What is an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) & How Does it Work?

What is an ETF?

An Exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a type of investment fund that trades on stock exchanges, much like individual stocks. An ETF holds assets such as stocks, bonds, commodities, or a mix of these, and typically is designed to replicate the performance of a specific index, sector, or commodity.

Like mutual funds, ETFs are pooled investment funds that offer market participants ownership in a professionally managed, diversified portfolio of investments. But unlike mutual funds, ETF shares trade like stocks on exchanges, and can be bought or sold throughout the trading day at fluctuating prices.

Mutual funds are priced at the end of each trading day based on their net asset value (NAV), whereas ETFs are priced continuously throughout the trading day. This allows for real-time buying and selling, just like individual stocks.

ETFs are typically built to track the returns of other investment products or themes, such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), which is a widely utilized exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks the S&P 500. Or the VanEck Gold Miners ETF (GDX), which is an ETF composed of companies that mine gold and other precious metals.

How do ETFs work?

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) work by pooling money from various investors to buy a specific basket of assets, aiming to replicate the performance of a particular index, sector, or asset class. ETFs are listed on centralized exchanges, like individual stocks, where they can be bought and sold.

Unlike mutual funds, which are managed with the goal of outperforming a benchmark, most ETFs are passively managed, meaning they automatically track their target index by holding all or a representative sample of the securities in that index.

An ETF’s number of outstanding shares can fluctuate on a daily basis due to the new shares being created regularly as well as the redemption of existing shares. The price of an ETF is aligned to that of its underlying assets through arbitrage mechanisms such as continuous share issuance and redemption. 

ETFs pros and cons

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) offer a range of advantages and disadvantages that can make them more or less suitable depending on an investor or trader’s specific goals, risk tolerance, and investment approach.


Diversification: ETFs often hold a basket of different assets, allowing investors to diversify their portfolio easily. This is especially beneficial for individual investors who may not have the capital to diversify adequately by buying individual assets.

Lower Costs: ETFs generally have lower expense ratios compared to mutual funds, particularly those that are actively managed. This cost-efficiency makes them attractive for long-term investment.

Liquidity: Unlike mutual funds, which are priced once at the end of the trading day, ETFs are traded on exchanges like individual stocks. This allows for real-time pricing and the ability to buy or sell shares throughout the trading day.

Tax Efficiency: The structure of ETFs allows for a more tax-efficient way to manage capital gains. The "in-kind" creation and redemption process minimizes taxable capital gains distributions.

Flexibility: ETFs can be bought and sold short, purchased on margin, and even traded using stop and limit orders, much like individual stocks. This flexibility is appealing for more active traders.

Transparency: Most ETFs disclose their holdings daily, providing a level of transparency that is often not available in other investment vehicles like mutual funds.

Accessibility: With the ability to buy as little as one share, ETFs make it easier for individual investors to invest in various asset classes, sectors, or global markets that might otherwise be out of reach.


Trading Costs: While ETFs themselves often have low expense ratios, the trading costs—such as bid-ask spreads and brokerage commissions—can add up, particularly for those who trade frequently.

Tracking Error: Not all ETFs perfectly track their underlying index. Differences in the ETF's performance and its index are known as tracking error, which could be due to fees or other logistical differences. 

Leveraged and Inverse Risks: Some specialized ETFs, like leveraged or inverse ETFs, use complex financial instruments and are subject to higher volatility and potential losses. These types of ETFs may not be suitable for some investors. 

Dividend Payment Timing: Unlike mutual funds that may offer the option to reinvest dividends automatically, ETF dividends are paid out to the investor, who then has to manually reinvest them if desired.

Limited Investment Choices: While the range of ETFs has grown substantially, they may still not cover every niche or asset class, limiting one’s investment choices to some extent.

Market Impact: As ETFs have grown in popularity, there's ongoing debate about their potential impact on market stability and asset valuations, particularly during periods of high volatility.

