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3 Ways to Build an All ETF Portfolio

Key Points
  • An index ETF-only portfolio can be a straightforward yet flexible investment solution.

  • ETFs generally provide excellent diversification at a low ongoing expense and good transparency of investment holdings.

  • We explore three ways to build a portfolio completely out of ETFs.

There are plenty of advantages in using exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to fill gaps in an investment portfolio, and lots of investors mix and match ETFs with mutual funds and individual stocks and bonds in their accounts. But it's equally possible to build a complete portfolio out of nothing but ETFs, which in most cases track indexes. In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits and trade-offs of an ETF-only portfolio using index ETFs.

How can you tell if an all-ETF portfolio makes sense for you? For the most part, it comes down to what your goals are—and your preferences. As a rule, ETFs generally provide excellent diversification at a low ongoing expense, since they’re passive index funds that track a certain benchmark. Because of this, they also offer good transparency—it’s easy to see what stocks, bonds or other investments the ETF holds each day. If these are top characteristics you look for in your investments, owning nothing but ETFs may be a straightforward yet flexible solution worth a closer look.

There are some trade-offs to think through. An all-ETF portfolio means giving up actively managed mutual funds, which have the potential to outperform index ETFs through professional selection of stocks and bonds. And you'll also leave behind the control that comes with a portfolio composed solely of individual securities you have selected. Some people won’t want to give these things up, even though these approaches have specific disadvantages as well (see table below).

A portfolio of index mutual funds, meanwhile, would be very similar to an all-ETF portfolio with two main exceptions: ETFs trade differently than index mutual funds, and for certain niche asset classes you can find ETFs but very few or no index mutual funds.

Pros and cons of four types of portfolios relative to each other

Portfolio

Pros

Cons

Actively managed mutual funds

  • Professional active management
  • Potential to beat the index
  • Good diversification
  • Commission-free purchase/redemption available
  • Broadest selection of funds
  • Higher ongoing expenses
  • Possible underperformance
  • Least transparent
  • Higher portfolio turnover

Index mutual funds

  • Very good diversification
  • Low ongoing expense
  • Commission-free purchase/redemption available
  • Seeks to match index performance (minus fees and expenses)
  • Limited selection in certain asset classes
  • No active management
  • No potential to beat the index

All-Index ETF portfolio

  • Excellent diversification
  • Generally low ongoing expenses
  • Can keep it simple or customize a fine-tuned portfolio
  • Transparency at end of day
  • Trading flexibility
  • Limited commission-free trading generally possible
  • Seeks to match index performance (minus fees and expenses)
  • No active management
  • Trading commissions on most ETFs
  • No potential to beat the index

Individual stocks and bonds

  • No ongoing management expenses
  • Maximum control
  • Complete transparency
  • Higher transaction costs
  • Diversification is more difficult
  • No professional management
  • Generally low liquidity (for individual bonds)

 

If you think an all-ETF portfolio might suit you, here are three ways to build one, ranging from ultra-simple to very fine-tuned.

Keeping it simple

If you want a balanced, diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds, you can get it with just two ETFs:

For instance, if you're an investor seeking moderate risk and decide that you want 60% of your portfolio in stocks and 40% in bonds, you could consider purchasing an all-country stock index ETF and then combine it with a bond ETF.

Many world stock market ETFs track the Morgan Stanley Capital International All Country World IndexSM (MSCI ACWI), which provides exposure to U.S. stocks, developed-market international stocks and emerging-market international stocks.

Some bond ETFs track the broad Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, which covers:

  • Treasury bonds
  • Government-agency bonds
  • Mortgage-backed bonds
  • Investment-grade corporate bonds
  • Some dollar-denominated international bonds
     

The advantage of this type of portfolio is its simplicity: one stock fund, one bond fund. It will be easy to see when you need to rebalance. Plus, because ETFs trade intraday and generally cost you a trading commission every time you buy or sell, a two-ETF portfolio can help keep your trading costs low.

One disadvantage of this portfolio is that it’s not very fine-tuned. For instance, as of April 30, 2019, MSCI ACWI had about 55% in U.S. stocks and 45% in non-U.S. stocks, according to Morgan Stanley Capital International. If you prefer to have a larger allocation to U.S. stocks, for example, you might want two separate stock ETFs.

Another drawback to this portfolio is that it lacks any allocation to Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), sub-investment grade bonds (also known as high yield or junk bonds) and non-dollar-denominated international bonds, not to mention other asset classes such as commodities and real estate. Additional asset classes can help further diversify your portfolio. Still, if simplicity is what you seek, the two-ETF portfolio is an alternative worth considering.

Middle of the road

An intermediate approach to an all-ETF portfolio would consist of about 10 ETFs, choosing commission-free ETFs when possible.

