History of ETFs

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Thirty years ago yesterday, the first exchange-traded fund (ETF) in the US launched. In the decades since, these once-niche investment products have become ubiquitous on Wall Street, disrupting the mutual fund industry and transforming people’s relationship with the stock market.

You always remember your first

On Jan. 29, 1993, a dumb-looking spider decoration hanging in the American Stock Exchange heralded the arrival of the first US ETF—what’s now called the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust. It had a measly $6.5 million in assets and no one really paid much attention to it.

That’s changed. The first US ETF is now the world’s biggest, with $375 billion in assets, and the ETF sector in total had amassed $6.5 trillion in assets by the end of 2022. While mutual funds still have 3x the amount of assets that ETFs have, the tide is turning: Investors poured $600 billion into US ETFs on a net basis last year, but pulled out almost $1 trillion from mutual funds.

So, how does an ETF work and why have they become so popular? An ETF is simply a security that tracks the performance of a particular basket of investments, like stocks. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF, for example, tracks the performance of companies in the S&P 500. Many other ETFs also track indexes, allowing people to park their money in funds that follow the ebbs and flows of the broader market.

If that sounds like a mutual fund…it’s similar. But ETFs have a few advantages over its stuffy, older cousin.

  • ETFs generally have lower fees than mutual funds.
  • They have built-in tax benefits.
  • They’re accessible to anyone with a brokerage account—you can buy or sell them like you would a stock.

Zoom out: All these advantages aside, the rise of ETFs has been also fueled by the growing recognition that trying to invest in individual stocks is foolish. Passive index funds, which aren’t designed for frequent trading, have surged to represent almost half of US fund assets, compared to less than 2% in the early ’90s.