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There are endless ETF portfolio options. Here we will look at three:

  1. A Core Holder strategy 
  2. An Armchair Investor, and 
  3. An Autopilot approach

The Core Holder Portfolio

The Core Holder typically owns 12 to 16 ETFs, with broad-based funds such as the SPY, DIA, or the QQQ as core holdings. Although this investor is hands-off — trading infrequently — he or she needs to understand what these core holdings represent; for example, that the DIA will track the Dow components and the QQQ is very heavily weighted toward technology.

The Core Holder then uses a few ETFs to layer on additional exposure to certain sectors or subsectors. For example, in addition to the technology exposure of the QQQ, a Core Holder may decide to buy a subsector fund that enables this investor to gain exposure to semiconductors or the Internet. As with any portfolio strategy, overlap will be an issue. However, by using targeted subsector funds, the Core Holder can minimize overlap by seeking exposure just to those types of companies that he or she wants to hold.

The Core Holder will most likely follow a basic indexing strategy such as market capitalization or perhaps a customized approach that weights on the basis of revenue or dividends. High transparency appeals to the Core Holder, provided that he or she does the necessary research to understand a fund’s objective and to examine its core holdings.

The Core Holder, like other investors, would do well to consider all alternatives within an investment theme or sector. As more ETFs are launched, fees are being driven down as lower-cost alternatives are introduced. Although “first-mover status” is important from a marketing standpoint, there may be a cheaper alternative to consider. For example, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index Fund (EEM) that was introduced in April 2003 had an expense ratio of 0.72 percent. The Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO), introduced in March 2005, had an expense ratio of only 0.27 percent. Although the funds are not exactly alike, investors would do well to consider which fund offers the exposure they desire along with an affordable fee.

A sample portfolio might be weighted as follows:

ETF Symbol % Weighting
SPDR S&P 500 SPY 10
PowerShares QQQ Trust QQQ 10
Dow Diamonds Trust DIA 10
SPDR Health Care Sector IXV 5
iShares Russell 2000 IWM 10
Vanguard REIT RMZ 5
Vanguard Emerging Market VWO 10
Market Vectors Agribusiness MOO 5
SPDR Financial sector IXM 5
SPDR Industrial Sector IXI 5
Vanguard Short-Term Bond SHM 10
iShares BC 1-3 Treasury SHY 15

The Armchair Investor

An Armchair Investor will be even less involved in ongoing investing than a Core Holder. Like the Core Holder, the Armchair Investor will tend to hold broad-based ETFs to gain exposure to the major indexes.

The Armchair Investor will want to be aware of sector exposure; for example, using QQQ to invest in technology, but that is about as granular as it gets. The Armchair Investor is not looking to slice-and-dice a sector down to subsector components in order to gain short-term exposure, unlike the Core Holder.

Typically, the Armchair Investor would have about eight ETFs that he or she looks at quarterly, since that is when most ETFs are rebalanced. At each quarter, the Armchair Investor looks at performance and decides whether or not to make a change. Although trading is very infrequent, the Armchair Investor likes the flexibility that ETFs offer in case of lifestyle changes or dramatic market shifts.

A sample portfolio might include the following by weight:

ETF Symbol % Weighting
SPDR S&P 500 SPY 15
PowerShares QQQ Trust QQQ 10
Dow Diamonds Trust DIA 10
Vanguard Mid-Cap Growth VOT 10
Vanguard Total World VT 15
iShares Russell 3000 IWV 10
Vanguard Short-Term Bond SHM 10
Vanguard Total Bond Market BND 15
iShares BC 1-3 Year Treasury SHY 15

The Autopilot Investor

The least active type of portfolio is one that is effectively on autopilot. Autopilot Investors use ETFs but are most likely to do so as part of a buy-and-hold approach. They typically use funds that track the broad-based indexes as well as those that have a particular investment style such as large-cap growth or international.

Because the Autopilot Investor is so hands-off, he or she may be interested in pursuing funds that promise to generate alpha — or performance over and above the underlying index benchmark. Therefore, the Autopilot Investor would be a good candidate for dynamic or actively managed ETFs. For Autopilot Investors, having a fund manager do all the work — albeit in return for a higher fee — is preferable than trying to do the portfolio management themselves. The Autopilot Investor’s mantra is “I am much more comfortable putting my faith in a smart strategy than trying to understand it myself.”

