Best ETFs to buy in 2021

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Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have become tremendously popular in the last decade and now hold trillions of dollars in assets. ETFs allow investors to buy a collection of stocks or other assets in just one fund with (usually) low expenses, and they trade on an exchange like stocks.

But with literally thousands of ETFs to choose from, where does an investor start? And with the stock market rising furiously after an initial plunge as part of the coronavirus crisis, what are the best ETFs to buy?

Below are some of the top ETFs by category, including some highly specialized funds.

Top ETFs for 2021

Top Equity ETFs

Equity ETFs provide exposure to a portfolio of publicly traded stocks, and may be divided into several categories by where the stock is listed, whether it pays a dividend or what sector it’s in. So investors can find the kind of stock funds they want exposure to and buy only stocks that meet certain criteria.

Stock ETFs tend to be more volatile than other kinds of investments, but they’re suitable for long-term investors looking to build wealth. Some of the most popular equity ETF sectors and their returns (as of July 26) include:

U.S. market-cap index ETFs – Vanguard S&P 500 ETF(VOO)

This kind of ETF gives investors broad exposure to publicly traded companies listed on American exchanges using a passive investment approach that tracks a major index such as the S&P 500 or Nasdaq 100.

A top player here is the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 18.3 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 17.6 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.03 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs in this group also include SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) and Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ).

International ETFs – Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (VEA)

This kind of ETF can provide targeted exposure to international publicly traded companies broadly or by more specific geographic area, such as Asia, Europe or emerging markets. Investing in foreign companies introduces concerns such as currency risk and governance risks, since foreign countries may not offer the same protections for investors as the U.S. does.

A top player here is the Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 9.7 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 10.9 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.05 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs also include iShares Core MSCI EAFE ETF (IEFA), Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) and Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS).

Sector ETFs – Vanguard Information Technology ETF (VGT)

This kind of ETF gives investors a way to buy stock in specific industries, such as consumer staples, energy, financials, healthcare, technology and more. These ETFs are typically passive, meaning they track a specific preset index of stocks and simply mechanically follow the index.

A top player here is the Vanguard Information Technology ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 46.0 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 31.5 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.10 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs also include Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLF), Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLE) and Industrial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLI).

Dividend ETFs – Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG)

This kind of ETF gives investors a way to buy only stocks that pay a dividend. A dividend ETF is usually passively managed, meaning it mechanically tracks an index of dividend-paying firms. This kind of ETF is usually more stable than a total market ETF, and it may be attractive to those looking for investments that produce income, such as retirees.

A top player here is the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 15.4 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 15.4 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.06 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs here also include) Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index ETF (VYM) and Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity ETF (SCHD).

Top bond ETFs

A bond ETF provides exposure to a portfolio of bonds, which are often divided into sub-sectors depending on their issuer, maturity and other factors, allowing investors to buy exactly the kind of bonds they want. Bonds pay out interest on a schedule, and the ETF passes this income on to holders.

Bond ETFs can be an attractive holding for those needing the safety of regular income, such as retirees. Some of the most popular bond ETF sectors and their returns (as of July 26) include:

Long-term bond ETFs – iShares MBS ETF (MBB)

This kind of bond ETF gives exposure to bonds with a long maturity, perhaps as long as 30 years out. Long-term bond ETFs are most exposed to changes in interest rates, so if rates move higher or lower, this ETF will move inversely to the direction of rates. While these ETFs may pay a higher yield than shorter-term bond ETFs, many don’t see the reward as worthy of the risk.

A top player here is the iShares MBS ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 4.1 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 2.2 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.06 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs also include iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) and Vanguard Mortgage-Backed Securities ETF (VMBS).

Short-term bond ETFs – Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF (BSV)

This kind of bond ETF gives exposure to bonds with a short maturity, typically no more than a few years. These bond ETFs won’t move too much in response to changes to interest rates, meaning they’re relatively low risk. These ETFs can be a more attractive option than owning the bonds directly because the fund is highly liquid and more diversified than any individual bond.

A top player here is the Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 4.7 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 2.1 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.05 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs in this category also include iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF (SHY) and Vanguard Short-Term Treasury ETF (VGSH).

