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5 things to know about ETFs

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) trade like stocks in that they are available to buy and sell while the market is open, but typically hold a basket of investments such as stocks or bonds. Unlike mutual funds, which are priced at the end-of-day net asset value (NAV), you can see an ETF's price throughout the day.

Here are 5 questions and answers to help you better understand ETFs.

1. Are all ETFs relatively cheap?

A characteristic of ETFs that has helped drive their popularity among investors is cost relative to other funds. Indeed, the decline in expense ratios for both ETFs and mutual funds is a longer-term trend that largely reflects competition driving down costs (see Fund expenses declined for decades).

Fund expenses declined for decades

Data represents asset-weighted average expense ratios for all US equity mutual funds vs. all US equity ETFs. Fund of funds excluded. Source: Bloomberg, Fidelity Investments, as of September 21, 2023.

Several factors have contributed to the trend, including expense ratios varying inversely with fund assets, a shift toward no-load share classes for long-term mutual funds, economies of scale, investor preferences, and competition from ETFs.

Most comparable ETFs continue to be less expensive than mutual funds. But it’s a mistake to assume that all ETFs are cheaper.

For example, mutual fund Fidelity® 500 Index Fund () has a net expense ratio1 of 0.015%, and it has no transaction fee on That compares favorably with similar ETFs, such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF () with an expense ratio of 0.09% and the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF () with an expense ratio of 0.03%. It is worth noting that Fidelity offers zero expense ratio index mutual funds.

Of course, expense ratios aren't the only thing to consider when evaluating ETF costs. Tracking error, which is a measure of how well the ETF tracks the performance of a benchmark, can affect the total return of an ETF. If you are looking to simply emulate the performance of a benchmark, like the S&P 500® Index, it may be prudent to seek out ETFs with low tracking error.

Bid-ask spread is another factor that can affect your total cost. An ETF with a wider bid-ask spread—the difference in price between what a buyer is willing to pay and what a seller is willing to receive as payment—may be more costly, all else being equal. You can find an ETF’s bid-ask spread, along with its tracking error and other trading costs, on on an ETF’s snapshot page. By comparison, mutual funds trade at the net asset value and the buyer/seller is not subjected to a bid-ask spread. 

2. Do ETFs pay dividends?

If a stock is held in an ETF and that stock pays a dividend, then so does the ETF.

While some ETFs pay dividends as soon as they are received from each company that is held in the fund, most distribute dividends quarterly. Some ETFs hold the individual dividends in cash until the ETF’s payout date. Others reinvest the dividends back into the fund as they are received, and then distribute them as cash on the ETF’s payout date.

ETFs may provide the option of forgoing receiving cash in exchange for the purchase of new shares with the dividends received. And certain brokers, including Fidelity, might allow you to reinvest dividends commission-free. You can find out if and how an ETF pays a dividend by examining its prospectus.

3. Are all ETFs passive?

Most ETFs track an index, such as the S&P 500® Index. These types of investments are considered "passively managed." Any purchases or sales of securities by the fund are made to keep the portfolio in line with the index it attempts to track.

"Smart beta" ETFs are a category of ETFs that are passively managed; however, they seek to either improve their return profile or change their risk profile, relative to a market benchmark. This is to say that smart beta ETFs are passively managed in that they attempt to replicate the exposures of a benchmark, but that the composition of the benchmark may not necessarily look like that of any market index, as it has been engineered to represent a targeted factor exposure. This is accomplished by tilting one or more factors of the corresponding benchmark, such as increasing or decreasing exposure to growth or value characteristics relative to a market index. 

There are some ETFs that, by design, do not strictly track an index. Instead, they are actively managed with the goal being to outperform a benchmark like the S&P 500. The fund manager for an actively managed ETF may choose to hold different securities, and/or in different weights versus those of the index that the ETF seeks to outperform.

4. Are all ETFs tax-efficient?

Taxes are an important consideration for any investment held in a taxable account. In general, passive ETFs are considered tax-efficient on an absolute basis due to their unique structure, generally lower portfolio turnover, and how they are managed. One of the primary advantages of the ETF structure is that when an investor buys or sells shares of the ETF, the ETF administrator can match purchases and sales with other investors so that no actual security purchases inside the fund need to be made. As a result, this creation/redemption structure avoids triggering a taxable event.

With that said, not all ETFs are equally tax-efficient.

For example, ETF dividends are subject to taxes, and ETFs that pay nonqualified dividends may be less tax-efficient than those that pay qualified dividends. Annual distributions from an ETF to investors may be treated as qualified or nonqualified dividends. Qualified dividends are taxed at no more than 15%. However, just because the ETF reports that its distribution was a qualified dividend, that does not automatically make it qualified for the investor. The investor must have held the ETF for at least 61 days during the 121-day period beginning 60 days before the ex-dividend date. ETF investors, like mutual fund investors, are subject to the relevant tax rates on distributions that flow through to end investors, whether they take the form of dividends on stocks or coupon payments on bonds.

It's also possible to invest tax-efficiently with ETFs by selecting those that minimize capital gains distributions and maximize exposure to qualified dividends, as well as holding tax-inefficient ETFs in tax-deferred or tax-exempt accounts. If minimizing taxes is a concern, consider consulting a qualified tax advisor.

5. Are all ETFs relatively liquid?

A primary advantage of ETFs, compared with other similar mutual funds, is their trading flexibility—continuous pricing and the ability to place limit orders. However, these characteristics do not ensure that all ETFs are highly liquid (with highly liquid meaning you may be able to buy or sell your desired quantity at or near the prevailing market price).

