NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Over the past year, ETF providers and sponsors have taken increasingly bold steps in their attempts to make their products more attractive when compared to competitors. One of the more popular ways fund providers have attempted to achieve this goal has been to decrease the costs associated with holding the funds.
While cheap costs will certainly make using ETFs less of a financial burden on investors, the cheapest products are not always the best. Investors must be careful not to fall for marketing gimmicks that can result in the formation of a portfolio made of less than ideal holdings.
Early last week,
announced that it was cutting the expense ratios on six of its eight products, thereby making their funds the cheapest within their respective niches.
This is actually the second cost-cutting measure to come from the firm. When Schwab, a relative newcomer to the ETF arena, first came onto the scene, it was forced to go toe-to-toe with established fund providers including
and iShares. In order to set itself apart from these competitors, Schwab announced that that it would wave commission fees on its new line of ETFs for clients with in-house accounts.
In response to Schwab's decision to slash commission fees, other firms have followed suit with their own expense-cutting measures.
In early February, Fidelity announced that it would cut commission fees on 25 iShares products. Not to be outdone,
responded in May by slashing its own commission fees for its entire line of 46 ETFs.
Aside from Schwab's move to reduce the expense ratios of a number of its funds, iShares also appears to be taking aim at share prices in hopes of gaining a leg up on competitors. In the past,
iShares COMEX Gold Trust
has been a popular product, but has lagged in size behind the
SPDR Gold Shares
. In an effort to attract new assets, IAU went through a 10-for-1 share split at the close of trading yesterday, reducing the price of each individual share. Before, IAU, GLD and
ETFS Gold Shares
all had prices over $120 per share, but now IAU will trade for just over $12 per share. Although internally the fund remained unchanged, by making individual shares cheaper, IAU may appeal to investors looking to purchase gold in larger share blocks.
Rock-bottom costs certainly provide investors with welcomed relief to their wallets and a lower share price may be enticing. However, a cheap fee or low price should not be the sole factor to weigh when picking which fund is ideal for you.
Given the volatility inherent in today's markets, volume has become an essential quality ETF investors must pay attention to. Last month, when the "flash crash" sent markets reeling, ETFs with low volume were singled out as the products most vulnerable to a gut-wrenching drop (although even some high volume products were not immune). Prior to this event, I have, at exhaustion, insisted that when constructing the strongest, most stable portfolio investors need to seek out positions with the highest volume possible.
Although they are now the cheapest options available, Schwab's ETF options are not always the most liquid. For instance, when it comes to large-cap value ETFs, there are a number of options to choose from including:
Schwab U.S. Large-Cap Value ETF
Vanguard Value ETF
iShares S&P 500 Value Index
SPDR Dow Jones Large Cap Value
. Carrying a 0.13% expense ratio, SCHV is the cheapest of the four funds. However, with an average volume that fails to break 45,000, it is also one of the most lightly traded.
VTV and IVE, which charge a mere 2 and 5 basis points more than Schwab's fund, on the other hand, exchange hands 379,000 times and 579,000 times respectively.
Since they first became available to investors, exchange-traded funds have been lauded not only for their ability to provide investors with instant diversification or access to unique and foreign market niches, but also their low costs. As fund providers take jabs at one another in an attempt to lean the playing field in their favor, investors mustn't get caught up and distracted by attractive marketing techniques. In the end, liquidity is still essential to creating a portfolio that can weather economic storms. Ignoring this factor can be disastrous.
At the time of publication, Dion Money Management owned IAU.
Don Dion is president and founder of
, a fee-based investment advisory firm to affluent individuals, families and nonprofit organizations, where he is responsible for setting investment policy, creating custom portfolios and overseeing the performance of client accounts. Founded in 1996 and based in Williamstown, Mass., Dion Money Management manages assets for clients in 49 states and 11 countries. Dion is a licensed attorney in Massachusetts and Maine and has more than 25 years' experience working in the financial markets, having founded and run two publicly traded companies before establishing Dion Money Management.
Dion also is publisher of the Fidelity Independent Adviser family of newsletters, which provides to a broad range of investors his commentary on the financial markets, with a specific emphasis on mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. With more than 100,000 subscribers in the U.S. and 29 other countries, Fidelity Independent Adviser publishes six monthly newsletters and three weekly newsletters. Its flagship publication, Fidelity Independent Adviser, has been published monthly for 11 years and reaches 40,000 subscribers.