Introduction to ETFs August 20, 2020

Introduction to ETFs


You’ve probably heard of Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) from the investment community. It’s usually the same description – they are low cost and efficient diversification financial products.

But the ETF world is much more complicated than that. It is filled with many different types of ETFs and technical jargons that may confuse or even intimidate the everyday investors.

Fret not, in this article, we will take you through the basics of ETFs, the terminologies in an ETF factsheet and the things to look out for before investing in ETFs.

This article will guide you to learn how to utilise ETFs for your investment journey.

What is an ETF?

ETFs are open-ended investment funds with a primary objective of tracking its benchmark index.

It is a marketable security that trades like a common stock on stock exchanges around the world. As an investment fund, ETF holds a diversified portfolio of securities to achieve its index replication objective.

In summary, ETFs are investment funds listed on exchanges and trade on exchanges like a stock.

Types of ETFs

Market Capitalisation Weighted ETFs

These ETFs track their respective capitalisation-weighted indexes. The index components are selected and weighted according to the total market value of their outstanding share units (share price * total number of outstanding share units).

For example, the Straits Times Index (STI) comprises the top 30 companies listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX). If the market capitalisation of one of the STI’s constituents falls below the top 30 ranking, another better performing company will replace it on the index.

Examples of Market Capitalisation Weighted ETFs

Index ETF
S&P 500 Index
  • SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSE: SPY)
  • Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (NYSE: VOO)
  • iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (NYSE: IVV)
Straits Times Index
  • Nikko AM STI ETF (SGX: G3B)
FTSE China A50 Index
  • CSOP FTSE China A50 ETF (HKEx: 2822)
  • iShares FTSE A50 China Index ETF (HKEx: 2823)
Hang Seng Index
  • Tracker Fund of Hong Kong (HKEx: 2800)

Smart Beta ETFs

Unlike traditional Market Capitalisation Weighted ETFs, Smart Beta ETFs use an alternative rules-based index construction strategy.

By adopting a rule-based approach to selecting its constituents, Smart Beta ETF aims to quantify its index criteria and eliminate any irrational behavioural factors from portfolio management.

ETF issuers often launch Smart Beta ETFs to target any gap in the saturated ETF market space and serve unmet investors’ needs.

Examples of Smart Beta ETFs include Lion-Phillip S-REITs ETF (SGX: CLR) and Phillip Sing Income ETF (SGX: OVQ).

Actively Managed ETFs

Actively managed ETFs belong to a class of ETF that does not adhere to the passive index replication strategy. They invest in a portfolio of securities that are subjectively chosen by their fund managers.

The fund managers have the liberty to adjust the securities and portfolio allocation within the fund while not being limited to the fixed rule of tracking an index.

Actively managed ETFs have the potential to outperform their benchmark indexes through the investment decisions made by their fund managers. However, the higher transaction cost of managing the funds may result in higher expense ratios when compared with traditional index-tracking ETFs.

Nikko Asset Management launched the first actively managed ETF in Asia on HKEx in June 2020. The NikkoAM Active E-Games ETF (HKEx: 9091) has the flexibility to rebalance its underlying assets daily to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the E-Games industry.

Leveraged and Inverse ETFs

There are special classes of ETFs available in the market that allow investors to leverage or short their investments directly without the need to deposit a margin or borrow stocks respectively.

The availability of leveraged and inverse ETFs allows investors to hedge their portfolios or engage in tactical trading to gain exposure to specific market trends.

Leveraged and inverse ETFs are highly volatile trading instruments meant for short-term trading purposes only.

ETF Replication Method

The following are ways for an ETF to achieve its index-tracking objective:

1) Full Physical Replication

Full Physical Replication ETFs invest all of its assets in the constituents of the benchmark index, in proportion to the weight of the constituents in the index.

2) Sampling/Partial Replication

Instead of investing all of its assets in the constituents of the benchmark index, an ETF may choose to invest in only some of the constituents in the benchmark index. There are various reasons for adopting the sampling replication technique:

  • To improve the performance of the ETFs by omitting underperforming securities
  • It is impossible or not cost-effective to purchase all the securities in the benchmark index

3) Synthetic Replication

Synthetic ETFs purchase futures, options and other derivatives instruments in exchange for the benchmark index performance. There are various reasons for adopting this synthetic replication approach:

  • To gain access to obscure or less liquid markets
  • To reduce tracking error
  • To replicate unique benchmark index
  • To overcome the problem of incurring high transaction costs (e.g. Commodity ETFs do not have to incur storage, insurance and logistics costs)

ETF Factsheet Terminologies

An ETF factsheet contains several technical terms and definitions. Moreover, different ETF issuers present their ETFs’ factsheet data differently, which may further confuse investors.

