and understanding associated costs is crucial to assessing ETFs’ cost-effectiveness.

Investors can make informed decisions when incorporating ETFs into their investment portfolios by considering these factors. ETFs can be powerful tools for diversification, cost efficiency, and targeted market exposure. Conducting thorough research, understanding investment goals, and maintaining a long-term perspective are essential for successful ETF investing.

As with any investment, consulting with a financial advisor or conducting further research is advisable to ensure ETFs align with your financial objectives and risk tolerance. ETFs can be valuable additions to a well-rounded investment strategy, providing access to a wide range of markets and opportunities for long-term growth.

Gold price (XAU-GBP)
1,833.74 GBP/oz
- GBP37.20
Silver price (XAG-GBP)
23.72 GBP/oz
- GBP0.49

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