There are several ways you can find highly liquid assets—including ETFs. As previously mentioned, a low bid-ask spread may indicate a robust market of buyers and sellers. Of course, it may not be indicative of the prevailing spread for trades of significantly different size. Average daily volume is another indicator of liquidity. Volume is the number of shares traded: Investments with high volume and, consequently, greater liquidity, tend to be more efficient.

For example, iShares Core S&P 500 ETF () has a bid-ask spread one-month average of 0.01%, which is as low as this spread can be. Additionally, IVV is in the top quintile of 90-day average volume among ETFs, as shown on Some more narrowly focused ETFs have much wider bid-ask spreads, which could cause trading in them to be relatively more expensive.

A few last tips

Once you have identified an ETF in the asset class, sector, or region of the market that you want to invest in, you can use a tool like an ETF screener, for example, to find ETFs in this space with your desired attributes, such as a low average daily bid-ask spread and high average daily trading volume.

Other tools, like Fidelity’s ETF research page, can help you investigate additional characteristics of an ETF you are analyzing, including the underlying fundamentals of the stocks within the fund. Once you home in on an ETF that looks attractive to you, it may also be beneficial to utilize limit orders when placing a trade to ensure that you are executing at a price you are comfortable with. And make sure to evaluate any investment option with your time horizon, financial circumstances, and tolerance for risk in mind.

Find the right ETF for you

Use our screener to identify ETFs and ETPs that match your investment goals.

More to explore

Before investing in any mutual fund or exchange-traded fund, you should consider its investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. Contact Fidelity for a prospectus, an offering circular, or, if available, a summary prospectus containing this information. Read it carefully.

ETFs are subject to market fluctuation and the risks of their underlying investments. ETFs are subject to management fees and other expenses.

1. Expense ratio is the total annual fund operating expense ratio from the fund's most recent prospectus. The net expense ratio is the total annual operating expense from the fund's most recent prospectus after any fee waiver and/or expense reimbursements that will reduce any fund operating expenses for no less than one year from the effective date of the fund's registration statement. This number does not include any fee waiver arrangement or expense reimbursement that may be terminated without agreement of the fund's board of trustees during the one-year period. Smart beta is an enhanced indexing strategy that seeks to exploit certain performance factors in an attempt to outperform a benchmark index. In this sense, smart beta differs fundamentally from a traditional passive indexing strategy. Smart beta strategies also differ from actively managed mutual funds, in which a fund manager chooses among individual stocks or sectors in an effort to beat a benchmark index. Smart beta strategies seek to enhance returns, improve diversification, and reduce risk by investing in customized indexes or ETFs based on one or more predetermined “factors.” They aim to outperform, or have less risk than, traditional capitalization-weighted benchmarks but typically have lower expenses than a traditional actively managed fund. 2. Source:, as of September 21, 2023. The strategy of the Fidelity® 500 Index Fund – Premium Class is normally to invest at least 80% of assets in common stocks included in the S&P 500 Index, which broadly represents the performance of common stocks publicly traded in the United States. No-transaction-fee Fidelity funds are available without paying a trading fee to Fidelity or a sales load to the fund. However, the fund may charge a short-term trading or redemption fee to protect the interests of long-term shareholders of the fund. Shares are subject to the fund’s management and operating expenses. See Expenses & Fees for more information. Note: Fidelity offers zero fee index funds.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.

Indexes are unmanaged. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500® Index) is an unmanaged, market capitalization–weighted index of 500 widely held U.S. stocks and includes reinvestment of dividends. For iShares ETFs, Fidelity receives compensation from the ETF sponsor and/or its affiliates in connection with an exclusive, long-term marketing program that includes promotion of iShares ETFs and inclusion of iShares funds in certain FBS platforms and investment programs. Additional information about the sources, amounts, and terms of compensation is described in the ETF’s prospectus and related documents. Fidelity may add or waive commissions on ETFs without prior notice. BlackRock and iShares are registered trademarks of BlackRock, Inc., and its affiliates.

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 risks, 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 to the specific risks associated with that sector, region, or other focus. ETPs that 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 exchange-traded notes). The degree of liquidity can vary significantly from one ETP to another and losses may be magnified if no liquid market exists for the ETP's shares when attempting to sell them. Each ETP has a unique risk profile, detailed in its prospectus, offering circular, or similar material, which should be considered carefully when making investment decisions.

As with all your investments through Fidelity, you must make your own determination whether an investment in any particular security or securities is consistent with your investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial situation, and evaluation of the security. Fidelity is not recommending or endorsing this investment by making it available to its customers.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The Fidelity ETF Screener is a research tool provided to help self-directed investors evaluate these types of securities. The criteria and inputs entered are at the sole discretion of the user, and all screens or strategies with preselected criteria (including expert ones) are solely for the convenience of the user. Expert Screeners are provided by independent companies not affiliated with Fidelity. Information supplied or obtained from these Screeners is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice or guidance, an offer of or a solicitation of an offer to buy or sell securities, or a recommendation or endorsement by Fidelity of any security or investment strategy. Fidelity does not endorse or adopt any particular investment strategy or approach to screening or evaluating stocks, preferred securities, exchange-traded products, or closed-end funds. Fidelity makes no guarantees that information supplied is accurate, complete, or timely, and does not provide any warranties regarding results obtained from its use. Determine which securities are right for you based on your investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial situation, and other individual factors, and reevaluate them on a periodic basis.

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