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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 A lawsuit ensued, and a federal judge in Chicago ruled that they needed to be withdrawn.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

Ranking Asset Classes by Historical Returns (1985-2020)

What are the best-performing investments in 2020, and how do previous years compare? This graphic shows historical returns by asset class.

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Historical Returns by Asset Class

Historical Returns by Asset Class (1985-2020)

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, is there one asset class to rule them all?

From stocks to bonds to alternatives, investors can choose from a wide variety of investment types. The choices can be overwhelming—leaving people to wonder if there’s one investment that consistently outperforms, or if there’s a predictable pattern of performance.

This graphic, which is inspired by and uses data from The Measure of a Plan, shows historical returns by asset class for the last 36 years.

Asset Class Returns by Year

This analysis includes assets of various types, geographies, and risk levels. It uses real total returns, meaning that they account for inflation and the reinvestment of dividends.

Here’s how the data breaks down, this time organized by asset class rather than year:

 U.S. Large Cap StocksU.S. Small Cap StocksInt'l Dev StocksEmerging StocksAll U.S. BondsHigh-Yield U.S. BondsInt'l BondsCash (T-Bill)REITGold
TickerVFIAXVSMAXVTMGXVEMAXVBTLXVWEAXVTABXVUSXXVGSLXIAU
2020*1.5%-5.5%-10.3%-0.7%4.9%-0.5%2.6%-0.7%-16.4%21.9%
201928.5%24.5%19.3%17.6%6.3%13.3%5.5%-0.1%26.1%15.9%
2018-6.2%-11.0%-16.1%-16.2%-1.9%-4.7%1.0%-0.1%-7.7%-3.2%
201719.3%13.8%23.8%28.7%1.4%4.9%0.3%-1.3%2.8%9.3%
20169.7%15.9%0.4%9.5%0.5%9.0%2.5%-1.8%6.3%6.6%
20150.6%-4.3%-0.9%-16.0%-0.3%-2.0%0.3%-0.7%1.6%-12.3%
201412.8%6.7%-6.4%-0.2%5.1%3.9%8.0%-0.7%29.3%-1.2%
201330.4%35.8%20.3%-6.4%-3.6%3.1%-0.4%-1.5%0.9%-29.0%
201214.0%16.2%16.5%16.8%2.4%12.5%4.5%-1.7%15.7%6.5%
2011-0.9%-5.5%-15.0%-21.0%4.6%4.2%0.8%-2.9%5.5%5.5%
201013.4%26.0%6.8%17.2%5.0%10.9%1.7%-1.5%26.6%26.0%
200923.3%32.7%24.9%71.5%3.2%35.6%1.6%-2.4%26.3%20.2%
2008-37.0%-36.1%-41.3%-52.8%5.1%-21.3%5.5%2.0%-37.0%5.4%
20071.3%-2.7%6.8%33.6%2.8%-1.8%0.1%0.7%-19.7%25.8%
200612.9%12.9%23.1%26.3%1.8%5.7%0.5%2.1%31.8%19.3%
20051.4%3.9%9.8%27.7%-0.9%-0.5%1.8%-0.5%8.3%13.0%
20047.3%16.2%16.5%22.1%1.0%5.2%1.8%-2.0%26.7%1.4%
200326.2%43.1%36.1%54.7%2.1%15.1%0.4%-0.9%33.3%19.2%
2002-23.9%-21.8%-17.6%-9.6%5.8%-0.6%4.2%-0.7%1.3%20.8%
2001-13.3%1.6%-23.1%-4.4%6.8%1.3%4.6%2.6%10.7%-0.4%
2000-12.0%-5.8%-17.1%-29.9%7.7%-4.1%5.4%2.5%22.2%-9.6%
199917.9%19.9%23.6%57.3%-3.4%-0.2%-0.6%2.0%-6.5%-1.7%
199826.6%-4.2%18.0%-19.4%6.9%3.9%10.2%3.5%-17.7%-2.4%
199731.0%22.5%0.0%-18.2%7.6%10.0%8.9%3.5%16.8%-23.2%
199618.9%14.3%2.6%12.1%0.3%6.0%8.3%1.9%31.4%-7.7%
199534.0%25.6%8.4%-1.9%15.3%16.2%14.3%3.1%10.0%-1.7%
1994-1.5%-3.1%4.9%-10.1%-5.2%-4.3%-7.3%1.3%0.4%-4.9%
19937.0%15.5%28.9%69.4%6.7%15.1%10.7%0.2%16.3%13.9%
19924.4%14.9%-14.7%7.8%4.1%11.0%3.3%0.6%11.2%-8.7%
199126.3%40.9%8.7%54.5%11.8%25.2%7.5%2.5%31.5%-12.5%
1990-8.9%-22.8%-27.9%-16.1%2.4%-11.3%-2.7%1.6%-20.3%-8.3%
198925.5%11.0%5.6%56.9%8.6%-2.6%-0.6%3.7%3.9%-6.8%
198811.3%19.7%22.8%33.9%2.8%8.8%4.4%2.1%8.6%-19.6%
19870.3%-12.7%19.3%9.3%-2.8%-1.7%4.5%1.3%-7.8%19.0%
198616.8%4.5%67.5%10.4%13.9%15.6%10.1%5.0%17.7%17.9%
198526.4%26.2%50.3%22.9%17.6%17.5%7.0%3.8%14.6%1.7%

*Data for 2020 is as of October 31

The top-performing asset class so far in 2020 is gold, with a return more than four times that of second-place U.S. bonds. On the other hand, real estate investment trusts (REITs) have been the worst-performing investments. Needless to say, economic shutdowns due to COVID-19 have had a devastating effect on commercial real estate.

