Infographic: What is an ETF?
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What is an ETF?

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What is an ETF?

What is an ETF?

In 1989, the idea for the exchange-traded fund (ETF) was born.

Initially marketed to investors as Index Participation Shares, this innovative new product was meant to be a proxy for the S&P 500 that also traded on an exchange like a stock. After being launched, this early ETF prototype was immediately targeted by lawyers of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) for illegally behaving like a futures contract. A lawsuit ensued, and a federal judge in Chicago ruled that they needed to be withdrawn.

A year later, the case can be made that Canada was the birthplace of the first successful ETF. This time the product was called Toronto 35 Index Participation Units (TIPs 35), and it tracked the TSE-35 Index at the time. TIPs were instantly lauded for providing low-cost exposure to Canadian equities – and shortly after, many more ETFs in Canada and the United States would follow suit, including the SPDR S&P 500 Trust ETF in 1993.

How do ETFs work?

Today’s infographic from StocksToTrade.com highlights the basics around ETFs, including how they work, what type of assets they can track, and the pros and cons associated with investing in them.

In the most basic sense, an ETF is a type of fund that owns assets – like stocks, commodities, or futures – but has its ownership divided into shares that trade on stock exchanges.

In other words, investors can buy and sell ETFs whenever they want during trading hours. Like a stock, each ETF has a ticker symbol and a price that changes in real-time. However, unlike a stock, the number of shares outstanding can change daily based on the share creation and redemption mechanisms.

Pros and Cons

There are many views out there on ETFs, but it is generally accepted that they provide an inexpensive, transparent, and convenient way to get access to many different asset classes. This makes it easy to diversify a portfolio, and it also makes ETFs simple to buy and sell.

For these reasons, the passive management investment industry has taken off, and the ETF industry now has over $4 trillion of assets under management (AUM) globally. By the year 2021, ETFs are expected to surpass the $7 trillion mark for AUM.

Despite this growth and a wide range of benefits, ETFs do have some detractors.

Critics would be quick to point out that some ETFs are very thinly traded, providing wide bid/ask spreads and lower liquidity. Furthermore, there can also be instances where technical issues can cause a performance gap between the ETF and the index it tracks, known as tracking error.

As a final point, it’s worth mentioning that there is some counterparty risk with ETFs – for example, even if you “own” physically-backed gold through the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), there is a chance that in extreme situations that you may not actually get to see the benefit of that gold. The counterparty risk stems from the possibility of a party failing to deliver on their promises, and is actually quite common to see with other types of assets, as well.

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Investor Education

The Best Months for Stock Market Gains

This infographic analyzes over 30 years of stock market performance to identify the best and worst months for gains.

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The Best Months for Stock Market Gains

Many investors believe that equity markets perform better during certain times of the year.

Is there any truth to these claims, or is it superstitious nonsense? This infographic uses data gathered by Schroders, a British asset management firm, to investigate.

What the Data Says

This analysis is based on 31 years of performance across four major stock indexes:

  • FTSE 100: An index of the top 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange (LSE)
  • MSCI World: An index of over 1,000 large and mid-cap companies within developed markets
  • S&P 500: An index of the 500 largest companies that trade on U.S. stock exchanges
  • Eurostoxx 50: An index of the top 50 blue-chip stocks within the Eurozone region

The percentages in the following table represent the historical frequency of these indexes rising in a given month, between the years 1987 and 2018. Months are ordered from best to worst, in descending order.

RankMonth of Year Frequency of Growth (%)Difference from Mean (p.p.)
#1December79.0%+19.9
#2April74.3%+15.2
#3October68.6%+9.5
#4July61.7%+2.6
#5May58.6%-0.5
#6November58.4%-0.7
#7January57.8%-1.3
#8February57.0%-2.1
#9March56.3%-2.8
#10September51.6%-7.5
#11August49.3%-9.8
#12June36.7%-22.4
Average59.1%n/a

There are some outliers in this dataset that we’ll focus on below.

The Strong Months

In terms of frequency of growth, December has historically been the best month to own stocks. This lines up with a phenomenon known as the “Santa Claus Rally”, which suggests that equity markets rally over Christmas.

One theory is that the holiday season has a psychological effect on investors, driving them to buy rather than sell. We can also hypothesize that many institutional investors are on vacation during this time. This could give bullish retail investors more sway over the direction of the market.