Total bond market ETFs – Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND)

This kind of bond ETF gives investors exposure to a wide selection of bonds, diversified by issuer, maturity and region. A total bond market ETF provides a way to gain broad bond exposure without going too heavy in one direction, making it a way to diversify a stock-heavy portfolio.

A top player here is the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 7.7 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 3.0 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.035 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs also include iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG) and Vanguard Total International Bond ETF (BNDX).

Municipal bond ETFs – iShares National Muni Bond ETF (MUB)

This kind of bond ETF gives exposure to bonds issued by states and cities, and interest on these bonds is typically tax-free, though it’s lower than that paid by other issuers. Muni bonds have traditionally been one of the safest areas of the bond market, though if you own out-of-state munis in a fund, you will lose the tax benefits in your home state, though not at the federal level.

A top player here is the iShares National Muni Bond ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 5.1 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 2.9 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.07 percent

Some of the most widely held ETFs also include Vanguard Tax-Exempt Bond ETF (VTEB) and iShares Short-Term National Muni Bond ETF (SUB).

Top balanced ETFs – iShares Core Aggressive Allocation ETF (AOA)

A balanced ETF owns both stock and bonds, and it targets a certain exposure to stock, which is often reflected in its name. These funds allow investors to have the long-term returns of stocks while reducing some of the risk with bonds, which tend to be more stable. A balanced ETF may be more suitable for long-term investors or those who may be a bit more conservative but need growth in their portfolio.

A top player here is the iShares Core Aggressive Allocation ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 12.8 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 12.1 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.25 percent

Some of the most widely held balanced ETFs also include iShares Core Growth Allocation ETF (AOR) and iShares Core Moderate Allocation ETF (AOM).

Top commodity ETFs – SPDR Gold Shares (GLD)

A commodity ETF gives investors a way to own specific commodities, including agricultural goods, oil, precious metals and others without having to enter the futures markets. The ETF may own the commodity directly or via futures contracts. Commodities tend to be quite volatile, so they may not be well-suited for all investors. However, these ETFs may allow more advanced investors to hedge out exposure to a given commodity in their other investments or make a directional bet on the price of a given commodity.

A top player here if you’re interested in gold is the SPDR Gold Shares ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 24.8 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 5.5 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.40 percent

Some of the most widely held commodities ETFs also include  iShares Silver Trust (SLV), United States Oil Fund LP (USO) and Invesco DB Agriculture Fund (DBA).

Top currency ETFs – Invesco DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund (UUP)

A currency ETF gives investors exposure to a specific currency by simply buying an ETF rather than accessing the forex markets. Investors can gain access to some of the world’s most traded currencies, including the U.S. Dollar, the Euro, the British Pound, the Swiss Franc, the Japanese Yen and more. These ETFs are more suitable for advanced investors who may be seeking a way to hedge out exposure to a specific currency in their other investments.

A top player here is the Invesco DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund:

  • 2020 performance: -6.6 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 0.6 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.76 percent

Some of the most widely held currency ETFs also include Invesco CurrencyShares Euro Trust (FXE) and Invesco CurrencyShares Swiss Franc Trust (FXF).

Top real estate ETFs – Vanguard Real Estate ETF (VNQ)

Real estate ETFs usually focus on holding stocks classified as REITs, or real estate investment trusts. REITs are a convenient way to own an interest in companies that manage real estate, and REITs operate in many sectors of the market, including residential, commercial, industrial, lodging, cell towers, medical buildings and more. REITs typically pay out substantial dividends, which are then passed on to the holders of the ETF. These payouts make REITs and REIT ETFs particularly popular among those who need income, especially retirees.

A top player here is the Vanguard Real Estate ETF:

  • 2020 performance: -4.6 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 7.1 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.12 percent

Some of the most widely held real estate ETFs also include iShare U.S. Real Estate ETF (IYR) and Schwab U.S. REIT ETF (SCHH).

Top volatility ETFs – iPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures (VXX)

ETFs even allow investors to bet on the volatility of the stock market through what are called volatility ETFs. Volatility is measured by the CBOE Volatility Index, commonly known as the VIX. Volatility usually rises when the market is falling and investors become uneasy, so a volatility ETF can be a way to hedge your investment in the market, helping to protect it. Because of how they’re structured, they’re best-suited for traders looking for short-term moves in the market, not long-term investors looking to profit from a rise in volatility.

