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Strange Season for ETFs


On the ninth day before Christmas, money invested in U.S.-listed exchange traded funds and exchange-traded products crossed $1 trillion for the first time. The total actually was $1.027 trillion, with $887.2 billion in ETFs and $115.5 billion in ETPs, as tabulated by BlackRock's Global ETF Research and Implementation Strategy Team.

"As market growth and product innovation proceeds, it will become only more essential for investors of all kinds to deeply understand the full range of ETF and ETP structures, benchmarks, underlying features and applications,'' said Deborah Fuhr, head of the BlackRock unit.

Yet on the second day after Christmas, a market intelligence firm released the results of a survey that showed most potential retail investors have never even heard of exchange-traded funds. The research from Mintel Comperemedia found that more than six in 10 investors don't invest in ETFs simply because they "don't know what they are." Surprisingly, even high-income households don't know what ETFs are.

"Investment companies have a long way to go in getting the word out about ETFs," states Susan Menke, vice president and behavioral economist at Mintel.

ETFs, of course, are index-based funds that can be bought and sold like ordinary shares on a stock exchange. ETPs are more complicated, with forms that include trusts, partnerships, commodity pools and notes.

The first U.S. fund was the Standard and Poor's Deposit Receipt, created in 1993. The SPDR, or "spider," gave investment banks and pension funds an easy way to track the S&P 500. With this fund, such investors can own a slice of 500 different large U.S. stocks.

Of course, that's a lot like an index mutual fund. In each case, you own a diversified set of stocks.

Indeed, the differences are not huge. But ETFs, it can easily be argued, are more "liquid" than mutual funds. Mutual funds you buy from mutual fund companies. ETFs you buy from brokers. Mutual funds set prices for the value of the assets they hold once a day. ETFs are priced and traded all day long.

And even if there are far more mutual funds than exchange-traded funds, right now, there is plenty of choice for either institutional or individual investor.

But the message about what the benefits are needs to be delivered more often and more clearly, if all potential investors are to get involved.