For stocks, you could have:

  • A large-cap U.S. ETF
  • small-cap U.S. ETF
  • An international developed-market ETF
  • An emerging-market ETF


For bonds, you could start with the same core bond ETF described above and diversify further by including ETFs that invest in:

  • TIPS
  • Sub-investment grade ("high-yield" or "junk") bonds
  • International bonds
     

The advantage of this portfolio is balance. It has enough ETFs to give you coverage of more asset classes and the ability to adjust your portfolio weights in most areas, but not so many funds that it becomes too challenging to keep track. The disadvantage of this portfolio is that it offers neither maximum simplicity nor maximum customizability.

Fine-tuning

On the other end of the spectrum from an ultra-simple ETF portfolio is a fine-tuned portfolio with 20 or more ETFs. This type of portfolio can make sense for investors who like to allocate their accounts toward exactly the parts of the market they expect to perform best.

This portfolio begins similarly to the middle-of-the-road ETF portfolio but then divides the various parts into thinner slices:

  • U.S. large-cap stocks can be divided into sectors such as financials and health care, or even narrower industries such as banks and biotech.
  • The U.S. stock allocation can further be divided to include mid-cap or micro-cap stocks, or styles such as growth and value.
  • The international stock allocation can be adjusted to include international small-cap stocks in regions such as Europe and Asia or in individual countries like Germany and China.


The core bond index can be broken into its components:

  • Treasuries;
  • Agency-backed bonds;
  • Mortgage-backed securities;
  • Corporate bonds.
     

The average maturity of the bonds in the portfolio can be fine-tuned to include more long-term bonds or short-term bonds.

Commodity ETFs can be added to the portfolios, and split into fine slices such as:

  • Oil;
  • Gold;
  • Agricultural commodities;
  • Base metals.
     

Real estate ETFs can be added to the portfolio and could even be split into U.S. and global.

With the fine-tuned portfolio, it’s unlikely that you would want to hold every possible ETF at the same time. For instance, rather than holding allocations to all 11 stock sectors and every individual country possible, you would likely have core allocations to certain ETFs, and then add weight to the ETFs representing only those sectors or countries that appear most attractive.

The advantage of this portfolio is the ability to get almost exactly the exposure you want to each narrow piece of the market while still enjoying the diversification that ETFs offer over individual stocks and bonds.

The disadvantages are complexity and trading costs. With so many ETFs in the portfolio, it’s important to be able to keep track of what you own at all times. You could easily lose sight of your total allocation to stocks if you hold 13 different stock ETFs instead of one or even five. In addition, with so many ETFs in the portfolio and relatively more buying and selling, trading commissions could add up quickly.

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Important Disclosures

Investors should consider carefully information contained in the prospectus, including investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. You can request a prospectus by calling Schwab at 800-435-4000. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Charles Schwab Investment Advisory (CSIA) is a team of investment professionals focused on rigorous investment manager research. Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc., is an affiliate of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

Some specialized exchange-traded funds can be subject to additional market risks. Investment returns will fluctuate and are subject to market volatility, so that an investor's shares, when redeemed or sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Shares of ETFs are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than the net asset value (NAV).

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed income investments are subject to various other risks, including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications and other factors.

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are inflation-linked securities issued by the U.S. government whose principal value is adjusted periodically in accordance with the rise and fall in the inflation rate. Thus, the dividend amount payable is also impacted by variations in the inflation rate as it is based upon the principal value of the bond. It may fluctuate up or down. Repayment at maturity is guaranteed by the U.S. government and may be adjusted for inflation to become the greater of either the original face amount at issuance or that face amount plus an adjustment for inflation. TIPS generally have lower yields than conventional fixed rate bonds and will likely decline in price during periods of deflation, which could result in losses.

The lower rated securities in which high yield funds invest are subject to greater credit risk, default risk and liquidity risk.

International investments involve additional risks, which include differences in financial accounting standards, currency fluctuations, geopolitical risk, foreign taxes and regulations, and the potential for illiquid markets. Investing in emerging markets may accentuate these risks.

Small-cap stocks have historically been more volatile than the stocks of larger more established companies.

Sector investing may involve a greater degree of risk than an investment with broader diversification.

Commodity-related products, including futures, carry a high level of risk and are not suitable for all investors. Commodity-related products may be extremely volatile, illiquid and can be significantly affected by underlying commodity prices, world events, import controls, worldwide competition, government regulations and economic conditions, regardless of the length of time shares are held. Investments in commodity-related products may subject the fund to significantly greater volatility than investments in traditional securities and involve substantial risks, including risk of loss of a significant portion of their principal value.

Risks of real estate investment trusts (REITs) are similar to those associated with direct ownership of real estate, such as changes in real estate values and property taxes, interest rates, cash flow of underlying real estate assets, supply and demand and the management skill and credit worthiness of the issuer. Investing in REITs may pose additional risks, such as real estate industry risk, interest rate risk and liquidity risk.

Diversification strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses and cannot be invested in directly.

Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc., is an affiliate of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

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