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ETFs had their genesis in 1989 with Index Participation Shares, an S&P 500 proxy that traded on the American Stock Exchange and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. This product, however, was short-lived after a lawsuit by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was successful in stopping sales in the United States.
A similar product, Toronto Index Participation Shares, started trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1990. The shares, which tracked the TSE 35 and later the TSE 100 stocks, proved to be popular. The popularity of these products led the American Stock Exchange to try to develop something that would satisfy SEC regulation in the United States.
Nathan Most, an executive with the exchange, developed Standard & Poor's Depositary Receipts (AMEX: SPY), which were introduced in January 1993. Known as SPDRs or "Spiders", the fund became the largest ETF in the world. Other U.S. ETFs quickly followed based on other broad market indexes.
Barclays Global Fund Advisors, a subsidiary of Barclays plc, entered the fray in 1996 with World Equity Benchmark Shares, or WEBS, subsequently renamed iShares MSCI Index Fund Shares. WEBS were particularly innovative because they gave casual investors easy access to foreign markets. While SPDRs were organized as unit investment trusts, WEBS were set up as a mutual fund, the first of their kind.
In 1998, State Street Global Advisors introduced the "Sector Spiders," which follow the nine sectors of the S&P 500.
Since then ETFs have proliferated, tailored to an increasingly specific array of regions, sectors, commodities, bonds, futures, and other asset classes. As of February 2008, there were 634 ETFs in the U.S., with $559 billion in assets, an increase of $126 billion over the previous twelve months.
ETFs are structured for tax efficiency and can be more attractive than mutual funds.
In the U.S., whenever a mutual fund realizes a capital gain that is not balanced by a realized loss, the mutual fund must distribute the capital gains to its shareholders. This can happen when stocks are added to and removed from the index, or when a large number of shares are redeemed (such as during a panic). These gains are taxable to all shareholders, even those who reinvest the gains distributions in more shares of the fund. In contrast, ETFs are not redeemed by holders (instead, holders simply sell their ETF shares on the stock market, as they would a stock, or effect a non-taxable redemption of a creation unit for portfolio securities), so that investors generally only realize capital gains when they sell their own shares.
However, there are some potential taxation drawbacks to ETFs in the United States. One argument made in favor of index mutual funds having a tax advantage over ETFs is that ETFs often trade their shares more rapidly to maintain a high cost basis of their underlying shares. This can result in ETF dividends failing to be classified as qualified dividends since the underlying shares don’t satisfy the IRS requirements.
In the U.K., ETFs can be shielded from capital gains tax by placing them in an Individual Savings Account or Self-invested personal pension, in the same manner as many other shares.
Perhaps the most important benefit of an ETF is the stock-like features offered. Since ETFs trade on the market, investors can carry out the same types of trades that they can with a stock. For instance, investors can sell short, use a limit order, use a stop-loss order, buy on margin, and invest as much or as little money as they wish (there is no minimum investment requirement). Also, many ETFs have the capability for options (puts and calls) to be written against them. Mutual funds do not offer those features.
For example, an investor in a mutual fund can only purchase or sell at the end of the day at the mutual fund's closing price. This makes stop-loss orders much less useful for mutual funds, and not all brokers even allow them. An ETF is continually priced throughout the day and therefore is not subject to this disadvantage, allowing the user to react to adverse or beneficial market condition on an intraday basis. This stock-like liquidity allows an investor to trade the ETF for cash throughout regular trading hours, and often after-hours on ECNs. ETF liquidity varies according to trading volume and liquidity of the underlying securities, but very liquid ETFs such as SPDRs can be traded pre-market and after-hours with reasonably tight spreads. These characteristics can be important for investors concerned with liquidity risk.
Another advantage is that ETFs, like closed-end funds, are immune from the market timing problems that have plagued open-end mutual funds. In these timing attacks, investors trade in and out of a mutual fund quickly, exploiting minor variances in price in order to profit at the expense of the long-term shareholders. With an ETF (or closed-end fund) such an operation is not possible—the underlying assets of the fund are not affected by its trading on the market.
Investors can profit from the difference in the share values of the underlying assets of the ETF and the trading price of the ETF's shares. ETF shares will trade at a premium to net asset value when demand is high and at a discount to net asset value when demand is low. In effect, the ETF is providing a system for arbitraging value in the market. As the initial costs are one-off, the ETF vehicle offers some cost advantages over other forms of pooled investment vehicles.