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5 Costly ETF Mistakes You Can Easily Avoid

ETFs are becoming increasingly popular with investors due to their low cost, transparency, easy tradability and tax efficiency. The ETF revolution has made it possible for individual investors to get a convenient, diversified access to almost any investment strategy in virtually any corner of the investing world. Retail investors now have access to many investment opportunities that were earlier available only to sophisticated, high net worth individuals. Despite their widespread use, there are many misconceptions regarding ETFs leading to costly errors, which can be easily avoided. This article aims to help investors avoid some of those mistakes and become more successful ETF investors. Buying an ETF above Its NAV ETFs usually trade at fair prices, i.e. close to their intrinsic values or aggregate values of their holdings. But at times certain ETFs’ prices deviate from their NAVs and they can trade at a premium or discount to their NAVs. If you buy an ETF (or an ETN) when it is trading at a premium, you can incur losses if you sell after the premium crashes. The popular oil ETN, the iPath S&P Crude Oil Total Return Index ETN (NYSEARCA: OIL ), was trading at an almost 50% premium over its NAV for some time earlier this year. In fact, Barclays had issued a notification warning investors about ETN premiums. As expected, the premium plunged after some time, making investors vulnerable to unexpected losses. Investors should make sure to check the previous day’s closing indicative value on the sponsor’s website. They can also check the intraday indicative value on Yahoo Finance using the ticker for the ETF and adding “^” and “-IV” at the beginning and end. So, for OIL ETN, the ticker for intraday indicative value is ^OIL-IV. Avoiding Low Volume ETFs Many investors confuse low trading volumes with the liquidity of an ETF and some even avoid newer ETFs, which may have better strategies but low trading volumes, in favor of older, more popular products with higher trading volumes. ETFs are different from stocks in this area and their trading volume should not be interpreted like stock trading volume. The liquidity of an ETF is not determined by its trading volume but by the liquidity of underlying shares (ETFs’ holdings). At the same time, low volume does usually lead to wider bid-ask spreads, which add to the trading costs. So, these ETFs are not suitable for frequent trading. And it does make sense to use limit orders while trading in low-volume ETFs. Using Market Orders during Volatile Markets The market mayhem on Monday, August 24, last year (ETF Flash Crash) left some harsh lessons for ETF investors. Many ETFs fell 20% or more and some as much as 30%-45% that morning, even though their underlying stocks had not declined so much. Large dislocations in ETFs’ prices were seen not only in smaller ETFs but in some very large and popular ETFs such as the Guggenheim S&P Equal Weight ETF (NYSEARCA: RSP ) and the Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF (NYSEARCA: VDC ). While these discrepancies lasted only for a short period of time, none of the trades executed during that time were canceled. There were many factors that caused ETFs’ pricing problems. But the biggest mistake that ETF investors could have avoided was using “market orders” during those turbulent market conditions. Investors who had left a sell market order or a sleeping stop-loss sell order for one of the ETFs that had severe distortion in pricing probably saw their orders hit at worst possible prices, much below fair values. Ignoring the Contango Impact on Commodity ETFs While some commodity ETFs, mainly those tracking precious metals hold the physical commodity, most commodity ETFs use futures contracts to track the price of commodities due to high storage costs. These futures contracts are required to be rolled over when they are close to expiration. At times, futures price of the commodity is higher than the spot price – known as “contango” – which results in losses at the time of rolling over the contracts. Contango affects the performance of ETFs since the futures contracts’ return will be lower than spot price returns of the commodity. A recent article in WSJ highlighted this issue in the performance of ETFs that track the performance of oil using futures, including the PowerShares DB Oil ETF (NYSEARCA: DBO ), the United States Oil ETF (NYSEARCA: USO ) and OIL. While US crude futures were down about 20% through February 22 this year, oil funds fared much worse. Always Buying Currency Hedged International ETFs Currency hedged ETFs have been quite hot in the past couple years as the US dollar surged against most other currencies. By hedging out the currency exposure, through currency hedged ETFs, investors get access to pure equity returns in international markets. Investors should also remember that often stocks and currencies move in the same direction. That is, if an economy strengthens, its stock market as well as the currency will perform well. In such cases of positive correlation, hedging will actually work against investors. However in some cases, particularly in cases of export oriented economies, stocks and currencies have shown a negative correlation historically. That’s why currency hedged Japan funds performed so well in the recent past. That said currency hedging is not always a good idea. Take the example of Japan ETFs – while currency hedged products like the WisdomTree Japan Hedged ETF (NYSEARCA: DXJ ) outperformed the unhedged ones like the iShares MSCI Japan ETF (NYSEARCA: EWJ ) over the past couple years, as the yen weakened against the dollar, they have underperformed over the past 2-3 months, as the Japanese currency rebounded, thanks mainly to its safe-haven status and worse-than-expected stimulus measures announced by the BOJ. Original Post