Nevertheless, once an investor learns the different terminologies used in an ETF factsheet, he/she will be able to make informed decisions about his/her choices of ETFs in the future.

Below are the common terminologies used in an ETF factsheet:

Terminology Definition
Expense Ratio An ETF fund issuer will incur management, administrative, legal, auditing and custodian fees, as well as transaction costs etc in the operations of the ETF. Expense ratio is the total annual fee that ETF charges their shareholders for managing the ETF.

Investors do not have to make any additional payments to the fund managers as expense ratio is deducted from the Net Asset Value (NAV) of the ETF.
Number of Holdings The number of holdings is the number of different financial assets held under the ETF.

For example, STI ETF will have the top 30 companies stocks listed on the SGX under its holdings.
Asset Under Management (AUM) /
Total Net Assets
The total market value of all the financial assets held under the ETFs.
Shares Outstanding The total number of ETF units that is circulating and held by investors/participants in the markets.
Net Asset Value (NAV) The actual value per unit of an ETF. The NAV of the ETF is not the market price of the ETF.
Premium / Discount The percentage price difference of the ETF that is trading above or below the NAV.

Benefits of ETFs

To date, ETFs are getting immensely popular among investors and the number of ETFs available in stock exchanges globally has grown from only one ETF in 1993 to almost 7,000 ETFs by the end of 2019.

So why are ETFs gaining popularity and what are the benefits of investing in ETFs? We shall explain them in detail in this section.

Benefits Description
  • Mandatory for ETF Issuers to update and release ETF information daily to investors
  • Investors know the ETF holdings, NAV, price and cost of the ETFs
  • ETFs provide immediate exposure to a basket of securities for instant diversification
  • ETFs minimise the concentration risk for investors of being overexposed to a single financial asset
  • ETFs are listed on exchanges and can be traded any time the market is open
  • Market makers will be providing liquidity for the respective ETFs
  • Most ETFs adopt a passive index replication strategy. Hence, ETF’s total expense ratio is generally lower when compared to actively-managed Unit Trusts
  • No sales charges or upfront fee. Investors will only need to pay for the brokerage fees and exchange fees when transacting in ETFs
  • A wide variety of asset classes and investment themes available for investors to choose from
  • Allow investors to gain access to closed-door markets (e.g. Brazil, Russia, India etc) and hard-to-access asset classes (e.g. bonds, commodities etc)

Before I Trade ETFs

Investors who wish to trade ETFs should take note of the following:

With the exception of some SGX listed ETFs which are classified as Excluded Investment Products (EIP), all other SGX and overseas listed ETFs are classified as Specified Investment Products (SIP).

Investors will have to clear their Customer Account Review (CAR) in order to trade SIP.

You may visit SGX ETF Screener for more information on the classification of SGX listed ETFs.

For investors who wish to trade overseas listed financial products, they will have to acknowledge the Risk Warning Statement (RWS) with their respective brokers. In addition to the RWS, investors who wish to trade US listed financial products are required to submit their W-8BEN Form.

Figure 1: CAR, W-8BEN Form and RWSIntroduction to ETFs

How Can I Trade ETFs

ETFs are traded like stocks on exchanges. You can trade SGX and overseas listed ETFs once you have opened a POEMS trading account and cleared the necessary requirements. There are over 3,300 ETFs available on our POEMS trading platform.

Investors can also consult their qualified financial advisors or investment professionals should they have any queries about ETFs.


ETFs have quickly grown in popularity because of their cost-effectiveness, transparency and liquidity. Moreover, ETFs offer the additional benefit of instant diversification.

The advent of ETFs allows investors to gain exposure to macro trends in a convenient and efficient manner. Investors need not choose specific individual stocks for their investment strategy. They can simply select the ETFs with the investment objectives that match their desired market theme or strategy.

With thousands of ETFs available in stock exchanges around the world, investors can now tailor-make their own portfolio to gain exposure to worldwide trends and asset classes.


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