Yet two of the biggest ETF providers, BlackRock’s iShares and State Street Global Advisors, offer funds that charge significantly more than other funds they offer with similar exposures. Why would an investor choose the more expensive fund?
A prime example is iShares MSCI Emerging Markets (EEM), which tracks the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, the most widely followed benchmark in the emerging-market sector. It charges an expense ratio of 0.72%.
But the company offers a very similar fund, iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets (IEMG), which only charges 0.14%. What’s the difference? While the MSCI Emerging Markets Index is primarily made up of large-cap stocks, the cheaper fund follows a multicap index, the MSCI Emerging Markets Investable Markets Index, which holds more than twice as many components, including all the stocks in the first index plus midcap and small-cap stocks.
With broader market exposure and a lower expense ratio, IEMG, which was launched in October 2012, is the more popular fund, with $40 billion in assets. But even with its drawbacks, EEM (which dates back to April 2003) still weighs in with $37.7 billion in assets.
Why does iShares continue to offer such an expensive fund — and why does it still attract investors?
Five years ago, iShares launched its Core Series of ETFs, a suite of 10 equity and fixed-income funds aimed at the buy-and-hold investor with dramatically lowered expense ratios. There are now 25 Core ETFs. The majority have expense ratios lower than 0.1%, and none is higher than 0.25%.
“IShares launched their Core Series at a time when they were losing market share to Vanguard because many of their core products chiefly were not priced competitively,” said Ben Johnson, Morningstar’s director of global ETF research. “It was part defense, part offense to stop the bleeding of the market-share losses to Vanguard.”
And fees play a major but not absolute role in the returns of the similar but not identical emerging-market ETFs, much as one would expect. In the year ended Oct. 31, EEM actually inched higher with a 25.64% return vs. 25.58% for IEMG. But over time, the cheaper fund has posted better results: an average annual 5.6% vs. 5.06% for the past three years and 4.92% vs. 4.22% for the past five years. The difference is practically the difference in the expense ratios.
Funds like EEM that track established benchmarks seem to be attracting traders and institutional investors who hold ETFs for shorter periods of time and aren’t as concerned about the expense ratio. Traders may use these ETFs because they are more available for borrowing to sell short and have a much deeper options and swaps ecosystem.
“There is an appeal for that product, which they are more familiar with and continue to use,” said Todd Rosenbluth, director of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA Research. “For others the appeal is the considerably more volume and greater liquidity.” EEM trades 49 million shares a day, while IEMG has an average daily volume of 7 million shares.
Rosenbluth says the situation is the same with iShares MSCI EAFE (EFA), which tracks the widely followed benchmark for the developed nations, the MSCI EAFE Index, and has an expense ratio of 0.33%. That compares with iShares Core MSCI EAFE (IEFA). The core fund tracks the broader MSCI EAFE IMI Index and charges only 0.08%.
EFA is much more liquid, with average daily volume of 15 million shares vs. IEFA’s 4 million shares.
Meanwhile, State Street, realizing it was already late to the game where investors were demanding lower fees, decided that it would take too long to build assets and get onto important trading platforms if it created a new line of funds, said Matthew Bartolini, head of SPDR Americas research.
Instead, the firm decided to restructure a group of existing funds that already had assets and a user base. They rebranded 15 funds to make a consistent suite called the SPDR Portfolio, cut the fees, split the share prices so that they all started at $30, and if needed changed the index. Well-known funds such as SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) and SPDR S&P MidCap 400 ETF (MDY) weren’t changed for the same reasons EEM still exists.
“In order to be successful and have an impact for clients in a low-cost arena, you can’t just cut fees,” said Bartolini. “So we restructured 15 funds across every key asset class in equity and fixed income and aggressively cut costs to be the lowest or match the lowest price in the marketplace.”
The upshot is that traders might prefer the older indexes even if they’re a bit more expensive, while buy-and-hold investors might prefer the cheaper versions.