A top player here is the iPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures:

  • 2020 performance: 11.0 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 3 years): -41.0 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.89 percent

Some of the most widely held volatility ETFs also include the ProShares VIX Mid-Term Futures ETF (VIXM) and the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (SVXY).

Top leveraged ETFs – ProShares UltraPro QQQ (TQQQ)

A leveraged ETF goes up in value more rapidly than the index it’s tracking, and a leveraged ETF may target a gain that’s two or even three times higher than the daily return on its index. For example, a triple leveraged ETF based on the S&P 500 should rise 3 percent on a day the index rises 1 percent. A double leveraged ETF would target a double return. Because of how leveraged ETFs are structured, they’re best-suited for traders looking for short-term returns on the target index over a few days, rather than long-term investors.

A top player here is the ProShares UltraPro QQQ ETF:

  • 2020 performance: 110 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): 72.5 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.95 percent

Some of the most widely held leveraged ETFs also include ProShares Ultra QQQ (QLD), Direxion Daily Semiconductor Bull 3x Shares (SOXL) and ProShares Ultra S&P 500 (SSO).

Top inverse ETFs – ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF (SH)

Inverse ETFs go up in value when the market declines, and they allow investors to buy one fund that inversely tracks a specific index such as the S&P 500 or Nasdaq 100. These ETFs may target the exact inverse performance of the index, or they may try to offer two or three times the performance, like a leveraged ETF. For example, if the S&P 500 fell 2 percent in a day, a triple inverse should rise about 6 percent that day. Because of how they’re structured, inverse ETFs are best-suited for traders looking for short-term moves in an index.

A top player here is the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF:

  • 2020 performance: -25.1 percent
  • Historical performance (annual over 5 years): -16.8 percent
  • Expense ratio: 0.90 percent

Some of the most widely held inverse ETFs also include ProShares UltraPro Short QQQ (SQQQ) and ProShares UltraShort S&P 500 (SDS).

How ETFs work

An exchange-traded fund is an investment fund that trades on a stock exchange. ETFs hold positions in many different assets, including stocks, bonds and sometimes commodities.

An ETF often tracks a specific index such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 or the Nasdaq 100, meaning it holds positions in the index companies at their same relative weight in the index.

So by buying one share in the ETF, an investor effectively purchases a (tiny) share in all the assets held in the fund.

ETFs are often themed around a specific collection of stocks. An S&P 500 index fund is one of the most popular themes, but themes also include value or growth stocks, dividend-paying stocks, country-based investments, specific industries like information technology or healthcare, various bond maturities (short, medium and long) and many others.

The ETF’s return depends on the investments that it owns. If the investments do well, then the ETF’s price will rise. If the investments do poorly, then the ETF’s price will fall.

For running an ETF, the fund company charges a small fee called an expense ratio. The expense ratio is the annual percentage of your total investment in the fund. For example, an ETF might charge a fee of 0.12 percent. That means on an annual basis an investor would pay $12 for every $10,000 invested in the fund. This low cost makes ETFs popular with investors.

How to invest in ETFs

It’s relatively easy to invest in ETFs, and this fact makes them popular with investors, too. You can buy and sell them on an exchange like a regular stock. Here’s how to invest in an ETF:

1. Find which ETF you want to buy

You have a choice of more than 2,000 ETFs trading in the U.S., so you’ll have to sift through the funds to determine which one you want to buy.

One good option is to buy an index fund based on the S&P 500, since it includes the top publicly traded stocks listed in the U.S. (Plus, it’s the recommendation of super investor Warren Buffett.) But other broad-based index funds can also be a good choice, reducing (but not eliminating) your investment risk. Many companies offer similar index funds, so compare the expense ratio on each to see which one offers the best deal.

Once you’ve found a fund to invest in, note its ticker symbol, a three- or four-letter code.

2. Figure out how much you can invest

Now determine how much you’re able to invest in the ETF. You may have a specific amount available to you now that you want to put into the market. But what you can invest may also depend on the price of the ETF.

An ETF may trade at a price of $10 or $15 or maybe even a few hundred dollars per share. Generally, you’ll need to buy at least a whole share when placing an order. However, if you use a broker that allows fractional shares, you can put any amount of money to work, regardless of the ETF price. In many cases these brokers do not charge a trading commission either.

