How exchange-traded funds (ETFs) work

What is an ETF?

ETFs are funds that issue shares, which are traded on a stock exchange. ETFs cover a broad range of asset classes and can give exposure to specific markets, sectors or investment strategies. Many ETFs track an index in order to provide this return.

How they work

ETFs can provide exposure to a variety of asset classes such as equities or fixed income by:

  • following the performance of a market index, such as the FTSE 100 or the S&P 500
  • following the performance of a smart beta index, such as S&P 500 Minimum Volatility or MSCI Europe Value
  • being actively managed by an experienced and dedicated manager

Why you may be interested

ETF investment strategies

Passive ETFs

Passive ETFs track a benchmark index such as the FTSE 100 or S&P 500. The performance of the shares and the market capitalisation of the companies within a particular index will be replicated closely by the ETF without the involvement of an active fund manager, keeping costs low.

Smart beta ETFs

Smart beta ETFs usually track an index that has been weighted to deliver a specific outcome, such as income or low volatility. Like other ETFs, they are traded like shares on the stock exchange and have the same unique benefits and risks. Because the indices that the smart beta funds track are more complex than for traditional ETFs, the cost tends to be a bit higher than for traditional ETFs.

Different types of smart beta
Whereas traditional indices such as the FTSE 100 are weighted based on the underlying companies market capitalisation, a smart beta index is designed based on other factors:

Minimum volatility smart beta
This ETF attempts to reduce exposure to volatility by tracking indices that aim to provide lower-risk alternatives. For example, a minimum volatility ETF might exhibit less risk during market turbulence compared with a broadly diversified index such as the FTSE All-Share. Some ETFs accomplish this objective by purchasing securities that exhibit relatively low volatility and concentration risk.

Income smart beta
Another factor that smart beta ETFs can be weighted on is income. By screening for stocks that deliver a dividend yield in excess of the market these ETFs can deliver an attractive income for investors. By screening for factors in addition to dividend yield, such as quality, these smart beta ETFs can further narrow down the companies that might be attractive for income investors.

Benefits of investing in ETFs

With ETFs in general you know exactly what you're investing in. Many ETFs provide daily visibility as to what securities the fund holds, how the ETF is performing and Total Expense Ratio (TER) costs. When investing in an ETF you know exactly what price you’re paying for units, unlike mutual funds.


ETFs give you access to a whole world of investment options, covering a broad range of asset classes, sectors and geographies. This can help you to spread risks by avoiding putting all your eggs in one basket.

Cost effectiveness

ETFs often have lower costs than other types of investment funds.

Efficiency and access

ETFs are traded on stock exchanges, so you can easily buy and sell at any time during the day (provided the market is open).

Risks of investing in ETFs

There are, however, a number of things to consider.

Understanding the risks involved 

As ETFs invest in a wide range of asset classes, their value can go up as well as down and you may get back less than you invest.

Tracking difference

Even after charges are taken into account, most ETFs will not follow an index perfectly. The gap between performance and the returns from an index is called ‘tracking difference’.

Choosing an ETF

Explore our full range of ETFs to search, filter, compare and select your favourites from a range of providers and asset classes.

Fidelity Quality Income ETFs

Fidelity has a suite of Quality Income ETFs, across 4 different geographical exposures. These funds screen companies for dividend yield and quality criteria, with the intention of offering investors an attractive income-based total return. Stocks of companies that generate superior profits, strong balance sheets, and stable cash flows would generally be considered high-quality.

There are also currency hedged versions available on the US, Global and Europe products.

Fidelity US Quality Income UCITS ETF Income 0.30% View factsheet
  Accumulation 0.30% View factsheet
  Accumulation - GBP hedged 0.35% View factsheet
Fidelity Global Quality Income UCITS ETF Income 0.40% View factsheet
  Accumulation - GBP hedged 0.45% View factsheet
Fidelity Europe Quality Income UCITS ETF Accumulation 0.30% View factsheet
  Accumulation - GBP hedged 0.35% View factsheet
Fidelity Emerging Markets Quality Income UCITS ETF Accumulation 0.50% View factsheet

Remember, the value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up, so you may get back less than you invest. When investing in overseas markets, changes in currency exchange rates may affect the value of your investment.