Building an All-ETF Portfolio (2024)

The emergence of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) over the recent past has been great for investors, as it has made low-cost opportunities available for nearly every asset class in the market. However, their success also means investors are confronted with about 10,000ETF choices, a daunting task for the weekend investor.

You don't have to choose just one. Once you know the basics of ETFs, you can consider building an all-ETF portfolio that meets your tolerance for risk and your financial goals while retaining the low investing fees that made ETFs so popular in the first place.

Key Takeaways

  • Most ETFs are passively-managed funds that mimic an index or other benchmark, so their performance matches that of the benchmark as closely as possible.
  • The most popular ETFs track the S&P 500 Index and other broad benchmarks.
  • There are many other choices that focus on specific industries or sectors.
  • The right combination of ETFs can produce a balanced, diversified portfolio.
  • ETFs are relatively inexpensive and offer higher liquidity and transparency as they trade throughout the day like stocks.

Benefits of an ETF Portfolio

ETFs are baskets of individual securities, much like mutual fundsbutwith two key differences. First, ETFs are traded on exchanges like stocks, while mutual fund transactions don't occur until the market closes for the day. Second,expense ratiostend to be lower.

Most ETFs are passively managed vehicles that simply reflect the contents of an underlyingindexor other benchmark. They should virtually duplicate the performance of the benchmark.

Many mutual fundsare activelymanaged. They usually have higher fees because there are financial professionals behind the scenes buying and selling assets from day to day. Their goal is to beat the performance of a particular benchmark, but there's no guarantee that they will.

In any type of fund, the chief benefit is diversification. Investing in an ETF that tracks a financial services index gives youownership in a basket of financial stocks versus a single financial company. As the old cliché goes, you do not want to put all your eggs into one basket.

An ETF can guard against volatility (up to apoint)ifsome stocks within the ETF fall. This removal ofcompany-specific risk is the biggest drawfor most ETF investors.

Another benefit of ETFs is the exposure they can give a portfolio to alternative asset classes, such as commodities,currencies, and real estate.

Choosing the Right ETFs

When determining which ETFs arebest suited for your portfolio, there are a number offactors toconsider.

First, you should look at the top holdings of the ETF. The name alone is not enough information. For instance, a number of ETFs are made up of water-related stocks. However, when the top holdings of each are analyzed, it is clearthey takedifferent approaches to this niche sector. While one ETF may be composed of water utilities, anothermay haveinfrastructure stocks as the top holdings. The focus of each ETF will result in varying returns.

While past performance is no guarantee of future results, it is important to compare how similar ETFs have performed.

And, though most ETFs have low fees, watch out for any notable differences in expense ratios that can cut into your returns.

Another factor to pay attention tois the total amount of assets under management (AUM). An ETF with low AUM could be in danger of liquidation. Also look atthe daily average volume, and the bid/ask spread. Low volume indicateslow liquidity, which will make it more difficult to get in and out of shares.

Steps for Building anETF Portfolio

If you are considering building a portfolio with ETFs, here are some simple guidelines:

Step 1:Determine the Right Allocation

Consider your objective for this portfolio (e.g., retirement or saving for a child's college tuition),your return and risk expectations, your time horizon (the longer it is, the more risk you can take), your distribution needs (if you have income needs, you will have to addfixed-incomeETFs and/orequityETFs that pay higher dividends), your tax and legal situations, your personal situation, and how this portfolio fits within your overall investment strategy. All of these factors go into determining yourasset allocation.

If you are knowledgeable about investments, you may be able to handle this yourself. If not, seek help from a financial adviser.

Then consider some data on market returns. Research by Eugene Fama and Kenneth French resulted in the formation of thethree-factor modelin evaluating market returns. According to this model:

  • Market risk explains part of a stock's return. For example, stocks have more market risk than bonds, so stocks should generally outperform bonds over time.
  • Value stocks outperform growth stocks over time. This is because they are inherently riskier.
  • Small-cap stocks outperform large-cap stocks over time. They have more undiversifiable risk than their large-cap counterparts.

Therefore, investors with a higher risk tolerance can and should allocate a significant portion of their portfolios to small-cap, value-oriented equities.

