Since SPY made its debut as the first exchange-traded fund in 1993, the ETF industry has certainly come a long way. Investors can now choose from more than 1,400 products, allowing them to gain cheap and easy access to nearly every corner of the investable universe. While ETF issuers keep filling the product pipeline, pumping out some of the most unique and compelling funds on the market, many investors still rely on some of the oldest and most popular plain-vanilla ETFs as essential building blocks of any portfolio. In the 1990s, legendary ETF issuers State Street and iShares were the first to bring these products to market, and a close look at their performances goes to show that these ETFs have certainly withstood the test of time. Below we highlight five of the biggest veteran ETF winners since inception (cumulative returns as of November 8, 2012) [see 101 ETF Lessons Every Financial Advisor Should Learn]:MSCI Mexico Index Fund (EWW) 456.06%
This ETF veteran comes at the top of our list with its whopping 456% cumulative return since its inception in March of 1996. Considering its success rate, it is not surprising to see that this fund has accumulated over $1.4 billion in total assets over its 16-year history, and its shares exchange hand over 2.2 million times a day. EWW continues to blow the competition out of the water, delivering stellar returns year after year. Even amidst market turbulence and a global economic slowdown, this ETF has still managed to gain nearly 20.5% thus far in 2012 [see also 3 Reasons Why Mexico Is The New Brazil].SPDR MidCap Trust Series 1 (MDY) 319.01%
The second ETF to debut on the market, MDY remains as one of investors’ top picks for easy and cheap access to the mid capitalization sector of the U.S. equity market. Since inception in April of 1995, this State Street juggernaut has handsomely rewarded – to the tune of over 319% – those lucky enough to snatch up this ETF when it launched. Currently, MDY maintains a portfolio of 400 individual securities, with assets totaling up to a whopping $9.25 billion.SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) 216.14%
Debuting in 1993, SPY, the grandfather of ETFs, comes in third on our list, delivering an incredible 216% return over its nearly 20-year history. To this date, this legendary fund remains the largest and most heavily traded exchange-traded product on the market, with assets adding up to a staggering $108 billion and counting and an average daily trading volume of 120 million shares [see also Brief History Of ETFs].Energy Select Sector SPDR (XLE) 197.38%
Out of the slew of State Street’s Sector SPDRs that rolled out in 1998, XLE stands out of the pack, with no other fund gaining nearly half as much as XLE has since inception. This fund also holds the title of being the cheapest ETF to offer access to the energy segment of the U.S. equities market with its expense ratio of only 18 basis points. Though XLE only holds about 44 individual holdings, big oil behemoths Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum all make appearances in the top ten holdings.MSCI Canada Index Fund (EWC) 158.93%
Launching in 1996, this ETF is by far the largest and most popular fund to offer exposure to the equity market of our northern neighbors. Over the last 16 years, EWC has gained nearly 159% and has accumulated over $4.3 billion in total assets under management. In addition to delivering stellar performances, the fund also maintains a rather appealing dividend yield of 2.03% [see also Canada ETFs: 9 Ways To Play].
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Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.