Fortunes are built over years, so it’s important to continue to add money to the market over time. So you should also determine how much you can add to the market regularly over time.

3. Place the order with your broker

Now it’s time to place the order with your broker. If you have money in the account already, you can place the trade using the ETF’s ticker symbol. If not, deposit money into the account and then place the trade when the money clears.

If you don’t have a brokerage account, it usually takes just a few minutes to set one up. A handful of brokers such as Robinhood and Webull allow you to instantly fund your account, too. So in some cases you could be started and fully trading in minutes.

ETF FAQ

Are ETFs a good type of investment?

ETFs are a good kind of investment because of the benefits they deliver to investors, and ETFs can generate significant returns for investors, if they select the right funds.

ETFs provide several benefits to investors, including the ability to buy multiple assets in one fund, the risk-reducing benefits of diversification and the generally low costs to manage a fund. The cheapest funds may cost just a few dollars for every $10,000 invested. Plus, passively managed funds, including many ETFs, may perform much better than actively managed ones.

How an individual ETF performs depends completely on the stocks, bonds and other assets that it owns. If these assets rise in value, then the ETF will rise in value, too. If the assets fall, so will the ETF. The performance of the ETF is just the weighted average of the return of its holdings.

So not all ETFs are the same, and that’s why it’s important to know what your ETF owns.

What’s the difference between ETFs and stocks?

An ETF may hold stakes in many different kinds of assets, including stocks and bonds. In contrast, a stock is an ownership interest in a specific company. While some ETFs consist entirely of stocks, an ETF and stock behave differently:

  • Stocks usually fluctuate more than ETFs. An individual stock usually moves around a lot more than an ETF does. That means you might make or lose more money on an individual stock than you would on an ETF.
  • ETFs are more diversified. By buying a stock ETF you’re taking advantage of the power of diversification, putting your eggs in many different stocks rather than just one stock or a few individual stocks. This helps reduce your risk over time.
  • Returns on an ETF depend on many companies, not just one. The performance of an ETF depends on the weighted average performance of its investments, whereas with a stock the return depends entirely on the performance of that one company.

Those differences are some of the most important between ETFs and stocks.

What’s the difference between ETFs and mutual funds?

ETFs and mutual funds both have similar structures and benefits. They both can offer a pool of investments such as stocks and bonds, reduced risk due to diversification (compared to a portfolio of a few stocks), low management fees and the potential for attractive returns.

But these two types of funds differ in some key ways:

  • ETFs are usually passive investments. Most ETFs usually just follow a predetermined index, investing mechanically based on whatever is in the index. In contrast, mutual funds are often actively managed, meaning a fund manager is investing the money, ideally to try to beat the market. Research shows passive management usually wins.
  • ETFs are often cheaper than mutual funds. Passive investing is cheaper to set up than active management, where the fund company must pay a team of experts to analyze the market. As a result, ETFs are cheaper than mutual funds as a whole, though passively managed index mutual funds can be cheaper than ETFs.
  • Commissions may be higher with mutual funds. Today, virtually all major online brokers do not charge a commission to buy ETFs. In contrast, many mutual funds do have a sales commission, depending on the brokerage, though many are also offered for no trading commission, too.
  • ETFs do not have sales loads. Sometimes mutual funds may have a sales load, which is a further commission to the salesperson. These funds can be 1 or even 2 percent of your total investment, hurting your returns. ETFs do not have these fees.
  • You can trade ETFs during the day. ETFs trade like stocks on an exchange, and you can place an order during the trading day and know exactly the price you’re paying. In contrast, a mutual fund is priced after the market closes and only then are shares traded.
  • Mutual funds may be forced to make a taxable distribution. At the end of the year mutual funds may have to make a capital gains distribution, which is taxable to its shareholders, even if they haven’t sold the fund. That’s not the case with ETFs.

Those are some of the biggest differences between ETFs and mutual funds, though both do achieve the same goal of providing investors a diversified investment fund. While it may seem that ETFs are clearly better, sometimes mutual funds are the better choice for low costs.

Are ETFs safe for beginners?

