Tag Archives: Active ETF

When Is an Index Fund Not an Index Fund?

The coming transformation of ETFs into mutual funds.

At first glance, it seems like an unlikely marriage. Mutual fund leader BlackRock announced last week that it was purchasing Barclays Global Investors, which holds 49 percent of the exchange-traded fund market, for $13.5 billion. These have long been the opposite poles of investing: Most mutual funds try to make money by picking stocks, while ETFs try to make money by simply mimicking the market.

Perhaps the new megagroup will preserve both strategies. But it seems just as likely that BlackRock wants in on the business’s quiet but growing trend called the actively managed ETF. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, well, it is.

In simplest terms, ETFs are index funds—passive, diversified portfolios that trade like a stock. For the past decade, ETF providers like BGI have touted their products as the antidote to the overpriced, underperforming actively managed mutual fund. Over the past six years, investors invested fewer assets in mutual funds and more into ETFs. The trend accelerated during the financial crisis, as investors grew disgusted at the inability of their active mutual funds to protect their assets. Last year, equity mutual funds saw net cash outflows of $245 billion, according to TrimTabs Investment Research, while equity ETFs posted net cash inflows of $140 billion, even as asset values tanked. With all the negative feeling around actively managed mutual funds, why would the ETF industry step backward to make a big push for the actively managed ETFs?

For the money.

Index funds charge lower fees compared with active funds, which means less money in the manager’s pocket. ETFs charge even less than comparable index mutual funds and offer the additional benefits of greater tax efficiency and transparency because they’re structured differently. In addition, ETFs offer the ability to buy or sell shares during market hours. These reasons led ETFs to capture more than $500 million in assets and grab a significant market share from the $9 trillion mutual fund industry.

The first active ETF appeared early last year in an inauspicious start. Bear Stearns launched the ETF just weeks before the bank went belly up. The fund closed soon afterward. A short time later, Invesco PowerShares launched a family of five active ETFs. But they have found it difficult to gain wide acceptance and attract assets. The financial crisis effectively took these funds off most investors’ radar.

However, a thaw in the financial blizzard shows that the industry had been waiting for the right moment to revive what many consider the industry’s Holy Grail. Coincidentally, a new entrant in the field named Grail Advisors launched the first post-financial-crisis active ETF last month.

“We are operating the ETF just like a fundamental mutual fund,” said Grail Chief Executive Officer Bill Thomas in an interview. This ETF, he added, is “similar to traditional actively managed mutual funds … because it allows portfolio managers unrestricted trading.”

And in a little-reported move that BlackRock didn’t miss, iShares, the brand name for BGI’s ETF family, last month began the registration process to launch two active ETFs.

Is this a good thing for the ETF industry? Possibly. Is it a good thing for investors? Definitely not.

For the full story see The Big Money.

Book Review of ETFs for The Long Run

Research Magazine just came out with a supplement called the Guide to ETF Investing 2009. Some great articles in there.

On page 8 of the guide is a review of my book ETFs for the Long Run. The link goes to a PDF file. The article was written by Ron DeLegge, the editor of ETFGuide.com, a great resource for ETF information. I am reprinting it here because I can’t link directly to the article.

Long-Term Thinking

Mutual funds may have enjoyed a 65-year head start, but the interest in ETF investing by individual investors and financial professionals is blossoming. Naturally, the rise of ETFs has led to a proliferation of subject material related to this still emerging investment vehicle. ETFs for the Long Run tackles this growing investment universe in a fun, readable and easy-to-comprehend manner.

The first few chapters take readers through a brief review of how ETFs came about. Nathan Most, a product developer for the Amex was instrumental in helping to launch the U.S. ETF marketplace. Most asked his development team, “Why can’t we create a warehouse receipt which would be backed by the underlying stock in the index but trade like a share of stock itself?” His question would later be answered with product prototypes that would eventually lead to the first U.S.-listed ETF in 1993, the Standard & Poor’s Depository Receipt (SPY).

Author Lawrence Carrel writes about ETFs as being a “better mousetrap.” He argues that mutual funds are inefficient from a cost standpoint: “Funds charge their shareholders for everything that goes on inside the fund, such as transaction fees, distribution charges, and transfer-agent costs.” On top of these costs, Carrel explains that there are additional charges that erode performance such as capital gain distributions. These often have the ugly habit of surprising mutual fund investors.

Timing Trouble

Remember the mutual fund timing scandal from 2003? Carrel suggests the 2003 scandal actually helped to fuel the popularity of ETFs. As you may recall, mutual funds were accused of breaking their own rules by allowing a select group of privileged investors to late-trade and market-time within their funds. On one hand, fund companies were telling investors to be long-term investors. On the other hand, these same companies were allowing hedge funds to make quick short-term profits at the expense of long-term investors. In contrast, ETFs avoided becoming tainted by the scandal because ETF investors are unaffected by the trading activity of their fellow shareholders.

ETFs for the Long Run explains the importance of building an ETF portfolio that accomplishes a logical financial mission. Carrel cites the classic 60/40 conservative portfolio which has substantially less exposure to stocks and more exposure to bonds. He suggests an equity mix using SPY, VO, IWM and EFA. For the bond position, he uses BSV, BLV, CFT and TIP. He also throws in a REIT fund (VNQ) for non-correlated market exposure.

Future Tense

Toward the end of the book, Carrel considers what the future of the ETF marketplace could become. While active ETFs have yet to make any significant impact in the business, the number of active mutual funds outnumbers that of index mutual funds. Could the same thing eventually happen with ETFs? Another area of future ETF asset growth is inside the lucrative 401(k) retirement market. Millions of 401(k) investors have no low-cost investment options or diversified choices like commodities, international bonds or REITs. Companies like Invest n Retire and WisdomTree are already aggressively pushing ETF/401(k) retirement plans. As complicated as ETF investing may sometimes seem, simplicity is often best. “The basic challenge for
the individual investor is to achieve a broadly diversified portfolio for the least amount of money,” states Carrel. This book should go a long
way to helping not just investors but top-notch financial professionals accomplish this noble objective.

Face to Face with PowerShares’ Bruce Bond

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Bruce Bond, the president and chief executive officer of Invesco PowerShares Capital Management, to get his thoughts on major issues in the ETF market today. Since starting out with just two ETFs in 2003, PowerShares has become the ETF industry’s second-largest sponsor in terms of number of funds. Currently, PowerShares is the only ETF provider to offer and actively-managed ETF.

Q: What do you think of the consolidation going on in the ETF industry?

Bond: Consolidation is a natural process of a rapidly growing industry. I’m not surprised by that. It’s actually a healthy thing. Investors are savvy about what they want to participate in. It shows it’s a difficult business to attract assets in and it’s not just as if you can bring anything out and it will sell. You need distribution, marketing and the underlying investment plan to be a sustainable idea.

It’s a natural cleansing of the industry. Investors vote with their dollars and non-feasible concepts just won’t work. It’s a serious and very challenging business.

Q: How do you think ETFs will fare after this bear market?

Bond: I think the ETF will come out of the current environment doing exceptionally well. I believe they have proved to be a very effective investing tool for investors during this market cycle. Investor’s s use of ETFs in this market is establishing the ETF going forward as a mainline investment tool.

Q: What does the near future hold for actively managed funds?

Bond: They tell the same story as Index-based ETFs about flexibility, liquidity, and transparency. And market conditions like this will make them shine ever brighter. Just like it took the SPDR a long time to get traction, it will take the actively-managed ETF a while to get traction.