January 23 marks the 20th anniversary of the exchange-traded fund industry, started with the launch of the SPDR S&P 500 fund, rolled out by State Street Global Advisors.

Two decades and close to $2 trillion later, other firms such as BlackRock's iShares business and the Vanguard Group also have taken up the torch and are thriving in the funds, whose shares can be traded all day long, electronically.

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