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Companies that create and maintain a lasting competitive advantage can be some of the best long-term investment opportunities you'll ever find. Although competition usually brings down most companies eventually, a few industry leaders manage to produce outstanding returns for years or even decades as they take full advantage of their business opportunities.

To invest in these market leaders, you've typically had to ferret them out and buy the stocks individually. But a new exchange-traded fund seeks to gather them up in one place for you. Let's take a closer look at the ETF and the stocks it invests in.

Crossing the moat
The brand-new Market Vectors Morningstar Wide Moat Research ETF started trading earlier this week. The ETF's methodology relies on what Morningstar calls its Economic Moat Rating, which looks for companies that will both earn outstanding returns on their capital and be able to sustain those high returns even in the face of competitors.

Morningstar identifies several ways that companies establish moats. In some cases, intangible assets like a powerful brand name create big profits. For others, cost advantages that result from either a favored way of doing business or economies of scale that smaller competitors can't achieve produce strong returns. And especially as the Internet has brought increasing attention on building networks of customers, companies that capitalize on network effects and that make it impossible or impractical to switch to other providers capture customers for the long run, building an ever-increasing competitive advantage over would-be disruptors in their industries.

Haves and have-nots
One interesting impact of using that definition to define the ETF's 20-stock portfolio is that some industries have disproportionately large representation in the ETF, while others get left out completely. In particular, technology, financials, and materials stocks get more weight, while consumer staples and telecom stocks have no representation within the fund.

It's hard to argue against some of the biggest companies in the ETF. Google and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) are clear leaders in their respective tech fields, even if Cisco has faced increasing competitive pressure from its smaller rivals in recent years. has built an online-retail empire that seems insurmountable. And even though Exelon (NYSE: EXC  ) is far from the only utility company in existence, its particularly well-diversified generation capacity from sources including nuclear power plants as well as coal- and gas-fired production facilities give it an advantage that could assert itself more clearly once fossil-fuel prices start rising again.

But some of the other stocks in the ETF may raise some eyebrows. St. Joe Company (NYSE: JOE  ) owns a unique set of business assets, with huge tracts of Florida land that could eventually represent prime opportunities for development. Yet the real estate bust let the air out of the company's shares, and a year and a half ago, it found itself the subject of a major debate between institutional investors David Einhorn and Bruce Berkowitz. Similarly, both Merck and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) appear on the list, despite the presence of numerous competitors in the pharmaceutical field that seem to have at least as promising pipelines for future development.

Moreover, the absence of other companies is also hard to explain. To produce more balance across industry sectors, consumer giants Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) seem like logical choices. Morningstar even uses Coca-Cola in its explanatory materials as an example of a wide-moat company, while P&G's billion-dollar brand dominance demonstrates the value of its intangibles as well as the economies of scale that allow it to serve customers around the world.

A good idea
Regardless of whether you agree with the Market Vectors ETF's particular choices, searching out companies with lasting competitive advantages can produce great results. Even if you don't invest in the ETF, you can use its picks as a great starting point for further research for your individual-stock portfolio.

The best stocks can serve you well for years. Get some great ideas from The Motley Fool's special report on retirement investing, where you'll learn three stock names that could help you reach your financial goals. It's free, so get your free report today and start preparing for a richer retirement.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger was a natural at playing follow the leader. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola, Google, Cisco Systems, and Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Exelon,, and Google, as well as writing a covered straddle position in Exelon. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy is the tops.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2012, at 12:22 PM, DCUDFlyer wrote:

    What is the ticker for this ETF?

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2012, at 12:56 PM, FelixCaliferous wrote:

    The symbol is MOAT. The annual expense ratio is estimated to be .49 percent. This is almost high enough to justify building your own moat.

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