What Warren Buffett Thinks About ETFs
Exchange-traded funds have exploded in popularity in recent years, ushering in exponential growth in assets and hundreds of new ETFs to the market. ETFs were touted for their several advantages over traditional index mutual funds, including the flexibility to trade throughout the day, the ability to sell short and buy on margin, and the allure of greater tax efficiencies and generally lower fees. Thus, the debate began over whether ETFs might supplant traditional index mutual funds.
Opinions have come from both sides of the debate. But one voice often carries extra weight, as he’s probably the most famous investor in the world.
Buffett weighs in
In 2007, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) (NYSE: BRK-B) chairman Warren Buffett suggested that traditional index mutual funds were more appropriate for most investors, in part because there is less pressure to engage in frequent trading. He feels that with ETFs, investors may face pressure from their brokers, who stand to make money from any trading activity.
Now, anytime an investment guru makes a pronouncement, it always pays to hesitate a bit. One of the worst things you can do in life, and in investing, is to assume that the superstars always get it right. Just because he’s Warren Buffett doesn’t mean everyone should blindly nod and agree with him. Fools always need to put their own critical-thinking hats on before coming to their own conclusions. However, in this case, it seems that Buffett is absolutely right.
There is no inherent problem with ETFs — they were no doubt created in response to an unfulfilled market demand. ETFs on their own merits can be terrific investments and can provide investors with access to segments of the market that are essential to success. A broad-based ETF like the PowerShares QQQ (Nasdaq: QQQQ), which gives exposure to Nasdaq 100 stocks like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Intuit (Nasdaq: INTU), and Costco (Nasdaq: COST), makes sense for many investors.
However, the problem arises with how investors actually use some ETFs. Just because these funds can be traded at every minute of the trading day, doesn’t mean you should actually be doing it that often. If buying an ETF leads you to try to be a market timer, then you are fighting a losing battle. It’s been proven many times that individual investors are poor market timers and are much more likely to make the wrong calls than they are to time the market correctly.