Over time, the order is fairly random with asset classes moving up and down the ranks. For example, emerging market stocks plummeted to last place amid the global financial crisis in 2008, only to rise to the top the following year. International bonds were near the bottom of the barrel in 2017, but rose to the top during the 2018 market selloff.

There are also large swings in the returns investors can expect in any given year. While the best-performing asset class returned just 1% in 2018, it returned a whopping 71.5% in 2009.

Variation Within Asset Classes

Within individual asset classes, the range in returns can also be quite large. Here’s the minimum, maximum, and average returns for each asset class. We’ve also shown each investment’s standard deviation, which is a measure of volatility or risk.

Return Variation Within Asset Classes Over History

Although emerging market stocks have seen the highest average return, they have also seen the highest standard deviation. On the flip side, T-bills have seen returns lower than inflation since 2009, but have come with the lowest risk.

Investors should factor in risk when they are looking at the return potential of an asset class.

Variety is the Spice of Portfolios

Upon reviewing the historical returns by asset class, there’s no particular investment that has consistently outperformed. Rankings have changed over time depending on a number of economic variables.

However, having a variety of asset classes can ensure you are best positioned to take advantage of tailwinds in any particular year. For instance, bonds have a low correlation with stocks and can cushion against losses during market downturns.

If your mirror could talk, it would tell you there’s no one asset class to rule them all—but a mix of asset classes may be your best chance at success.

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Mining

How to Avoid Common Mistakes With Mining Stocks (Part 4: Project Quality)

Mining is a technical field that manages complex factors from geology to engineering. These details can make or break a project.

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Quality Mining Projects

Mining is a technical field and requires a comprehension of many complex factors.

This includes everything from the characteristics of an orebody to the actual extraction method envisioned and used—and the devil is often found in these technical details.

Part 4: Evaluating Technical Risks and Project Quality

We’ve partnered with Eclipse Gold Mining on an infographic series to show you how to avoid common mistakes when evaluating and investing in mining exploration stocks.

Here is a basic introduction to some technical and project quality characteristics to consider when looking at your next mining investment.

Mining Project Quality

View the three other parts of this series so far:

Part 4: Technical Risks and Project Quality

So what must investors evaluate when it comes to technical risks and project quality?

Let’s take a look at four different factors.

1. Grade: Reliable Hen Vs. Golden Goose

Once mining starts, studies have to be adapted to reality. A mine needs to have the flexibility and robustness to adjust pre-mine plans to the reality of execution.

A “Golden Goose” will just blunder ahead and result in failure after failure due to lack of flexibility and hoping it will one day produce a golden egg.

Many mining projects can come into operation quickly based on complex and detailed studies of a mineral deposit. However, it requires actual mining to prove these studies.

Some mining projects fail to achieve nameplate tonnes and grade once production begins. However, a team response to varying grades and conditions can still make a mine into a profitable mine or a “Reliable Hen.”

2. Money: Piggy Bank vs. Money Pit

The degree of insight into a mineral deposit and the appropriate density of data to support the understanding is what leads to a piggy bank or money pit.

Making a project decision on poor understanding of the geology and limited information leads to the money pit of just making things work.

Just like compound interest, success across many technical aspects increases revenue exponentially, but it can easily go the other way if not enough data is used to make a decision to put a project into production.

3. Environment: Responsible vs. Reckless

Not all projects are situated in an ideal landscape for mining. There are environmental and social factors to consider. A mining company that takes into account these facts has a higher chance of going into production.

Mineral deposits do not occur in convenient locations and require the disruption of the natural environment. Understanding how a mining project will impact its surroundings goes a long way to see whether the project is viable.

4. Team: Orchestra vs. One-Man Band

Mining is a complex and technical industry that relies on many skilled professionals with clear leadership, not just one person doing all the work.

Geologists, accountants, laborers, engineers, and investor relations officers are just some of the roles that a CEO or management team needs to deliver a profitable mine. A good leader will be the conductor of the varying technical teams allowing each to play their best at the right time.

Mining 101: Mining Valuation and Methods

In order to further consider a mining project’s quality, it is important to understand how the company is valued and how it plans to mine a mineral resource.

Valuation

There are two ways to look at the value of a mining project:

  1. The Discounted Cash Flow method estimates the present value of the cash that will come from a mining project over its life.
  2. In-situ Resource Value is a metric that values all the metal in the ground to give an estimate of the dollar value of those resources.

Mining Method

The location of the ore deposit and the quantity of its grade will determine what mining method a company will choose to extract the valuable ore.

  1. Open-pit mining removes valuable ore that is relatively near the surface of the Earth’s crust using power trucks and shovels to move large volumes of rock. Typically, it is a lower cost mining method, meaning lower grades of ore are economic to mine.
  2. Underground mining occurs when the ore body is too deep to mine profitably by open-pit. In other words, the quality of the orebody is high enough to cover the costs of complex engineering underneath the Earth’s crust.

When Technicals and Quality Align

This is a brief overview of where to begin a technical look at a mining project, but typically helps to form some questions for the average investor to consider.

Everything from the characteristics of an orebody to the actual extraction method will determine whether a project can deliver a healthy return to the investor.

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