ETFs are a good choice for beginners who do not have a lot of experience investing in the markets. But if the ETF is investing in market-based assets such as stocks and bonds, it can lose money. These investments are not insured against loss by the government.

But ETFs can offer a lot to beginners and even more experienced investors who do not want to analyze investments or invest in individual stocks. For example, rather than trying to pick winning stocks, you could simply buy an index fund and own a piece of many top companies.

By investing in many assets, sometimes hundreds, ETFs provide the benefits of diversification, reducing (but not eliminating) the risk for investors, compared to just owning a handful of assets.

So ETFs – depending on what they’re invested in – can be a safe choice for beginners.

When can you sell ETFs?

One of the big advantages of ETFs is their liquidity, meaning that they’re easily convertible to cash. Investors can buy and sell their funds on any day the market is open.

That said, there’s no guarantee that you can get what you paid for the investment.

Do ETFs have any disadvantages?

ETFs do have some disadvantages but they’re not usually too significant:

  • The ETF is only as good as its holdings. If the ETF owns poorly performing assets, it’s going to perform poorly. The ETF structure can’t turn lead into gold.
  • ETFs can be overvalued. ETFs can trade at a higher value than the assets they own. For example, an ETF could be valued in the market at $45 per share when its assets are worth only $44 per share. In practice, this discrepancy is usually much smaller, like a penny or two, however, because of how ETFs are structured.
  • ETFs may not be as focused as they seem. Some ETFs say they give you exposure to a certain country or industry (such as blockchain ETFs). In reality, many of the companies included in these ETFs derive substantial portions of their earnings from outside the target area. For example, an ETF that focuses on Europe may include BMW, though the German car company generates huge sales all over the world. So an ETF can be much less focused on a given investing niche than its name leads you to believe.

For these reasons, you’ll want to understand what assets a given ETF owns and whether that’s what you actually want to own when you buy the ETF.

Protect yourself from inflation with ETFs

Inflation is the persistent increase in prices over time, and it gradually reduces your purchasing power. As the economy reopened following the COVID-19 shutdown, business and consumers have rushed to spend, pushing prices on many goods and services higher. To protect yourself from inflation, you need investments that rise faster than it does. And one way to do that is to actually own the businesses – or stock in them – that benefit from inflation.

Often the beneficiary is a high-quality business that can push on those rising prices to consumers. By owning a stake in the business – through stock or a collection of stocks in an ETF – you can benefit when your companies raise their prices. So owning stock can be a way to protect yourself from inflation.

Investors have a good choice of ETFs when it comes to hedging against inflation. Two of the most popular ETFs include index funds based on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index and the Nasdaq 100 index, which contain high-quality businesses listed on American exchanges:

  • Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO), with an expense ratio of 0.03 percent
  • Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ), with an expense ratio of 0.20 percent

Both are low-cost funds that give you stakes in some of the world’s best companies, helping protect you from inflation.

What to know about crypto and ETFs in 2021

Currently, there are no ETFs that allow you to invest directly in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Several companies, including Fidelity, have applied with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to offer Bitcoin ETFs, but the agency has been slow to approve them. In a recent statement, the SEC questioned whether the Bitcoin futures market could support the entry of ETFs, which aren’t able to limit additional investor assets if a fund were to become too large or dominant.

However, there are ETFs that invest in companies using the technology behind Bitcoin, known as blockchain. These ETFs hold shares in companies such as Microsoft, PayPal, Mastercard and Square. All of these companies use blockchain technology in different parts of their businesses. One thing these ETFs don’t give you is direct exposure to Bitcoin itself, but as blockchain technology continues to grow, the companies in these ETFs could benefit.

It’s unclear when or if ETFs that invest in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies directly will be available for purchase. It’s important to remember that cryptocurrencies are highly speculative investments and don’t produce anything for their owners. ETFs that focus on blockchain may ultimately be a safer way to profit from its future innovation.

Learn more:

Editorial Disclaimer: All investors are advised to conduct their own independent research into investment strategies before making an investment decision. In addition, investors are advised that past investment product performance is no guarantee of future price appreciation.

Written by
James Royal
Senior investing and wealth management reporter
Bankrate senior reporter James F. Royal, Ph.D., covers investing and wealth management. His work has been cited by CNBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times and more.
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