Exchange traded funds (ETFs)


Exchange traded funds (ETFs) can be a simple and low-cost way to get investment returns similar to a share index or another underlying asset. However, some ETFs are more complex and risky than others. Here we explain the risks and what you need to know before you invest.

What is an ETF?

An ETF is a type of investment fund that can be bought and sold on a securities exchange market. In Australia, ordinary ETFs are 'passive' investments that track an asset or market index (for example, the ASX200 Australian share index). They generally do not try to outperform the market and will go up or down in value in line with the index they are tracking.

If an investment is called an active ETF then the fund manager is actively trying to outperform the market or index to achieve a different investment objective. See other exchange traded products for information on active ETFs.

The difference between physical and synthetic ETFs

ETFs are available for a broad range of assets including Australian shares, international shares, fixed income products, foreign currencies, precious metals and commodities. They can be used as a way to diversify your investment portfolio, and usually have lower fees than a traditional managed fund.

Physical ETFs

Standard or 'physical ETFs' buy the underlying investments (such as shares and other assets) on the reference index that the ETF is seeking to track.

If you invest in an ETF, you won't directly own the underlying investments, the ETF will own these, you will own units or shares in the ETF.

Your main investment risk is the performance of the underlying shares or other assets. Other risks are discussed below.

Synthetic ETFs

Synthetic ETFs have a material exposure to derivatives as well as the underlying assets that the ETF is seeking to track. Along with the benefits and risks of physical ETFs, synthetic ETFs have additional risks such as the credit risk associated with the derivative counterparty. Find out more about synthetic ETFs.

When the product is not an ETF

Some products that also track an index or other investments may 'look and feel' like ETFs, but they are not ETFs. Products labeled 'exchange traded commodities', 'exchange traded notes', 'exchange traded certificates', and 'exchange traded securities' are not ETFs.

There are also active ETFs, sometimes referred to as exchange traded managed funds and exchange traded hedge funds that, unlike passive ETFs, do not simply track an index. They may use strategies to try to outperform an index or seek enhanced returns. The risks of these products can be different and sometimes much higher than the risks of ETFs.

See other exchange traded products for more information.

How to buy and sell ETFs

The value of a physical ETF investment can rise and fall daily, usually in line with the index it is tracking.

Here are some tips on what to look for before you invest.

Check the price

You can check if the ETF is fairly priced by comparing the offer price (if you're buying) or the bid price (if you're selling) quoted by a broker, with the latest net asset value (NAV) information available for the ETF.

Many ETF issuers provide NAV updates in 'real-time'. These real time price updates are referred to as the indicative or intraday NAV or the 'iNAV'. You can access the latest iNAV from your broker by prefixing the ETF ticker code with a 'Y' (for example, 'YABC' for ticker code 'ABC'). ETF issuers may also regularly update their estimated NAVs on their website.

Price errors (gapping)

The market price of an ETF unit should be close to the NAV per unit of the underlying assets. If the offer price you are quoted by a broker is significantly above the NAV, there is a risk you might pay far more for an ETF than it's worth. If the bid price is significantly below NAV, there is a risk you could sell for less than the value of the underlying investments.

Tracking error

ETF prices will not exactly mimic the price of the index or investment they are designed to track, due to fees, taxes, and other factors. This is called a tracking error.

Under the ASX Quoted Assets (AQUA) market operating rules, some issuers need to engage 'market makers', who aim to ensure that the ETF's price stays relatively close to its NAV. This helps create a more liquid ETF market.

Timing of trades for market-tracking ETFs

To receive an ETF price that is closer to the value of the underlying assets, place orders to buy or sell units at least 30 minutes after the share market opens.

It is also better to buy or sell ETFs when the market for the underlying asset is open. For example, if you're buying or selling a fund that tracks Asian shares, try to place your orders when the Asian market is open. This may reduce price discrepancies between the ETF and the price of the shares that it holds.

What will your ETF investment cost?

While ETFs may have lower fees compared with other managed investments, management fees can vary and may be higher than the fees of an equivalent unlisted or unquoted index fund.

You will also pay brokerage fees when you buy or sell ETF units. If you want to make a small regular investment in a product that tracks an index, you might be better off using an unlisted managed investment such as an index fund where broker fees won't apply to each contribution, although other fees may apply.

