Looking for a Potential Income Stream? Consider ETFs

ETFs may be used to produce a stream of income, and offer potential benefits of portfolio diversification.

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Key Takeaways

  • Some investors consider ETFs as a way to provide a potential stream of income
  • Learn about ETFs that invest in high-yield bonds and dividend stocks 
  • ETFs can offer diversification, low cost, and potential tax benefits

Exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, can provide a potential income stream that generally offers more diversity than investing in just one stock. Whether you’re reorganizing your portfolio for your golden years, or just starting to build your nest egg, these investment options can be ones to consider.

Before investing in these funds, it’s helpful to learn a bit more about what they are, how they work, and their potential advantages and disadvantages.

What’s an ETF?

An ETF is a diversified basket of securities designed to mirror the performance of a stock or bond portfolio. Essentially, an ETF attempts to spread out risk among multiple investments, but through the purchase of a single security. Like stocks, ETFs come in a variety of forms. Some ETFs, for example, aim to mirror the performance of a specific benchmark, such as a stock index. Some ETFs aim to produce income through investment in fixed-income securities or stocks that have historically paid dividends. Others target a specific sector such as retail or energy. 

Unlike a mutual fund, which is priced and settled once a day to a net asset value (NAV), an ETF is listed on an exchange and can be bought or sold throughout the trading day, with prices fluctuating during each session, just like a stock. This may allow investors to get both the potential advantages of a diversified investment as well as a generally easier ability to buy and sell. 

An ETF can help you diversify by distributing investments across sectors, subsets of sectors, and subclasses. Some ETFs might track:

  • The S&P 500 (SPX) or another major U.S. stock index
  • A specific sector, like health care, utilities, or consumer staples
  • A specific asset class, like small-cap stocks or international stocks
  • Beyond equities, there are ETFs that track commodities, bonds, real estate, and foreign indexes   

How ETFs Can Potentially Help Generate Income

ETF income comes from its components. Typically, that means dividends from stocks or interest yield from bonds.

Dividends: These are a portion of the company’s earnings paid out in cash or shares to stockholders on a per-share basis, sometimes to attract investors to buy the stock. Note that some funds choose to reinvest dividends rather than distribute them to investors. So, if you’re interested in receiving periodic payments, make sure you know whether a fund you’re considering distributes or reinvests dividends.

Companies that offer dividends are typically larger, more established businesses. And because the dividends are generally paid out of a company’s earnings or reserves, the payouts aren’t typically impacted by market fluctuations, so,  you can generally expect a dividend on the designated payable date (assuming you owned shares of the ETF as of the ex-date) whether the market is up or down. Having a consistent stream of income makes it easier to stay on budget and plan for activities. But remember: Dividends are not guaranteed. Even companies that have historically paid dividends may choose, at their discretion, to decrease, or even stop issuing dividends. 

Interest: Bonds can often deliver income in the form of their yield. A $10,000 investment in a government bond paying a 3% yield, for instance, would provide $300 in annual income. Remember that stocks and bonds are also valued by their underlying price, which can fluctuate both up and down. That’s something to consider, because you could potentially lose money in your underlying investment even while collecting interest income.

Targeting Income: Which ETFs Might Deliver?

Here are some types of ETFs an income-seeking investor might want to consider: 

  • Dividend-paying equity ETFs offer potential capital gains from an increase in the price of the stock your ETF owns, plus dividends paid out by those stocks. 
  • Bond fund ETFs may provide more reliable interest income from investments held in government bonds, agency bonds, municipal bonds, savings bonds, and more.
  • Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) make money from the underlying capital gains on rent, property sales, and service income generated by the apartments, hotels, office buildings, or other real estate owned by the REITS in which the ETF has invested.

You might consider complementing your portfolio with ETFs or creating an income-generating portfolio constructed only of ETFs. Either way, it’s important to consider taking a diversified approach so you’re not overly exposed in one asset class. 

Some Cost and Tax Considerations

ETFs can be a low-cost way to pursue portfolio diversification, as they can avoid some of the transaction costs associated with individual stock-picking or the operating costs of actively managed mutual funds. But ETF newcomers such as actively managed ETFs and smart beta ETFs generally have higher expense ratios than passive ETFs, so you’ll want to research your choices and read each fund’s prospectus before investing.

The tax implications of ETFs can be complicated and vary depending on the asset class and structure, but in general, an ETF investment isn’t taxed until you sell it, so taxation of the ETF investment depends on how long you've held it. Any interest or dividend income you may receive while invested in an ETF, however, is taxable in the year you receive the payment, regardless of whether or not you're still invested in the ETF.  

Fees vary across funds everywhere. Read the prospectus carefully, particularly if there are two or more ETFs tracking the same or similar indexes. You may find one ETF charges more in fees for the same investment versus another ETF with lower fees. Comparison shop for cost savings. And make sure the underlying securities of the ETF match what you’re looking for.

No investment is a sure thing, but a well-constructed portfolio, which might include ETFs, can help you create a steady stream of income for day-to-day expenses, travel and other discretionary items, or maybe to enhance your savings. ETFs are worth considering. 

Carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses before investing. A prospectus, obtained by calling 800-669-3900, contains this and other important information about an investment company. Read carefully before investing.

TD Ameritrade does not provide tax advice. Clients should consult with a tax advisor with regard to their specific tax circumstances.

Payment of stock dividends is not guaranteed and dividends may be discontinued. The underlying common stock is subject to market and business risks including insolvency.


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Investments in fixed income products are subject to liquidity (or market) risk, interest rate risk (bonds ordinarily decline in price when interest rates rise and rise in price when interest rates fall), financial (or credit) risk, inflation (or purchasing power) risk and special tax liabilities. May be worth less than the original cost upon redemption.

ETFs are subject to risk similar to those of their underlying securities, including, but not limited to, market, investment, sector, or industry risks, and those regarding short-selling and margin account maintenance. Some ETFs may involve international risk, currency risk, commodity risk, leverage risk, credit risk, and interest rate risk. Performance may be affected by risks associated with nondiversification, including investments in specific countries or sectors. Additional risks may also include, but are not limited to, investments in foreign securities, especially emerging markets, real estate investment trusts (REITs), fixed income, small-capitalization securities, and commodities. Each individual investor should consider these risks carefully before investing in a particular security or strategy. 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. Unlike mutual funds, shares of ETFs are not individually redeemable directly with the ETF. Shares are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than the net asset value (NAV).

Information provided by TD Ameritrade, including without limitation that related to the ETF Market Center and commission-free ETFs, is for general educational and informational purposes only and should not be considered a recommendation or investment advice. 

*ETFs purchased commission-free that are available on the TD Ameritrade ETF Market Center are available generally without commissions when placed online in a TD Ameritrade account. Other fees may apply for trade orders placed through a broker or by automated phone. 

TD Ameritrade receives remuneration from ETFs that participate in the commission-free ETF program for shareholder, administrative and/or other services.

No Margin for 30 Days. Certain ETFs purchased commission free that are available on the TD Ameritrade ETF Market Center will not be immediately marginable at TD Ameritrade through the first 30 days from settlement. For the purposes of calculation the day of settlement is considered Day 1.

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