No Active Management: Most ETFs are passively managed and aim to replicate the performance of an index, which means they won't outperform the market. Investors looking for higher returns through active management won't find that in most ETFs.

Different types of ETFs

There are various types of ETFs, including:

  • Stock Index ETFs: Track stock indices like the S&P 500

  • Bond ETFs: Focus on various types of bonds

  • Currency ETFs: Seek to emulate the market prices of currency pairs

  • Sector/Industry ETFs: Target specific sectors like technology, healthcare, etc.

  • Commodity ETFs: Track the price of commodities like gold or oil.

  • Regional/Global ETFs: Invest in foreign markets, such as global indices.

  • Leveraged/Inverse ETFs: Use financial derivatives to amplify returns or seek to profit from a decline in the underlying asset or index.

Stock Index ETFs

A stock index ETF is a type of ETF that aims to replicate the performance of a specific stock market index. These indexes could range from broad market indexes like the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average to more specialized indexes that focus on specific sectors, countries, or market caps. 

By holding a basket of stocks that closely mimics the composition of the targeted index, the stock index ETF provides investors with a way to gain diversified exposure to a particular segment of the equity market.

In addition to the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), some other well-known index ETFs include the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF Trust (DIA), the Invesco QQQ Trust Series 1 (QQQ) and the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM).

Bond ETFs 

Bond ETFs provide diversified exposure to bonds by issuers like government treasuries, municipalities as well as public or private corporations. Investors typically use bond ETFs to receive regular payments – through interest from the holdings – as they don’t have a maturity date like individual bonds. 

Currency ETFs

Currency ETFs seek to emulate the market prices of various currency pairs. Currency ETFs are often used to take advantage of changes in the economy, whether they be domestic or foreign. The forex market can be used to this effect in several ways, for example, trading based on geopolitical events, or hedging against positions with risks that are global in nature. 

Sector/Industry ETFs

Sector or industry ETFs are funds that track the average performance of a selection of stocks of a similar kind through indices. They enable you to focus on specific sectors such as energy, technology or health care. Traders and investors often use sector ETFs to capitalize on significant developments in a particular segment of the economy.

Commodity ETFs 

There are two main types of commodities ETFs, those that focus on the commodity itself, and those that focus on companies dealing with that commodity (i.e. mining, growing, etc…). While the former focuses on the ever-changing price of oil or gold, the latter focuses on the stocks of the companies in that segment. For example, an ETF focusing on producers of lithium. 

Regional/Global ETFs

In addition to the above, there are also international ETFs and country ETFs. 

International ETFs are typically designed to provide exposure to a particular region of the world, or a group of international companies with a similar profile. 

For example, the iShares China Large Cap (FXI) is composed exclusively of large-cap companies with direct exposure to the Chinese economy. On the other hand, the iShares MSCI EAFE (EFA) is composed of large and mid-cap companies operating in a variety of developed countries around the world (excluding the US and Canada).

Country ETFs, as the name implies, are unique as they offer exposure to a specific country.

Some country ETFs track a specific foreign stock index, while others are designed to offer exposure to a unique investment theme within a specific country. Examples of country-specific ETFs include the iShares MSCI India ETF (INDA), the iShares MSCI South Korea ETF (EWY) and the VanEck Vietnam ETF (VNM).

Leveraged and Inverse ETFs

Leveraged and inverse ETFs use financial derivatives to amplify returns or seek to profit from a decline in an underlying asset or index.

Inverse ETFs are designed to generate gains when relevant stock prices decline through shorting stocks. In this case, profits are made with this type of ETF through bearish market assumptions of underlying stock or indices. 

The value of an inverse ETF generally increases if there’s a decline in the value of the asset/index the inverse ETF is designed to track. Many inverse ETFs are actually exchange-traded notes (ETNs), which differ slightly from ETFs. ETNs are a type of bond issued by a financial institution, but they trade like stocks - much like ETFs.

