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As with any investment, begin by asking yourself what you're looking for. Are you building or complementing a core portfolio? Is generating income important? Or minimizing volatility? Do you want to express a specific view on the markets? There's an ETF for virtually any goal you can think of, so starting with your big picture goals will help narrow your search.
Most ETFs are "passive," meaning they track an index - but a lot of work goes on behind the scenes! Look for a fund provider with a proven record of expertise in the ETF industry, a commitment to quality, and enough scale to make trading efficient and liquid. Funds that sound similar can be quite different under the hood. You should check what's actually in the portfolio – largest holdings, industry and country breakdown, yields. Ultimately, you'll want to make sure the fund you buy does what you expect it to do.
Costs will eat into your returns over time, so examine these closely. Most ETFs have lower annual expenses than the typical mutual fund but fees on individual ETFs will vary. Plus, you'll want to look beyond the annual expense ratio. If taxes are a consideration, look for funds with a history of lower taxable capital gains distributions2. You may also want to compare bid-ask spreads if you plan to buy and sell more frequently. Finally, many ETFs are available commission-free, which can reduce trading costs.
At this point, you should have whittled your selections to a short list of ETFs, making it significantly easier to decide. Going through this process can take some time, particularly as you start out. But the good news is that as you learn your way around this robust market, shopping for ETFs will become easier—and maybe even fun!