ETFs Don’t Kill Investors, Investors Kill Investors

There was a good piece in the WSJ today discussing potential “flaws” in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs are a relatively new product that have amassed huge quantities of assets in the last few decades, but are still dwarfed by the mutual fund space (roughly 2.1 trillion in assets, versus 12.6 trillion in mutual funds). The SEC recently said “It may be time to re-examine the entire ETF ecosystem.” That sounds a bit hyperbolic to me. ETFs aren’t necessarily dangerous unless you misunderstand them or misuse them. Unfortunately, a lot of behavioral bias appears to be driving the misguided fears about ETFs. 1. ETFs can be dangerous when misused. The first exchange-traded fund founded in 1993 was the SPDR S&P 500 Trust ETF (NYSEARCA: SPY ) which was designed to track the S&P 500. It’s a remarkably tax- and fee-efficient product that has served its investors very well since its founding. This was a very simple product designed for passive indexing, but the ETF space has morphed substantially since 1993. Much like the mutual fund space, it has morphed from a simple indexing product into a series of products that feed investor impatience and desire for rapid profits. And so we’ve seen a substantial surge in “active” ETFs, leveraged ETFs, “hedged” ETFs and other similar products. Many of these products abuse the efficiencies of ETFs by being tax-inefficient and fee-inefficient. They sell the diversification of indexing, but saddle investors with all the negatives that result in higher fees, tax inefficiencies and poor performance. I’ve written substantially on the dangers of leveraged ETFs and how fund companies sell high-fee closet indexing ETFs in exchange for empty promises about hedging and “market beating” returns. These products, in my opinion, are often dangerous and sold on false premises. But that does not mean we should make sweeping generalizations about the entire ETF space. The fact that some ETFs are bad does not mean they are all bad. ETFs are dangerous when misunderstood and misused. As Warren Buffett says, never invest in something you don’t understand. 2. ETFs traded precisely as they should have during the August Flash Crash. One of the primary drivers of the fears around ETFs was the morning of the Flash Crash in August, when many ETFs declined by 30-40% for no reason. We should be really clear about what happened earlier this year during the Flash Crash. ETFs traded precisely how they should have during this event. ETFs are liquid trading instruments designed to reflect the aggregate performance of their underlying holdings. On the morning of the Flash Crash, there were a huge number of stocks that were halted or illiquid. An ETF trades with a market price (the price you see) and an intra-day indicative value (the price the market maker sees). The market maker will try to keep the IIV as close to the market price as they can by making a market in the ETF. But when most of the underlying holdings are halted, there is no reliable IIV, and so, the price of the ETF is basically unknown until the underlying holdings open again. This problem was exacerbated during the Flash Crash because there are fewer human traders there to identify the sorts of issues that I identified in real time: Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t understand this or implemented stop loss orders that resulted in sales well below where the ETF should have actually been trading. I watched this happen in real time, and was even able to execute buy orders at a 25%+ discount, due entirely to these behaviorally biased investors. Make no mistake, this was not a flaw in the way ETFs work. It was purely user error. ETFs are not inherently dangerous, but like many investment products, they can be abused by people who don’t understand them or misuse them. This isn’t a product flaw. It is a human flaw as old as the financial markets themselves. If you want to better understand ETFs I recommend reading the following primer from ICI or this one from BlackRock . Well informed is well armed.