Leveraged ETFs are pooled investment vehicles that aim to mirror its underlying's performance and offer magnified exposure through the use of financial derivatives. 

A 2x leveraged ETF, for example, amplifies the investor’s exposure by essentially doubling the return of the asset or index that the leveraged ETF is designed to track. But investors and traders need to keep in mind that losses are magnified as well, which means these ETFs can be particularly complex and difficult to understand. 

The complexities associated with inverse and leveraged ETFs makes them more suitable for advanced investors and traders, assuming these products match one’s outlook, risk profile, and trading philosophy.

How to trade and invest in ETFs?

Trading or investing in ETFs is a relatively straightforward process, much like trading and investing in individual stocks.

However, as with any investment, it's essential to do your due diligence, and possibly to consult with a professional to ensure your investment choices are aligned with your goals. 

Here are some general considerations when trading and investing in ETFs:

1) Research and Plan

  • Identify investment goals: Determine what you are looking to achieve through your investment. It could be diversification, exposure to a specific sector, or generating income.

  • Select the right ETF: Research different types of ETFs based on your investment goals. Look at factors like expense ratio, liquidity, tracking error, and the ETF’s underlying index.

  • Consult a professional: If you're new to ETFs or investing in general, it can be beneficial to consult a professional. 

2) Opening an Account

  • Choose a Broker: You will need a brokerage account to buy ETFs. There are many online brokers, so choose one that fits your needs.

  • Open an Account: Follow the broker’s process to open an account. This will usually involve providing some personal information and a minimum deposit. Open a tastytrade account today and start trading and investing in ETFs with low fees

3) Trading the ETF

  • Access Trading Platform: Log in to your broker's trading platform.

  • Search for the ETF: Use the ETF ticker symbol to search for the ETF you want to buy.

  • Analyze and Review: Check the current price, bid-ask spread, and other relevant data.

  • Place an Order: Choose the type of order you wish to place. Common types are market orders (buy immediately at current market price) and limit orders (buy only at a specific price or better).

  • Specify Quantity: Decide how many shares you want to purchase.

  • Review and Confirm: Before finalizing, review all the details to make sure they are correct.

4) Ongoing Management

  • Monitor Performance: Keep track of how your ETF is performing, along with any dividends or capital gains it might distribute.

  • Rebalance: Your investment needs might change, or the ETF might drift from its index. In such cases, you may need to rebalance your portfolio.

5) Closing the Position

  • Decide when to exit: When you wish to exit your investment, log into your brokerage account.

  • Place a closing order: You can ise a market or limit order to close your existing order. Confirm and Execute: Review the details of your selling order before you confirm it.

6) Other Considerations

  • Commissions: While many brokers offer commission-free trading of certain ETFs, some may still charge a fee.

  • Bid-Ask Spread: This is the difference between the price at which you can buy and sell the ETF. A narrower spread is generally better.

ETFs vs Mutual Funds: what are the differences?

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds are both popular investment vehicles, but they have some key differences in terms of structure, cost, trading flexibility and potential benefits/drawbacks.

Here’s a general overview of some of the key differences between the two:


  • ETFs: Generally passively managed, ETFs aim to replicate the performance of a specific index. However, there are actively managed ETFs too.

  • Mutual Funds: Can be either passively managed (index funds) or actively managed, where a portfolio manager makes decisions to outperform a benchmark index.

Trading & Liquidity

  • ETFs: ETFs are traded on stock exchanges at market-determined prices, allowing buying and selling throughout the trading day at real-time prices. You can also apply trading strategies like stop and limit orders, as with single stocks. 

  • Mutual Funds: Mutual funds are bought and sold at the end-of-day net asset value (NAV) directly through the mutual fund company. No intra-day trading is allowed.

Cost Structure 

  • ETFs: Generally have lower expense ratios, especially those that are passively managed. However, you may incur trading costs like bid-ask spreads and brokerage commissions.

  • Mutual Funds: Typically have higher expense ratios, particularly for actively managed funds. Some also charge front-end or back-end loads.

