Diversifying your portfolio with ETFs

ETF is a word you are likely starting to hear more and more, especially with the recent rise of robo-advisors and automated investment platforms. But what does it stand for, and more importantly, what good does it actually do?

ETFs Explained

ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund, and it is simply a pool of stocks that are grouped together under one package. This package is then traded on a stock exchange, like a stock, with its own ticker symbol.

So say you believe in the future of a specific niche, maybe cybersecurity. You’ve heard of a couple of cybersecurity companies and want to invest, but you’re worried about sinking all of your eggs into one basket, or overallocating to one company. This is where ETFs can come in handy. ETFs are offered on virtually any asset class, and generally in both directions (perhaps you are bearish on a particular industry). This gives you the ability to diversify across a number of companies, and you can find ETFs on almost any traded commodity.

ETFs are very similar to mutual funds in the sense that they’re a fund, have a manager, and generally track a specific index. They were first introduced in the US in 1993.

As with anything in the investing world, there are drawbacks to consider.

The details

Similar to their cousins, mutual funds, a lesser known fact about Exchange-Traded Funds is that they do in fact have fixed fees associated with owning the position. These are called expense ratios. These are generally much lower than mutual funds, and ETFs do not have the other fees, such as 12b-1, that mutual funds carry.

While ETFs are generally extremely liquid, you’ll want to check volume and bid-ask spreads. This especially applies for any that are off-the-beaten-path, such as leveraged funds. This will save you when it comes time to sell.

ETFs, and mutual funds alike, are legally required to provide a prospectus. A prospectus is a document entailing all of the securities the fund holds, with percentage allocations. You’ll always want to review this before acquring a position, and it is a good idea to check it occasionally while holding.

Overall, ETFs are a wonderful tool for gaining exposure to markets while reducing company-specific risks along the way.

Investing in Technology Mutual Funds

Technology Mutual Funds and ETFs alike are becoming increasingly prevalent across multiple industries in the rapidly-changing investing landscape. When it’s time to make investment decisions in your 401k, IRA or brokerage account, these funds are inching their way into view. They are generally associated with high growth and above average volatility. But, after all, so many companies identify as “technology companies” now, so what companies are these funds actually comprised of, and how do you choose the best one?

The ultra-wide umbrella of “Technology”

When prospecting tech funds, the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the various sub-industries that all fall within the “technology” umbrella. Computer hardware manufacturers have a much different cost and revenue model from a cybersecurity company, for example, and can be subject to entirely different risks. 

A small subset of the common categories is listed below. Note that some of these have blurred lines and could share commonalities with other categories. See if you can name to yourself a company that would fall under each of these.

  • Technology Services
  • Computer Hardware Manufacturing
  • Cloud Computing 
  • Consumer Electronics
  • Cybersecurity
  • Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • Platform / Marketplace 
  • IT Services
  • Enterprise Software
  • AdTech

As you can see, there is a vast array of categories. They all have their own cost structures, macroeconomic factors, revenue models, risks, etc that ultimately fall under the tech umbrella. When you are evaluating a mutual fund’s holdings, note which categories the majority of the holdings would fall under. This will help you establish an initial understanding of the fund structure from a perspective of risk and correlation between companies.

The difference between growth and value still applies

Tech companies have historically been labeled as growth opportunities. This is generally due to perceived scalability and the fact that a significant number have been founded just within the last 20 years. But it’s important to take a step back here and make an additional effort to read between the lines. While the difference between growth and value investing still applies for technology companies, the industry can be extremely volatile and fast-changing. 

What this means is that young “growth” companies can see their technology become outdated almost overnight. On the same token, companies that are 100 years old can continuously expand into newer niches with fresh market potential. What may have been considered as a “value” play by traditional standards can quickly become a growth opportunity. This means that when evaluating funds from this perspective you will want to first double check the prospectus and holdings. Then try to familiarize yourself with some of the key revenue drivers for the companies to form a general idea of what some of the companies are investing their resources in. 

Know your benchmark

A benchmark is a standard that you can measure performance against. When evaluating the performance for general mutual funds (say a large-cap value or small-cap growth), typical benchmarks are the S&P 500 for funds with larger companies, Russell 2000 for funds with small-cap companies, and the Wilshire 5000 for a better benchmark of “the entire market”. For bonds, the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is typically the benchmark. 

What about technology? Since these funds will often have a mixture of small-cap and large-cap companies in industries across the board, what is an appropriate benchmark? You’ll find that the benchmarks these funds track against vary considerably. One common index you’ll see funds benchmarked against is the Morgan Stanley Capital International All Country World Index (MSCI AWCI). This is a diversified index that tracks companies from approximately 23 developed countries and 23 emerging market countries. The MSCI AWCI is widely considered as the broadest global equities index. Other indexes may be industry specific, like the MSCI Telecommunication Services and MSCI Software and Services indexes.

No benchmark is necessarily “wrong” or “right”. However, when allocating your hard-earned capital it’s important to know what companies, industries and countries your money is being measured against. This will give you a better idea of what performance the fund managers are aiming for.

Don’t forget the mutual fund fundamentals

This part is crucial. Regardless of the benchmark or specific industry, you are still investing in a mutual fund. Don’t forget to review the important pieces. This will be extremely important when determining what may be the best technology mutual fund for your portfolio.

As we have discussed, there are no one-size-fits-all “technology” benchmarks, so passively-managed technology funds are typically hard to come by. As a matter of fact, at the time of writing in July 2020, googling “passively managed technology mutual fund” does not even return a single direct match. What this means is that virtually all of the tech mutual funds are actively managed. What does that mean?

Fees. While the average expense ratio for a passively managed index fund is currently hovering between 0.1% – 0.3%, the average expense ratio for technology mutual funds typically falls between 0.5% – 1.3%. This is a significant difference that can start to chip away at your returns, making it even more important to know where your money is going. There are also the other fees such as 12(b)-1 and load fees to watch out for. 

The summary

We get it – the point of a mutual fund is to achieve diversification while reducing the need for heavy research into each separate holding. But, with a few hours of effort spent conducting your normal mutual fund due diligence in addition to dissecting these funds to learn more about the specific industries these companies operate in, you can hopefully become more comfortable in where exactly your money is going. And you may learn something cool along the way 🙂