Saturday, June 20, 2009

My first foray into ETFs

I finally managed to move my Fidelity IRA money out of cash reserves and into funds -- just in time for the market's first down week in a month. So much for market timing.

Anyway, back to our saga of my IRA allocation. Having picked Fidelity Spartan Total Market Index (FSTMX) for my U.S. stock market index, I next needed an international index fund. Turing again to my trusty Money magazine list, I saw a few Fidelity and Vanguard recommendations.

But I also saw this thing called "ETFs" -- with lower expense fees! I'd heard of ETFs (exchange-traded funds) before but had no real idea what they were, so I started Googling, and found a nice primer.

Basically, for my purposes, it seemed to boil down to this: An ETF would have a lower expense fee than a fund. However, an ETF trades like a stock, which means buying one incurs a commission. At Fidelity, for my IRA, that would be $19.99. This made me leery, so I went back to looking at regular-old index mutual funds.

Usually, for my international fund, I buy something that tracks a total international stock index. But this time, I decided to be a little adventurous. It seems reasonable to speculate that emerging markets will do better over the next decade or two than developed ones -- there's a whole lot of room for growth there. So I decided that I wanted the Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX). It seemed like buying that, since it's a non-Fidelity fund, would probably incur the $75 fee that so annoyed me earlier, but I decided to suck it up and buy it.

... except when I tried, I got a notice that the fund was closed to new investors. Er? I don't know if that's actually true, or if for some reason it wasn't compatible with my Fidelity IRA -- remember, Fidelity's whole interface has been confusing the hell out of me -- but it seemed like this wasn't going to happen.

But having gotten it into my head that VEIEX was the fund I wanted, it was now the fund I really, really wanted. And lo, Vanguard's Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) tracked the same thing. And I could definitely buy that ... so I did. Commission be damned.

Buying a mutual fund, I could specify how much I wanted to invest. For a stock, or in this case the ETF, I had to put in an order for a number of shares, and take my chances with precisely how much that would cost at open. So I worked out what half the remaining money in my IRA would be, divided by Friday's closing price (I was doing this on a weekend), and put in an order for a batch of shares.

Happily, at work the next day I spotted an article on the upcoming story budget about ETFs. It's posted here: "ETF investing done right." It backs up what I'd hazily worked out for myself: Because you pay a commission on each trade, ETFs don't make sense for things like active 401(k)s, where each week you're putting in money money and immediately investing it. But my IRA is basically a one-shot deal -- I'm sinking in this chunk of cash once, investing it once, and then basically leaving things alone. If I do add more to this IRA, it'll only happen once a year or so. For that kind of investment, an ETF can be a little bit better than a mutual fund -- though really, it strikes me as pretty close to being just 'half a dozen of one or six of the other.'