Minimum Investment

  • ETFs: You can buy as little as one share, making it easier to start investing with a smaller amount of money.

  • Mutual Funds: Often have minimum investment requirements, which can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.


  • ETFs: Usually disclose their holdings daily, providing a high level of transparency.

  • Mutual Funds: Typically disclose their holdings quarterly, providing less frequent transparency.

Dividend Reinvestment

  • ETFs: Dividends are paid out and can be manually reinvested.

  • Mutual Funds: Offer automatic dividend reinvestment options, allowing your dividends to purchase additional shares without any manual intervention.


  • ETFs: Offer more flexibility with options to short sell, purchase on margin, and more.

  • Mutual Funds: Generally offer fewer trading-related features and are often aimed at longer-term investments.

Both investment types have their pros and cons, and the best choice depends on one’s specific investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance. You may decide to consult with a professional to better understand the differences between these two investment vehicles. 

ETFs vs Stocks: what are the differences

ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) and individual stocks represent different investment vehicles, each with its own set of characteristics, risks and potential benefits/drawbacks. Below are some key distinctions:

Here’s a general overview of some of the key differences between the two:


  • ETFs: These typically invest in a basket of different securities, offering built-in diversification. One ETF share could represent ownership in dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of individual stocks or bonds.

  • Stocks: Buying an individual stock means investing in a single company. There’s no diversification in this case unless you buy shares from multiple companies across different sectors, which can be costly and challenging to manage.


  • ETFs: Generally considered less risky than individual stocks due to diversification. However, the level of risk depends on what the ETF invests in. Sector-specific or leveraged ETFs can carry higher risk than individual stocks. 

  • Stocks: Individual stocks usually carry higher risk because your investment is dependent on the performance of a single company. Bad news or poor earnings reports can negatively significantly impact the stock price.

Trading and Liquidity

  • ETFs: Traded on exchanges like stocks, allowing for intraday trading. Can apply trading techniques like limit orders or stop orders. Liquidity varies depending on the ETF.

  • Stocks: Also traded on exchanges with the ability for intraday trading. Liquidity can vary widely depending on the company in question and market conditions.


  • ETFs: Typically passively managed to replicate the performance of a specific index, though actively managed ETFs exist. Lower management fees are common for passively managed ETFs.

  • Stocks: Not managed; you must choose when to buy or sell, and there are no management fees for holding individual stocks (although there are transaction costs).


  • ETFs: Some ETFs pay dividends based on the income generated by the underlying portfolio. These dividends can often be automatically reinvested.

  • Stocks: Dividends are paid at the discretion of the company’s board of directors. Like ETFs, dividends can also be reinvested through a Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIP).


  • ETFs: Usually have an expense ratio, which is an annual fee expressed as a percentage of your investment. Some brokers also charge a commission for buying and selling ETFs.

  • Stocks: No expense ratios, but you may incur a brokerage commission when you buy or sell. Many online platforms offer commission-free trades.


  • ETFs: Generally disclose their holdings daily, providing a high level of transparency.

  • Stocks: Companies are required to release financial statements and are subject to regulations, but they don't disclose their operations daily.

Both ETFs and stocks have their own advantages and disadvantages, and what might be suitable for one investor may not be for another. It's crucial to understand your investment goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance before deciding to invest in either. 

Do ETFs pay dividends?

Yes, many ETFs do pay dividends. These dividends are derived from the income generated by the underlying assets that the ETF holds, such as stocks or bonds.

Dividends from Stock ETFs

If an ETF tracks a stock index and holds shares of companies that pay dividends, the ETF will typically collect these dividends on behalf of its shareholders. After accounting for any expenses, the ETF distributes the dividends to its own shareholders. These distributions can be either in the form of cash or additional shares.

Dividends from Bond ETFs

In the case of bond ETFs, the interest payments received from the underlying bonds are collected and, after deducting any expenses, are distributed to ETF shareholders.

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