Remember that more than 90% of a portfolio's return is determined by allocation rather than security selection and timing. Do not try to time the market. Research continually has shown that timing the market is not a winning strategy.

Once you have determined the right allocation, you are ready to implement your strategy.

Step 2: Implement Your Strategy

The beauty of ETFs is that you can select an ETF for each sector or index in which you want exposure. Analyze the available funds and determine which ones will best meet your allocation targets.

Placing all your buy orders in one day is not a prudent strategy. Ideally, you would want to look at the charts for support levels and try to buy on dips. Phase in your purchases over a period of three to six months.

At the time of purchase, many investorswill place a stop-loss order that will limitpotential losses. Ideally, the stop-loss should be no more than 20% below the original entry price and should be moved up accordinglyas the ETF gains in price.

Step 3: Monitor and Assess

At least once a year, check the performance of your portfolio.

For most investors, depending on their tax circ*mstances, the ideal time to do this is at the beginning or end of the calendar year. Compare each ETF's performance to that of its benchmark index. Any difference, calledtracking error, should be low. If it is not, you may need to replace that fund with one that will stay truer to its stated style.

Do not overtrade. A once-a-quarter or annual rebalancing is recommended for most portfolios.

Don't be deterred by short-term market fluctuations. Stay true to your original allocations.

Assess your portfolio in light of changes in your circ*mstances, but be sure to keep a long-term perspective. Your allocation will change over time as your circ*mstances change.

Creating an All-ETF Portfolio

If your plan is to have a portfolio made up solely of ETFs,make sure multipleasset classes are included to create diversification. As an example, you couldstart by focusingon three areas:

  1. Sector ETFs concentrate on specific fields, such as financials or healthcare.Choose ETFsfrom different sectors that are largelyuncorrelated. For example, choosing a biotech ETF and a medical device ETF would not be real diversification. The decision about which sector ETFsto include should be based on fundamentals (valuation of the sectors), technicals, and the economic outlook.
  2. International ETFsmay focus on emerging markets, developed markets, or both. International ETFs may track an index that invests in a single country, such as China, oran entire region, like Latin America. Similar to sector ETFs, the choice shouldbe based on fundamentals and technicals. Be sureto look at the makeup of each ETF, as far as individual stocks and sector allocation.
  3. Commodity ETFsarean important part of an investor'sportfolio. Everything from gold to cotton to corn can be tracked with ETFs or their cousins, exchange-traded notes (ETNs). Unless you have expert knowledge in a particular commodity, a broad commodityETF can be a good choice.

Note that these are suggested areas to focus on.It's all about your preferences.

Roboadvisors, which are increasingly popular, can build all-ETF portfolios for their users.

What Is an ETF?

An ETF is a pool of money from many shareholders. Most ETFs are passively managed funds that track a particular index or other benchmark. That is, the money is invested solely in the assets contained in the index, following the same weightings as are used to create the index. The performance should be virtually identical to the performance of the benchmark.

ETFs are similar to mutual funds, but they are traded on an exchange, like stocks. Mutual funds can only be sold at the end of a trading day.

ETFs also have very low fees, especially if they are passively managed. It is worth noting that mutual fund fees have dropped sharply due to the competition from ETFs. Also, some mutual funds also are passively-managed and have correspondingly low fees.

Who Are the Biggest ETF Providers?

The biggest brands of ETFs in terms of assets under management (AUM) are iShares (issued by BlackRock); Vanguard; SPDR (issued by State Street Global Advisors); Invesco, and Charles Schwab.

Are ETFs Safe Investments?

Like every asset available to an investor, an ETF can be very safe, not-so-safe, or downright risky. The relative safety of an ETF depends on the risk levels of the investments within it. You can now invest in bitcoin futures through ETFs. Or, you can invest in triple A-rated bonds.

The Bottom Line

Over time, there will be ups and downs in the markets and in individual stocks, but a low-cost portfolio made up entirely of ETFs could ease volatility and help you achieve your investment goals.

Building an All-ETF Portfolio (2024)


Can my portfolio be all ETFs? ›

But it's equally possible to build a complete portfolio out of nothing but ETFs, which in most cases track indexes for a variety of asset classes.

