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ETFs Go Where Mutual Funds Won't

Stocks in this article: ECHGXGMOODEPOTTWONCHIE

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Most investors steer clear of more comprehensive and lower-priced exchange traded funds because they stick with what they know: mutual funds.

Traditional mutual funds lend themselves to basic strategies geared to broad asset classes. For whatever reason, mutual fund investors prefer this, as they can "set and forget" their portfolios.

Even eager investors may not want to choose individual stocks for every theme or niche that interests them. That's where ETFs come in handy, offering access to markets and categories unavailable to mutual fund investors.

A country I have been writing about since I started for TheStreet is Chile. The story is simple: Chile is becoming wealthier because of global demand for copper, of which it's the world's largest supplier. In addition, the country has what amounts to privatized social security, which means there's steady demand for equities, helping to lower volatility. The combination of emerging market growth potential with low volatility makes for an attractive investment destination. But no U.S.-based open-end mutual fund focuses exclusively on Chile.

Over the past year, the iShares Chile ETF (ECH) is up 35%, compared with gains of 1% to 16% for the four broad-based Latin America mutual funds covered by fund-research firm Morningstar. Chile has had a fantastic run, but the four Latin America mutual funds have little or no exposure to Chile. That's the fund managers' decision.

You could read the previous two paragraphs and replace the word "Chile" with "Colombia," except for the part about lower volatility. The Global X Colombia 20 ETF (GXG) is up 27% over the past year. The benchmark U.S. stock-market index, the S&P 500, has risen at half that pace.

A different type of comparison could be in a niche like agribusiness between the John Hancock Global Agribusiness Fund (JCWIX), a traditional mutual fund, and the Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF (MOO). The John Hancock fund is the newer of the two and, since its inception, is up 49%, trailing the Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF's 87% surge. Why the difference? And could an investor have seen the dispersion ahead of time and chosen the ETF?

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