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In recent years exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have increased in popularity. These investments are collections of shares in multiple investments, but, unlike mutual funds, ETFs can be traded fairly easily on stock exchanges. ETFs are generally low-cost, and many consider them an easy way to diversify easily while maintaining the ability to easily carry out stock-like transactions.

ETFs aren't limited to stocks, either. There are ETFs that include a wide range of investments. You can find bond, currency and commodity ETFs without too much trouble. However, when you start getting into ETFs that contain more complex investments, such as commodities or leveraged ETFs, you run into some very interesting issues.

ETFs and Contango

Investing in commodities can provide you with diversity, and add an element of growth to your portfolio. Plus, commodity ETFs get rid of some of the complexities that come with dealing with a futures account. Commodity ETFs have made commodity investing more accessible to more people. However, the fact that these ETFs are dealing in futures means that there are some issues that need to be addressed.

Perhaps the biggest issue with investing in commodity ETFs is contango. Contango is an issue that comes into play with any investment that is futures-based. Contango is a situation in which the near-month futures are actually less expensive than those that expire later on. As a result, when the roll process is underway, it can easily result in selling low and buying high. This is a situation that investors don't want to be in, since it means losses.

Contango becomes more obvious when investing with leveraged ETFs. Leveraged ETFs are ETFs that are designed to magnify gains or losses compared to an index. So for example, if you invest in ProShares Ultra S&P500 (SSO) it's designed to give 2x return of the underlying S&P 500 index. The issue is this: Every day the indexing is reset since the ETF is futures based. Over time your returns do not match S&P 500 multiplied by two. Because of this, a leveraged ETF should only be used as short term (a few weeks) investment.

When it comes to commodity ETFs, contango can be an issue also. When you compare a contangoed ETF to the spot prices of the commodities involved, you might find an unfavorable situation. Over time, if the commodity contracts underlying the ETF are exhibiting contango, eventually the ETF loses value. And the situation continues — with your commodity ETF's value being eroded — as long as there is contango in the commodities.

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Paying attention

While ETFs make it easier to invest in a variety of asset classes, using an ETF does not release you from your obligation to pay attention to what is happening with your investments. It also doesn't release you from the obligation to understand investments before you put your money in. Before you invest in a commodity ETF — or any ETF — you should not only understand how ETFs work, but also know how the underlying investments function.

Before you invest in a commodity ETF, you should know how commodities contracts work. You should understand concepts related to the futures market. Consider ETFs as futures investments, and not just as a clever way to trade commodities as if they are stocks. It's important that you consider the fact that, as underlying investments become more complicated, so, too, do ETFs. While ETFs can be valuable tools, and help you add diversity to your portfolio, you should remember that they are not completely safe, and investing them won't protect you from what is happening with the underlying investments.

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Miranda Marquit Freelance Contributor

Miranda Marquit is a journalism-trained freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance.

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