How to build a balanced portfolio with ETFs? ›

The steps to build an ETF portfolio are to:
  1. Define investment goals.
  2. Assess risk tolerance.
  3. Determine the asset mix.
  4. Choose an ETF portfolio structure.
  5. Research and analyze ETFs.
  6. Select ETFs for the portfolio.
  7. Choose an entry strategy to buy ETFs.

Is 4 ETFs too many? ›

Experts agree that for most personal investors, a portfolio comprising 5 to 10 ETFs is perfect in terms of diversification. But the number of ETFs is not what you should be looking at.

Is 20 ETFs too many? ›

How many ETFs are enough? The answer depends on several factors when deciding how many ETFs you should own. Generally speaking, fewer than 10 ETFs are likely enough to diversify your portfolio, but this will vary depending on your financial goals, ranging from retirement savings to income generation.

How many S&P 500 ETFs should I own? ›

You only need one S&P 500 ETF

For others, it's all minutia. All three of the ETFs listed here have lower-than-average expense ratios and offer an easy way to buy a slice of the U.S. stock market. You could be tempted to buy all three ETFs, but just one will do the trick.

What is the 70 30 ETF strategy? ›

This investment strategy seeks total return through exposure to a diversified portfolio of primarily equity, and to a lesser extent, fixed income asset classes with a target allocation of 70% equities and 30% fixed income. Target allocations can vary +/-5%.

What are the best 3 ETF portfolios? ›

Example of a Solid Three-ETF Portfolio

One option for a solid three-ETF portfolio could be to include the Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity ETF (SCHD), the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO), and the Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ).

How many Vanguard ETFs should I own? ›

Build a fully diversified portfolio with just 4 ETFs

This level of diversification can help reduce your overall investment risk while making it easier to manage your portfolio.

Should I put all my money in ETFs? ›

You expose your portfolio to much higher risk with sector ETFs, so you should use them sparingly, but investing 5% to 10% of your total portfolio assets may be appropriate. If you want to be highly conservative, don't use these at all.

What is the 4% rule ETF? ›

Known as the 4% rule, Bengen argued that investors could safely set their annual withdrawal rate to 4% of their initial retirement pot and adjust it for inflation without running out of money over a 30-year time horizon.

What is the 3% limit on ETFs? ›

Under the Investment Company Act, private investment funds (e.g. hedge funds) are generally prohibited from acquiring more than 3% of an ETF's shares (the 3% Limit).

Is qqq better than VOO? ›

Average Return

In the past year, QQQ returned a total of 35.90%, which is significantly higher than VOO's 28.88% return. Over the past 10 years, QQQ has had annualized average returns of 18.75% , compared to 12.96% for VOO. These numbers are adjusted for stock splits and include dividends.

What is the 30 day rule on ETFs? ›

If you buy substantially identical security within 30 days before or after a sale at a loss, you are subject to the wash sale rule. This prevents you from claiming the loss at this time.

What is a lazy portfolio? ›

A Classic Lazy Portfolio contains the main traditional asset classes, with the aim to achieve above-average returns while taking a below-average risk. A Modern/Alternative Lazy Portfolio can use particular assets/strategies, with the aim of obtaining an extra return.

Is spy better than VOO? ›

Over the long run, they do compound—those fee differences—and investors have been putting a lot more money into VOO versus SPY. That is the reason why we view VOO slightly better than SPY. And that is just the basic approach, which is the lower the investor can pay, the better the investment is.

What percent of my portfolio should be ETFs? ›

"A newer investor with a modest portfolio may like the ease at which to acquire ETFs (trades like an equity) and the low-cost aspect of the investment. ETFs can provide an easy way to be diversified and as such, the investor may want to have 75% or more of the portfolio in ETFs."

Should I invest in multiple ETFs or just one? ›

You don't have to choose just one. Once you know the basics of ETFs, you can consider building an all-ETF portfolio that meets your tolerance for risk and your financial goals while retaining the low investing fees that made ETFs so popular in the first place.

Should I convert all my mutual funds to ETFs? ›

If you're paying fees for a fund with a high expense ratio or paying too much in taxes each year because of undesired capital gains distributions, switching to ETFs is likely the right choice. If your current investment is in an indexed mutual fund, you can usually find an ETF that accomplishes the same thing.

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