The second best month was April, which is commonly regarded as a strong month for the stock market. One theory is that many investors receive their tax refunds in April, which they then use to buy stocks. The resulting influx of cash pushes prices higher.

Speaking of higher prices, we can also look at this trend from the perspective of returns. Focusing on the S&P 500, and looking back to 1928, April has generated an average return of 0.88%. This is well above the all-month average of 0.47%.

The Weak Months

The three worst months to own stocks, according to this analysis, are June, August, and September. Is it a coincidence that they’re all in the summer?

One theory for the season’s relative weakness is that institutional traders are on vacation, similar to December. Without the holiday cheer, however, the market is less frothy and the reduced liquidity leads to increased risk.

Whether you believe this or not, the data does show a convincing pattern. It’s for this reason that the phrase “sell in May and go away” has become popularized.

Key Takeaways

Investors should remember that this data is based on historical results, and should not be used to make forward-looking decisions in the stock market.

Anomalies like the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 can have a profound impact on the world, and the market as a whole. Stock market performance during these times may deviate greatly from their historical averages seen above.

Regardless, this analysis can still be useful to investors who are trying to understand market movements. For example, if stocks rise in December without any clear catalyst, it could be the famed Santa Claus Rally at work.

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Investor Education

A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

If companies want their stock price to rise, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? This infographic explains why.

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A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

Imagine a shop window containing large pieces of cheese.

If the value of that cheese rises over time, the price may move beyond what the majority of people are willing to pay. This presents a problem as the store wants to continue selling cheese, and people still want to eat it.

The obvious solution is to divide the cheese into smaller pieces. That way, more people can once again afford to buy portions of it, and those who want more can simply buy more of the smaller pieces.

cheese and stock splits

The total volume of the cheese is still worth the same amount, it’s only the portion size that changed. As the infographic above by StocksToTrade demonstrates, the same concept applies to stock splits.

Like wheels of cheese, stocks can be split a number of different ways. Some of the more common splits are 2-for-1, 3-for-1, and 3-for-2. Less common splits can take place as well, such as when Apple increased its outstanding shares by a 7-to-1 ratio in 2014.

Why Companies Do Stock Splits

Of course, stocks aren’t cheese.

The real world of the financial markets, driven by macro trends and animal spirits, is more complex than items in a shop window.

If companies want their stock price to continue rising, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? Here are a some specific reasons why:

1. Liquidity
As our cheese example illustrated, stocks can sometimes see price appreciation to the point where they are no longer accessible to a wide range of investors. Splitting the stock (i.e. making an individual share cheaper) is an effective way of increasing the total number of investors who can purchase shares.

2. Sending a Message
In many cases, announcing a stock split is a harbinger of prosperity for a company. Nasdaq found that companies that split their stock outperformed the market. This is likely due to investor excitement and the fact that companies often split their stock as they approach periods of growth.

3. Reducing Capital Costs
Stocks with prices that are too high have spreads that are wider than similar stocks. When spreads—the difference between the bid and offer—are too large, they eats into investor returns.

4. Meeting Index Criteria
There are specific instances when a company may want to adjust its share price to meet certain index requirements.

One example is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the well-known 30-stock benchmark. The Dow is considered a price-weighted index, which means that the higher a company’s stock price, the more weight and influence it has within the index. Shortly after Apple conducted its 7-to-1 stock split in 2014, dropping the share price from about $650 to $90, the company was added to the DJIA.

On the flip side, a company might decide to pursue a reverse stock split. This takes the existing amount of shares held by investors and replaces them with fewer shares at a higher price. Aside from the general stigma associated with a lower share price, companies need to keep the price above a certain threshold or face the possibility of being delisted from an exchange.

Stock Splits Happen, but are not Inevitable

Alphabet will become the most recent high profile company to split their stock in early 2022. The company’s 20-for-1 stock split aims to make the share price more accessible to retail investors dropping the price from approximately $2,750 to $140 per share.

Conversely, Berkshire Hathaway has famously never split its stock. As a result, a single share of BRK.A is worth over $470,000. Berkshire Hathaway’s legendary founder, Warren Buffett, reasons that splitting the stock would run counter to his buy-and-hold investment philosophy.

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