Buy-sell spread

The 'buy-sell spread' (the difference between the prices that you can buy and sell ETF units at) could be considered a cost for you when you buy or sell ETF units, although market makers usually ensure the spread remains relatively small.

If you're selling you can work out the 'buy-sell spread' by subtracting the bid price from the NAV to calculate a 'dollar spread' and then dividing the 'dollar spread' by the 'bid price' to get the 'percentage spread'.

If you're buying you can calculate the 'dollar spread' by subtracting the NAV from the offer price, and then calculate 'percentage spread' by dividing the 'dollar spread' by the offer price.

What are the risks of ETFs?

Market liquidity

Some ETFs offer exposure to investments such as small companies, emerging markets or commodities that may be harder to sell in certain circumstances, or more complex and volatile than ordinary company shares. This could increase risks for investors.

Currency risk

If the ETF tracks overseas assets, changes in the value of the Australian dollar may also affect the value of your investment. Some funds may be 'currency hedged' to reduce this risk.

International taxes

When you buy units in an ETF located in another country (but also traded on an Australian market) foreign taxes may apply. For example, if you buy units in a US ETF, US estate taxes may be payable when you die.

Read the PDS to understand how your investment will be taxed, and if you're not sure contact the ETF provider or a tax adviser.

Fixed income ETFs

Fixed income ETFs aim to replicate the performance of assets such as bonds and debentures.

The Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) has restrictions on what indices or non-exchange traded bonds or debentures can underlie an ETF, however the value of the underlying assets may rise and fall, which means the price of the ETF can also rise and fall.

The secondary market for corporate bonds may be less active than the market for ordinary shares, making it harder for the ETF issuer to sell its bond investments. See ASIC's investing in corporate bonds for more information about fixed income investments.

Read the PDS

Read the PDS carefully, ask questions and consider getting professional advice from a licensed financial adviser. You can also check recent market announcements for new information on the product.

Here are some things to consider before investing in an ETF:

  • Liquidity - Is there an active market for the underlying investments? You may be more likely to get a fair price for your ETF units if the underlying assets are traded regularly.
  • Derivatives - If the fund uses derivatives the risks may be higher.
  • Fees - Make sure you are aware of all the fees, including buy-sell spreads, as higher fees may reduce your returns.
  • Tax - How will the ETF returns be taxed?
  • Net asset value (NAV) - Does the price you're about to buy or sell match the NAV quoted by the ETF issuer?
  • Product - Make sure you are buying an ETF. Some other exchange traded products look like ETFs but may have much higher risks.
  • Market - Are you buying a product on an Australian market? Products traded on a market in another country may not have the same rules and protections.
  • Index - Is the index being tracked provided by a reputable index provider? If you're not sure consider getting advice from your financial adviser or stockbroker.

Micro investing in ETFs

Micro investing apps allow you to start an investment portfolio of ETFs with small amounts of money. While many types of investments require at least $500 to start, micro investing allows you to access some investments with as little as $1.

You can build your micro investment account balance by rounding up purchases you make using a contactless card to the nearest dollar (or other set amount) and investing this 'spare change'. You can also build your micro investing account by making regular deposits or by depositing a lump sum amount.

Smart tip

Be sure to understand the fees and charges of micro investing apps. These may include a monthly or percentage fee, depending on your balance, plus fees charged by the ETF providers.

Benefits and risks of micro investing

Micro investing makes it quick and easy to start investing, but there are some things to consider before you sign up.

Benefits of micro investing

  • You can start investing with a very small amount of money.
  • You can start learning about investments without risking too much money.
  • Micro investing apps generally do not charge brokerage fees (but make sure you know what other fees apply).

Risks of micro investing

  • Micro investments carry the same risks as similar investments. For example, if you are investing in growth assets, the value can still fluctuate with the market.
  • Fees can be very high for small balances when compared to other investments.
  • It will probably take you a long time to grow your investment.
  • You will have to pay tax on capital gains.

Before you invest in ETFs do your homework. Read the PDS and consider getting advice from a licensed financial adviser. Diversifying your investments between asset classes and product issuers can help control your risks.

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Last updated: 21 Aug 2019