Exchange traded funds (ETFs) could have another competitor if things keep going the way they are: exchange traded notes (ETNs).

The industry was once small, but has slowly been picking up steam. The first ETNs launched in 2006, by Barclays Bank PLC of London, says David Hoffman for Investment News.

They’re so attractive primarily because they give investors access to hard-to-reach markets. It also gives investors that access while they wait for an ETF equivalent. For example, India was covered by the iPath MSCI India Index ETN (INP) for a couple years before two India ETFs were launched earlier this year: the WisdomTree India Earnings (EPI) and the PowerShares India (PIN).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that just because there’s an ETN there will automatically be an ETF.

While they might share similar names and an acronym that differs by only one letter, ETNs aren’t exactly like ETFs. They are backed by the issuer of the ETN, meaning that if the issuer goes under, the ETN does, too.

ETNs also receive slightly different tax treatment that’s currently the subject of much debate.  ETNs that cover foreign currency lost their tax breaks last year, and the IRS is debating what to do with the others. Right now, they’re treated as prepaid forward contracts for federal income tax purposes. This means investors don’t realize income or recognize any gain until the note is sold.

Among the top performing ETNs year-to-date are:

  • iPath DJ AIG Natural Gas TR Sub-Idx (GAZ), up 31.5%
  • iPath DJ AIG Energy TR Sub-Idx (JJE), up 21.1%
  • iPath DJ AIG Industrial Metals TR Sub-Idx (JJM), up 21%
  • ELEMENTS Rogers International Commodity Metal (RJZ), up 19.8%

The opinions and forecasts expressed herein are solely those of Tom Lydon, and may not actually come to pass. Information on this site should not be used or construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy, or a recommendation for any product.