A sample portfolio might include the following by weight:

ETF Symbol % Weighting
First Trust Large Cap Core AlphaDex
FEX 15
PowerShares Dyn Market
PWC 25
Rydex S&P 500 Pure Value Growth
RPG 25
iShares Russell MidCap Growth Index
IWP 15
PowerShares Dyn Developed Int
PFA 10
PowerShares DWA Em Mkts Tech
PIE 10

Whatever your portfolio preference, broad-based ETFs such as the SPY, QQQ, or DIA can be important building blocks for your portfolio. Although these ETFs are considered to be the plain vanilla within an increasing array of fund choices, passively indexed funds are easy and low-cost ways to gain broad market exposure. These are the funds that can “keep you on the highway” and tracking the overall market. The last thing you want to do is put together a portfolio consisting only of narrowly defined exotic choices that crash while the overall market is rallying. By using the plain-vanilla indexes at the core of your portfolio, you can pursue other funds that have the potential to increase your overall performance.

You will also want to consider diversification so that losses in one particular holding do not derail your investment plan. Most do-it-yourself investors know that diversification is one of the keys to better portfolio performance, and ETFs are an easy way to add exposure to a wide range of stock and bond indexes, industry sectors, and developed and emerging markets overseas. In addition, there are dozens of innovative ETFs that provide access to investment strategies and areas of the market — such as currencies and commodities — that used to be either largely off-limits or extremely difficult for do-it-yourself investors.

All investments carry a certain amount of risk. From low-risk Treasury bonds to highly speculative initial public offerings, there is always a chance that an initial investment will decline in value. The bad news for investors is that there is one type of risk — known as “systematic” or “market” risk — that cannot really be controlled. Interest rates, wars, weather, and political instability fit into this category. The good news, however, is that the other type of risk — sometimes referred to as “unsystematic” risk — can be minimized using diversification.

Over-diversification, however, can offset the benefits of a well-constructed, well-diversified portfolio. When assets are spread across too many investments, the potential for a big gain to boost overall performance is diminished. In addition, a big portfolio can be difficult to manage and can generate excessive trading fees as investors tweak their positions.

As your portfolio grows and changes over time, keep aware of the balance among the assets with “nothing to excess” so that you remain well diversified to increase your chances of success and mitigate the impact of a downturn in one particular area.

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Article copyright 2011 by Don Dion and Carolyn Dion. Reprinted and adapted from The Ultimate Guide to Trading ETFs with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments® cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data. This reprint and the materials delivered with it should not be construed as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy shares of any funds mentioned in this reprint.
The data and analysis contained herein are provided "as is" and without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied. Fidelity is not adopting, making a recommendation for or endorsing any trading or investment strategy or particular security. All opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice, and you should always obtain current information and perform due diligence before trading. Consider that the provider may modify the methods it uses to evaluate investment opportunities from time to time, that model results may not impute or show the compounded adverse effect of transaction costs or management fees or reflect actual investment results, and that investment models are necessarily constructed with the benefit of hindsight. For this and for many other reasons, model results are not a guarantee of future results. The securities mentioned in this document may not be eligible for sale in some states or countries, nor be suitable for all types of investors; their value and the income they produce may fluctuate and/or be adversely affected by exchange rates, interest rates or other factors.

Exchange traded products (ETPs) are subject to market volatility and the risks of their underlying securities which may include the risks associated with investing in smaller companies, foreign securities, commodities and fixed income investments. Foreign securities are subject to interest rate, currency-exchange rate, economic and political risk all of which are magnified in emerging markets. ETPs that target a small universe of securities, such as a specific region or market sector are generally subject to greater market volatility as well as the specific risks associated with that sector, region or other focus. ETPs which use derivatives, leverage, or complex investment strategies are subject to additional risks. The return of an index ETP is usually different from that of the index it tracks because of fees, expenses and tracking error. An ETP may trade at a premium or discount to its Net Asset Value (NAV) (or indicative value in the case of ETNs). Each ETP has a unique risk profile which is detailed in its prospectus, offering circular or similar material, which should be considered carefully when making investment decisions.

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