Trade ETFs Like THIS, Not THAT

6 min read
June 11, 2020

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) have existed as we know them since 1993, when State Street Global Advisors launched the S&P 500 Trust ETF (SPY), still one of the most widely traded ETFs today.

According to the Investment Company Institute website, there was roughly $3.6 Trillion of total ETF AUM as of March 30, 2020. Despite their widespread adoption and given the vast array of tools that facilitate portfolio rebalancing for investors and advisors, there are still many potential pitfalls when executing ETF trades that we would like to help you avoid. 

With the goal of providing the best outcomes possible, we have created a collection of ETF trading do’s and don’ts. And while we understand it can be impractical or impossible to follow all of them all of the time, implementing as many as you can may lead to more optimal results for your clients. For advisors who do not have the capacity to account for all of these suggestions, outsourcing your trading operations or using open-end mutual funds may be prudent and effective ways to implement client portfolios.

DON’T select ETFs simply based on one characteristic such as the exposure they provide (e.g. the index/sector/factor they track) or the reputation of its sponsor / manager alone.
  • DO select ETFs that provide the best aggregate of factors including exposure, implicit and explicit costs, reputation of the sponsor, among others.
  • DO select ETFs that exhibit low and stable spreads and discount/premiums versus peers whenever possible. There are several contributing factors including trading volume, ETF size, and the liquidity of the underlying securities, but these factors should not be considered alone.

DON’T trade at the open or close of day. At the open, especially on Mondays, markets are digesting overnight (or the weekend’s) news into prices, so volatility can be elevated. Also, some of the underlying securities may not have begun trading yet. At the end of the trading day, market makers may begin to limit their risk. Either scenario can lead to wider spreads and less-advantageous conditions for the ETF investor.

DON’T place a trade when the market the ETF trades on is closed. This is common with underlying securities traded in global exchanges. Your order will be executed upon market open. See above regarding trading at the open.

  • DO try to trade ETFs between 10am – 2pm ET as a general rule. For ETFs holding non-US stocks, earlier in that window is better because some global stock exchanges may still be open. Prices of ETFs more closely align with that of their underlying securities, and spreads tend to be narrower, when the markets of both the ETF and underlying securities are both open. Note that this does not mean the ETF price is incorrect, as it may more accurately reflect the market’s sentiment.
  • Related to that, DO be aware of days when the US stock market is open but the US bond market is closed when trading bond ETFs. This can result in price dislocation because the ETF will trade on the stock exchange while the underlying bonds will not be trading. For example, the NASDAQ and NYSE stock exchanges are open on Veteran’s Day and Columbus Day observances, but the bond market is closed on these days.

DON’T trade around major Federal Reserve Board announcements or meeting dates, earnings announcements by large constituents of the ETF, or other important news that can lead to volatility.

DON’T trade on particularly volatile days if you can help it.

DON’T trade on benchmark reconstitution or rebalancing dates.

  • DO perform a sanity check when trading a specific ETF. For example, if the ETF you are buying or selling is up 5% but its index is down 1%, it may be a signal that something is awry.

DON’T blindly use market orders unless guaranteed execution is more important than the price received for the trade.

  • DO use limit orders instead when practical, or more specifically we suggest a marketable limit order, in which you enter your price at or above the best ask/offer for buys and at or below the best bid for sells. A common practice is to enter your price one penny above the ask or one penny below the bid. Your custodian may attempt to get you an even better price (called “price improvement”), but we would not advise complete reliance on that. Note: this is one area where it may be operationally impractical depending on how much of a delay there is in your quote system, whether you use a rebalancing software, among other factors. An expert trader or outsourced trading service may be able to get around this recommendation using other techniques.
  • DO be aware of potential price changes when trading ETFs and mutual funds in the same rebalancing trades. For example, the ETF order will be executed intra-day, while the mutual fund will not be priced until 4PM ET; market movements in the interim can affect the end result. Each custodian is different about how these trades should be handled.
  • DO be aware of entering similar trades for different clients at different times to ensure none appear to have been favored or disadvantaged. Blocking orders or trading all accounts at the same time of the day can mitigate this risk.
  • DO contact your custodial trading desk for large orders. The definition of “large” is subjective, but anecdotally the custodians we are most familiar with consider >2% of daily volume to be a large trade. A brief call to your trade desk is worth it whenever you are unsure, because they can work with the ETF issuer or market makers directly, and/or have access to other avenues for execution.

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About the Mardio Nardone, CFA

Mario began his investment career in 1999 with Vanguard mutual funds in Valley Forge, PA, where he consulted institutions and financial advisors on investment policy, portfolio construction, and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). He also held roles as a research analyst, a municipal bond fund specialist, among others during his tenure. In 2003 he earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation, and he continues to mentor aspiring Charter candidates and young investment professionals.

Mario relocated to Charleston in 2010 to serve as Chief Investment Officer for a financial planning firm before establishing East Bay, the collaborative partner firm of (insert firm name), in 2014. As a Partner at East Bay, Mario serves a select group of Registered Investment Advisor firms as their outsourced Chief Investment Strategist.  Responsibilities of this role include continuous oversight of advisor clients’ investments, bespoke strategies for unique situations, client communications, and more.

Mario is Past President of CFA Society South Carolina and Former Chairman of the College of Charleston Finance Department Advisory Board. His approach to investments and the industry has been featured in Investment News, NAPFA Advisor Magazine, South Carolina Public Radio, and other publications and media outlets.

Mario enjoys early morning basketball games, the Charleston beaches and restaurant scene, and spending summers in coastal Maine. He is an avid world traveler and SCUBA diver, but also enjoys the simpler joys of life with his wife Piper, their daughter Pepper, and son Santino.

Learn more and connect with Mario on LinkedIn.


  1. Exchange issue affects quarter-end prices of 3 Vanguard ETFs. Vanguard April 2, 2015
  2. Fixed Income ETF Premiums and Discounts. State Street Global Advisors. March 18, 2020
  3. Debunking myths about ETF liquidity.  JP Morgan. May 2015
  4. Understanding ETF liquidity and trading.  Vanguard
  5. ‘Best practices’ for ETF trading: Seven rules of the road. Dickson, Joel D. & Rowley, James J., June 2014
  6. What Days Are U.S. Stock Exchanges Closed? Phung, Albert on Investopedia. April 7, 2020


East Bay Financial Services, LLC, a Registered Investment Advisory firm, supplies investment research services under contract.

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