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Special Report

Morningstar's Guide to ETFs

Here’s what you need to know about these popular funds that trade like stocks.


The first exchange-traded fund, SPDR S&P 500 (SPY), made its debut in 1993. Today, more than $4 trillion in assets rests in these vehicles.

Their popularity is understandable. ETFs are easy to buy and sell--and given the fee wars in the industry, they’ve become virtually free to buy and sell. They have a reputation for being tax-efficient (somewhat true) and low-cost (not always true). And because many of the most popular ETFs track widely followed and transparent indexes, there’s no mystery behind their performance: It’s usually the performance of the index minus fees. Lastly, there’s no key-person risk: If the manager leaves, another can step in without much ado.

That being said, the ETF landscape has expanded dramatically--and so, too, has its complexity. Some ETFs track very narrow parts of the market or pursue specific themes. Others no longer weight their holdings by market capitalization; instead, they might weight using another factor, such as momentum or quality. Still other strategies blend a combination of factors, thereby seeming more active than traditional passive ETF strategies.

Moreover, while most ETFs are reasonably priced, some aren’t. And some ETFs are more tax-efficient than others.

This guide tackles the issues that matter most to ETF investors. We cover the basics--including what an ETF is, how ETFs and mutual funds differ, and how to evaluate them. We also share our highest-rated ETFs across a variety of categories.

What Is An ETF? 
We explain what ETFs are, how to use them, and how to find the best ones.

The Most Over- and Undersold Benefits of ETFs
ETFs have huge benefits for investors; they just might not be the ones you think.

The Best Equity ETFs
These stock-focused exchange-traded funds all earn Gold ratings.

Why and How to Index in U.S. Large Caps
Broad diversification and low fees make indexing a good bet in this competitive arena.

Why and How to Index in U.S. Small Caps
Broad diversification and low fees make indexing a good bet in this arena....

The Best Bond ETFs
These fixed-income-focused exchange-traded funds all earn Gold ratings.

How Objective Is Your Index Fund?
Benchmark construction is not as mechanical as you might think.

Why Index Funds and ETFs Are Good for Retirees   
Low costs and tax efficiency are obvious pluses, but so are ease of oversight and cash flow extraction.

5 Tips for Trading ETFs
It's important for investors to understand and respect what the "ET" in ETF stands for.

ETF or Traditional Index Fund: Which Is More Tax-Efficient?
Ben Johnson examines tax cost and tax efficiency by fund type.

How to Select Strategic-Beta Exchange-Traded Products
How we separate the what from the chaff in this field.

What Drives ETFs' Premiums and Discounts?
There are three key factors at play.

Susan Dziubinski does not own shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.