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29 years and counting: making the case for ETFs

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April 2022

When the first exchange-traded fund (ETF) was launched on January 22, 1993,1 few could have imagined how popular this form of investing would quickly become. As of the end of 2021, global ETF assets had rocketed to reach more than $9 trillion, up from nearly $8 trillion in 2020,2 with its growth showing no signs of letting up anytime soon.

Given the relative tax efficiency of the product—whereby investors are generally not affected by the liabilities related to the redemptions made by other shareholders—it is easy to understand their popularity. Liquidity, transparency and pricing, on average, are also compelling reasons cited in favor of ETFs.

So flexible

Investors have found plenty of uses for ETFs since their introduction. Being tradeable intraday, ETFs can enable quick investment in a diversified set of securities and asset classes.

Investors can also utilize ETFs as long-term core holdings or as an expression of tactical asset-allocation views. The possible applications are vast.

Do your homework

If we look beyond the fund structure itself, however, we can see that not all ETFs are created equal. Indeed, there are a number of factors investors need to consider when selecting one. For instance, while a range of passive ETFs might all claim to follow the exact same index/benchmark, the returns in each are unlikely to be identical.

Among the factors that may impact relative individual ETF returns are:

  • their respective expense ratios;
  • tracking errors relative to the benchmark; and
  • the bid-offer spread an investor pays to purchase or sell the ETF shares.

Investors will also notice the returns of their ETF habitually lag their designated benchmark or index. This is because any underlying index itself which the ETF is tracking does not incur any transaction costs when constituents enter or exit. Neither does an index trade with a bid-offer spread (the difference between the price point at which someone is prepared to sell a share and that at which they are prepared to buy). Liquidity has a crucial influence on ETF costs. So, when looking for the most competitive ETFs, investors may lean toward larger funds. Generally, the greater the trading volume in an ETF, the tighter the bid-offer spread.

In some ETFs, the combination of costs such as those outlined above typically add up to less than 1% of its value. With this in mind, it is important investors do their homework. Some ETFs may have overall low expense ratios relative to their size, modest trading costs, and tight bid-offer spreads.

The appeal and investor use of ETFs is wide ranging—from those using it as a relatively low-cost diversification tool to those who prefer to invest in such products as a core investment.

1 “A Brief History of Exchange-Traded Funds, Investopedia; accessed August 2019.

2 “Development of assets of global exchange-traded funds (ETFs) from 2003-21,” Statista; accessed March 2022.


Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of a fund carefully before investing. To obtain a prospectus, or a summary prospectus, if available, that contains this and other information about a fund, contact your financial professional or visit Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.

ETF shares are listed on an exchange, and shares are generally purchased and sold in the secondary market at market price. At times, the market price may be at a premium or discount to the ETF's per share NAV. In addition, ETFs are subject to the risk that an active trading market for an ETF's shares may not develop or be maintained. Buying or selling ETF shares on an exchange may require the payment of brokerage commissions.

ETFs trade like stocks, are subject to investment risk, including possible loss of principal. The risks of investing in the ETF typically reflect the risks associated with the types of instruments in which the ETF invests. Diversification cannot assure a profit or protect against loss.

Bonds are subject to interest rate, credit, liquidity, call and market risks, to varying degrees. Generally, all other factors being equal, bond prices are inversely related to interest-rate changes and rate increases can cause price declines. High-yield bonds involve increased credit and liquidity risk than higher rated bonds and are considered speculative in terms of the issuer’s ability to pay interest and repay principal on a timely basis. Equities are subject to market, market sector, market liquidity, issuer, and investment style risks to varying degrees. Small and midsized company stocks tend to be more volatile and less liquid than larger company stocks as these companies are less established and have more volatile earnings histories. Investing in foreign denominated and/or domiciled securities involves special risks, including changes in currency exchange rates, political, economic, and social instability, limited company information, differing auditing and legal standards, and less market liquidity. These risks generally are greater with emerging market countries.

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BNY Mellon Investment Management is one of the world’s leading investment management organizations, encompassing BNY Mellon’s affiliated investment management firms and global distribution companies. BNY Mellon is the corporate brand of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation and may also be used as a generic term to reference the Corporation as a whole or its various subsidiaries generally.

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