Are ETFs the best way to invest?
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Are ETFs the best way to invest?

24 Nov
21 Mar
3 min read
"Know what you own, and know why you own it."
  • Peter Lynch

Everything about the other person is perfect in the first few weeks of dating. Short of kicking puppies, there is pretty much nothing your new person can do wrong. Even habits that you already know will annoy you one day are temporarily adorable. But just like a new relationship, most investors don't care about the details of what they invest in and don't try to find out more. Although ETFs aren't exactly new to the market, growth in the industry has been astronomical over the last few years. As everyone fawns over ETFs and jumps on the bandwagon, it's important to take the love goggles off and make sure you know what you're buying.

The first ETF was launched in 1993. In 2009, assets topped $1 trillion; this year they hit $4 trillion. This has, on the whole, been a boon for investors, who have benefitted from the lower cost of ETFs and performance of passive investing (which we know almost always outperforms over the long-run) versus active funds. We love low cost investing, but there are some things to look out for when making decisions around ETFs.

ETFs' tracking error against their benchmark

ETFs, for the most part, are passive instruments that track the returns of a benchmark index rather than trying to beat the market. Many investors are surprised to learn that some ETFs do not exactly track the indices they were created to mimic. The higher the tracking error from its benchmark, the less the ETF can be used to represent it. The ETF issuer can try to reduce tracking error, but this can potentially add expenses, which are typically passed on as a higher management fee to investors. You can't assume that two ETFs that track the same benchmark will perform identically or cost the same amount.

ETFs might be synthetic, which leads to greater risks

Sometimes, an ETF is just a wrapper. You need to dig deeper to see what the ETF is actually invested in. For example, United States Oil Fund (USO) is one of the more popular commodity ETFs. What investors don't realize is that the ETF invests only in oil futures, and doesn't directly track the performance of oil's spot price.

By owning swaps or futures that replicate the performance of oil prices or the index, you are inevitably exposed to counterparty risk (the risk that the other party taking the other side of the investment obligation defaults), and the potential higher costs associated with it.

All synthetic passive ETFs listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange have a marker "X" placed at the beginning of their English and Chinese stock short names, allowing investors to identify them easily.

All-in costs of ETFs

Similar ETFs from different providers, or even the same provider, have highly variable expense ratios (the cost of the ETF, which is taken out of the ETF price every day). Take for example Blackrock's emerging market ETFs IEMG (iShares Core MSCI EM ETF) and EEM (iShares MSCI EM ETF): their expense ratios are 0.14% and 0.72% respectively. That is a huge spread for very similar exposure.

There are also other costs involved in executing an ETF portfolio strategy such as brokerage fees and bid-ask spreads when trading. Another lesser-known fact: sometimes, ETF issuers generate income by lending out their underlying securities to hedge funds to enable short sales. This does result in lower management fees, but also increases the risk for you.

Bid-ask spread as a cost is extremely important for Hong Kong investors especially when considering HKEX ETFs like 2834.HK (iShares NASDAQ 100 ETF HKD) which has a bigger bid-ask with a very low trading volume (800+ shares per trading day).

Most importantly as a Hong Kong investor, trading US-listed ETFs would subject you to 30% dividend withholding tax.

Read more: An inconvenient truth: Taxes on US-listed ETFs

Take the rose-tinted glasses off.

The myth that ETFs are always cheaper than unit trusts (mutual funds) is false. For example, the CSOP Hang Seng TECH Index ETF (3033.HK) is one of the most popular technology ETF traded by retail investors in Hong Kong. The ongoing charge of this ETF is 1.06% per year. If you are looking for broader emerging market technology exposure, the Value Partners EMQQ Markets Internet & ECommerce ETF (3030.HK) has an ongoing charge of 1.49% per year.

On Endowus Fund Smart, you can access global technology funds managed by the top-tier managers, such as Blackrock, Fidelity and Franklin Templeton. Below are three technology funds available on Endowus, and their fund-level fees after trailer fee rebate from Endowus range from 0.99% to 1.05%.

There are also providers such as Vanguard and Dimensional Fund Advisors that offer low-cost passive unit trusts (mutual funds) with management fees in-line with or below ETFs for similar and even better implemented exposure.

The most important thing to remember is to research the costs of ETFs/unit trusts before you invest, so that you make decisions that align with and will bring you closer to your financial goals.

Alternatively, you can always let a trusted advisor do the work for you. Spend a few mins and onboard with us to start your journey in investing with Endowus.


Risk Warnings

Investment involves risk. Past performance is not an indicator nor a guarantee of future performance. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up, and you may not get the full amount you invested. 


Whilst Endowus HK Limited (“Endowus”) has tried to provide accurate and timely information, there may be inadvertent delays, omissions, technical or factual inaccuracies or typographical errors.

Any forward-looking statements, prediction, projection or forecast on the economy, stock market, bond market or economic trends of the markets contained in this material are subject to market influences and contingent upon matters outside the control of Endowus and therefore may not be realised in the future. Further, any opinion or estimate is made on a general basis and subject to change without notice. In presenting the information above, none of Endowus, its affiliates, directors, employees, representatives or agents have given any consideration to, nor have made any investigation of the objective, financial situation or particular need of any user, reader, any specific person or group of persons. Therefore, no representation is made as to the completeness and adequacy of the information to make an informed decision. You should carefully consider (i) whether any investment views and products/ services are appropriate in view of your investment experience, objectives, financial resources and relevant circumstances.

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Neither the information, nor any opinion, contained in this article constitutes a promotion, recommendation, solicitation, invitation or offer by Endowus or its affiliates to buy or sell any securities, collective investment schemes or other financial instruments or services, nor shall any such security, collective investment scheme, or other financial instruments or services be offered or sold to any person in any jurisdiction in which such offer, solicitation, purchase, or sale would be unlawful under the securities laws of such jurisdiction. This is not intended to be an invitation or offer made to the public to subscribe for any financial product or other transaction.

This advertisement has not been reviewed by the Securities and Futures Commission or any regulatory authority in Hong Kong.

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