The impressive pace of expansion in the ETF industry has been well documented; continuous product development has resulted in the launch of hundreds of products each year, and there are now more than 1,600 names in the ETF lineup.
But while the depth of the ETF space has increased, the industry remains quite top-heavy; a relatively small number of products account for the lion’s share of total assets.
Most of the largest ETFs are also among the oldest. Their impressive asset bases are perhaps more attributable to their seniority than to the appeal of their underlying methodologies. In fact, impressive innovation in the industry has given investors plenty of alternatives to the “super tickers” that dominate the space.
The largest ETFs have become so popular for a reason; they generally offer cheap, liquid exposure to core asset classes. But for investors willing to dig a bit deeper, there are some potentially exciting alternatives beyond the big dogs at the top.
1. S&P 500 ETF (SPY )
Overview: This ETF is one of three offering exposure to the S&P 500, a widely followed benchmark of large-cap U.S. equities.
ETF Alternatives: Vanguard’s S&P 500 ETF (VOO ) offers exposure to the same index at a lower price point (0.05%), but the most intriguing alternative may be the Rydex S&P Equal Weight ETF (RSP ). That fund includes the same names as SPY, but gives an equal weighting to each component. The result of this seemingly minor difference has been huge in terms of returns: RSP has outperformed SPY since its inception in 2003 to the end of 2014 by more than 80% [see Free Member Report: How To Pick The Right ETF Every Time].
2. SPDR Gold Trust (GLD )
Overview: GLD is one of six ETFs that invests in physical gold. In fact, GLD is one of the largest holders of gold bullion in the world. This ETF currently has about $28 billion in assets (as of 5/19/2015).
ETF Alternatives: For cost-conscious investors, iShares’ COMEX Gold Trust (IAU ) should be rather appealing. The iShares fund holds the exact same asset (physical gold) but charges 0.25% instead of 0.40%. That material differential virtually guarantees that IAU will deliver better returns over the long run.
3. Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO )
Overview: This popular fund offers cheap, easy access to hundreds of emerging markets stocks.
ETF Alternatives: There are a number of interesting options in the Emerging Markets ETF Database Category; a couple of our favorites include the Rydex MSCI Equal Weight Emerging Markets ETF (EWEM ), which maintains a much more balanced portfolio, and the SPDR S&P Emerging Markets Dividend ETF (EDIV ), which targets dividend-paying equities from emerging markets.
4. MSCI EAFE Index Fund (EFA )
Overview: This ETF offers exposure to developed markets outside the U.S. including Europe, Japan, and Australia.
ETF Alternatives: There are a number of ETFs that offer exposure to the EAFE region. Interesting alternatives include the MSCI EAFE Small-Cap ETF (SCZ ), currency-hedged MSCI EAFE Hedged Equity Fund (DBEF ) from Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management, and the dividend-weighted DEFA Fund (DWM ) from WisdomTree. Vanguard’s Europe Pacific ETF (VEA ) offers similar exposure as EFA, but has a much lower expense ratio.
5. MSCI Emerging Markets Index Fund (EEM )
Overview: This ETF is linked to an index that tracks over 850 emerging market stocks.
ETF Alternatives: Investors can save about 52 basis points in fees by switching to (VWO ), which tracks a very similar basket of securities. Other alternatives for exposure to emerging markets include the dividend-weighted Emerging Markets Equity Income Fund (DEM ) from WisdomTree and the State Street SPDR S&P Emerging Markets Small Cap ETF (EWX ).
6. S&P 500 Index Fund (IVV )
Overview: The second most popular S&P 500 ETF, IVV, maintains a slightly different structure than SPY that may be more efficient for buy-and-holders.
ETF Alternatives: Another option for exposure to large-cap U.S. stocks is the Equal Sector Weight ETF (EQL ), which maintains equivalent allocations to each of the nine major sectors.
7. PowerShares QQQ (QQQ )
Overview: This popular trading vehicle offers exposure to the tech-heavy NASDAQ.
ETF Alternatives: First Trust’s NASDAQ-100 Equal Weighted Index Fund (QQEW ) is an interesting product. That ETF includes the stocks of the NASDAQ 100 but with an equal weighting (about 1%) assigned to each. The result is a more balanced portfolio that avoids big concentrations in names like Apple and Microsoft.
8. Barclays TIPS Bond Fund (TIP )
Overview: The most popular fund in the Inflation Protected Bonds ETF Database Category, TIP is a low risk fund that has become popular in part because of lingering concerns about inflation.
ETF Alternatives: There is no shortage of ETF options for combating inflation; we like WisdomTree’s Global Real Return Fund (RRF ), which combines exposure to U.S. and international TIPS with commodity exposure. Short-term TIPS are also intriguing as these bonds should be less sensitive to interest rate hikes that often accompany climbs in CPI. ETF options in this space include the 1-5 Year U.S. TIPS Index Fund (STPZ ) and the 0-5 Year TIPS Bond ETF (STIP ).
9. Total Stock Market ETF (VTI )
Overview: For broad exposure to U.S. stock markets, the cost-efficient and incredibly deep VTI is tough to beat.
ETF Alternatives: Though the efficiency of VTI is impressive, there are actually options in the All Cap Equities ETF Database Category that are cheaper, such as Charles Schwab’s U.S. Broad Market ETF (SCHB ).
10. iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond Fund (LQD )
Overview: This ETF taps into high quality corporate debt, making it useful as a core holding in many portfolios.
ETF Alternatives: There are plenty of choices in the Corporate Bonds ETF Database Category, but two in particular stand out as compelling alternatives to LQD. Fundamental Investment Grade Corporate Bond Portfolio (PFIG ) from PowerShares and SPDR Barclays Capital Issuer Scored Corporate Bond ETF (CBND ) from State Street both implement alternative weighting methodologies that are more intuitively appealing than the cap-weighting approach common in fixed-income funds.
11. Barclays Aggregate Bond Fund (AGG )
Overview: This ETF is one of several in the Total Bond Market ETF Database Category that focuses on high quality U.S. debt, including Treasuries and investment-grade corporate bonds.
ETF Alternatives: For cheaper exposure to the exact same index, investors actually have three different ETFs from which to choose. The cheaper options are Vanguard’s Total Bond Market ETF (BND ), which charges 0.08% and can be traded commission free on two platforms, and Charles Schwab’s U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ ), which charges only 0.06% – the cheapest bond ETF out there – and can be traded commission free on the Charles Schwab platform.
12. Russell 2000 Index Fund (IWM )
Overview: This ETF is linked to a broad-based index of small-cap U.S. equities.
ETF Alternatives: Vanguard’s Russell 2000 ETF (VTWO ) offers access to the same index at an expense ratio that is 0.03% higher than IWM’s but is available to trade commission free on Vanguard’s trading platform. State Street’s SPDR Russell 2000 ETF (TWOK ) also tracks the same index, but charges 0.08% less. For a twist on the index, Rydex offers an equal-weighted version in its Russell 2000 Equal Weight ETF (EWRS ).
13. Russell 1000 Growth Index Fund (IWF )
Overview: This ETF includes large-cap stocks maintaining growth characteristics, such as higher pricing multiples and expected earnings growth.
14. Total Bond Market ETF (BND )
Overview: This ETF, which includes investment-grade bonds, was already mentioned as an alternative to AGG.
ETF Alternatives: Viewing BND as a one-stop shop for fixed-income exposure is perhaps a bit short-sighted, as this fund does not include exposure to many of the higher yielding corners of the fixed-income market or international securities. The Madrona Global Bond ETF (FWDB ) is much more expensive, but also much more representative of the global fixed-income market.
15. Silver Trust (SLV )
Overview: SLV is the most popular option for investors looking to add exposure to physical silver.
ETF Alternatives: For access to physical silver, Physical Silver Shares (SIVR ) and Silver Shares Covered Call ETN (SLVO ) are the only other options out there. SIVR is the cheapest option and is available to trade commission free on the Charles Schwab platform. PowerShares’ DB Silver Fund (DBS ) offers exposure to futures-based strategies, while Silver Miners ETF (SIL ) allows investors to access stocks of mining companies engaged in the extraction of the precious metal.
16. Barclays 1-3 Year Treasury Bond Fund (SHY )
Overview: This safe haven fund focuses on short-term bonds issued by the U.S. government, an asset class that generally performs well when stocks struggle.
ETF Alternatives: There are dozens of short-term bond ETFs; 1-3 Year US Treasury Index Fund (TUZ ) offers similar exposure to Treasuries, while the iShares 1-3 Year Credit Bond ETF (CSJ ) focuses on short-dated, investment-grade corporate bonds and the 0-5 Year High Yield Corporate Bond Index Fund (HYS ) taps into short-term junk bonds.
17. Russell 1000 Value Index Fund (IWD )
Overview: This ETF is the previously mentioned value counterpart to IWF, focusing on large-cap stocks with value characteristics such as high dividend yields.
ETF Alternatives: Again, a pure value ETF from Rydex stands out as a potential alternative to IWD; the S&P 500 Pure Value ETF (RPV ) is linked to an index with much stricter value requirements for inclusion [see all Large-Cap Value ETFs].
18. Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (DIA )
Overview: This is the only ETF linked to perhaps the most widely followed stock benchmark in the world: the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
ETF Alternatives: DIA is not the most balanced product in the world; it has only 30 components, and the price-weighted methodology of the underlying benchmark can result in a top-heavy portfolio. There are a handful of other mega-cap ETFs available, including the iShares S&P 100 Index Fund (OEF ) and Rydex Russell Top 50 ETF (XLG ).
19. MSCI Brazil Index Fund (EWZ )
Overview: The largest country-specific international equity ETF, EWZ offers exposure to many of the largest Brazilian companies.
ETF Alternatives: For those looking to tilt exposure towards smaller companies, both the Market Vectors Brazil Small-Cap ETF (BRF ) and Brazil Mid Cap ETF (BRAZ ) could be interesting. For exposure that is nearly identical to EWZ, the currency-hedged MSCI Brazil Hedged Equity Fund (DBBR ) offers access to Brazil without exposure to the value of the Brazilian currency.
20. COMEX Gold Trust (IAU )
Overview: The inclusion of two physical gold ETFs on a list of the 20 largest ETFs highlights how popular this asset class has become.
ETF Alternatives: Besides IAU and (GLD ), there are two other physical gold ETFs: Physical Swiss Gold Shares (SGOL ) holds bullion in Swiss vaults, while Physical Asian Gold Shares (AGOL ) stores its gold in Singapore. There are also plenty of options for achieving exposure to gold through stocks of companies that produce and extract the metal.
Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.