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Learn the ETF basics.
An ETF, or "exchange-traded fund," is a pooled investment security like a mutual fund but it trades on an exchange like a stock. Most ETFs passively track a benchmark index, such as the S&P 500, while some are actively managed.
ETFs track a benchmark index by holding all the securities in the index in equal proportion to their weighting in the index. Some ETFs track the price movement of a specific asset or commodity. To track price movement, these ETFs often invest in derivatives or futures contracts, but they may hold a physical asset, such as gold, by storing it in a vault.
How an ETF is taxed depends primarily on the fund’s underlying holdings and the form of distributions paid to shareholders. For example, a dividend ETF will be taxed on the dividends distributed. Investors may also incur capital gains tax on the profit earned from selling an ETF. The ultimate tax paid may also depend on the shareholder’s tax bracket.
Many ETFs pay dividends, and some track a dividend index and hold only dividend-paying stocks. The way it works is the ETF collects the dividends and distributes them to the fund’s shareholders, usually on a periodic basis, such as quarterly. Investors may choose to receive the dividends, or they may reinvest the dividends to buy more shares of the ETF.
Most ETFs are structured as open-end funds, which typically provide investors with exposure to the main investment asset classes, such as stocks and bonds. ETFs may also be structured as unit investment trusts, grantor trusts or limited partnerships.
Expressed as a percentage, an expense ratio tells an investor how much they’ll pay over the course of a year to own a mutual fund or an ETF. These expenses pay for costs associated with fund operation, such as marketing, advertising and management of the fund portfolio.
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