A Breakneck Pace (Americas)

An Institutional Investor Sponsored Report on Exchange-Traded Finance

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Institutional use of ETFs continues to grow, with total ETF assets expected to reach $3 trillion in mid-2015. Investors are directing inflows into Europe, Japan and currency strategies. Alternatives are growing as well, and new product development is focused on smart beta, real estate and active management.

“ETF growth continues at a breakneck pace,” says Ken O’Keeffe, managing director, global head of ETFs at FTSE Russell. “Inflows in 2014 were $329 billion, and we’ve seen inflows of $103 billion at the end of April this year, so we’re on track to repeat last year.” Indeed, assets in ETFs and ETPs globally grew to nearly $3 trillion, a record, at the end of April, according to research firm and consultancy ETFGI. “We expect assets will break the $3 trillion milestone by the middle of the year,” says Deborah Fuhr, ETFGI’s managing partner. Record levels of assets were also reached at the end of April for ETFs and ETPs listed in the United States at more than $2 trillion, Europe at $511 billion, Asia Pacific ex-Japan at $125 billion, Japan at $112 billion and Canada at US$69.9 billion.

“The whole ETF market is shifting,” says Adam Patti, founder and CEO of IndexIQ. Phase one was focused on the development of basic ETF building blocks based on broad, benchmark indexes, like the S&P 500 and Russell 2000. “That phase is complete,” he says.

Phase two is about solutions oriented products designed for better portfolio construction “We’re starting to see this take hold now,” he says. Indeed, the assets in QAI, IndexIQ’s IQ Hedge Multi-Strategy Tracker ETF, its flagship hedge fund replicator, has grown more than 200 percent in the last two years. “Th e market is looking for these types of solutions,” he says.

Smart beta strategies are growing dramatically in use cases of ETFs, especially among larger and more sophisticated investors. “It’s interesting to see how quickly smart beta is being adopted,” says O’Keeffe. Again, Euro.peans are ahead, with European institutions with more than $10 billion in assets leading the adoption of smart beta with 68% of these plans having made allocations, compared with a 27 percent adoption rate for similar size plans in North America, according to a recent FTSE Russell survey. “Usage is high and getting higher,” he says. European institutions are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in adoption and use of ETFs, but there’s less growth. “Europeans were earlier adopters and steadier users,” he says.

In 2011, only 14 percent of plans were using ETFs for strategic smart beta applications, now it’s up to 21 percent accord.ing to the FTSE Russell survey. Sixty-one percent of institutions say they plan to increase allocations to smart beta, 39 percent say they will maintain their allocations and zero say they will reduce them in the next 18 months. “There are strong indications that institutions are satisfied,” says O’Keeffe. The most common use in 2011 was cash equitization, but more and more investors are us.ing ETFs for their core allocations. Furthermore, they are lengthening the holding periods of their ETFs.

Broad Trends
The strong inflows to ETFs reflect several general broad trends. “One theme is investors using ETFs to get exposure to energy,” says Ian Schaad, managing director at Jane Street Capital. “After a significant drop in crude oil prices we’ve seen inflows into ETFs that offer exposure to energy stocks and also directly to commodities such as crude oil.” In international stocks, currency hedged ETFs have been strong. “Investors have shown a preference for currency-hedged ETFs, particularly in the European markets amid the ECB’s bond-buying program” he says. On the fixed income side, there has been demand for the very broad exposures of aggregate bond ETFs and also the very precise exposures of target-maturity corporate bond ETFs.

On the equity side, investors are switching their positions away from the S&P 500 index. “Flows into the US are slowing, and investors are increasing their exposures to Europe and Japan, both hedged and unhedged,” says Daniel Gamba, managing director and head of BlackRock’s iShares Americas institutional business. Currency risk is becoming a much larger concern. “Growth in the hedged part is new to the market,” he says. “Invest.ing abroad used to be about local market risk, but now we see greater concern about currency risk,” he explains. Few investors were able to hedge currency risk successfully. Furthermore, U.S. equities, plus the U.S. dollar, are looking increasingly expensive, while those in Europe and Japan are looking more and more like bargains. Quantitative easing is playing a role, with both Japan and Europe announcing programs to buy bonds. “The expected rise in U.S. interest rates is encouraging investors to consider hedging Eu.rope and Japan,” he says. Outflows from emerging markets continue. “Some investors wonder if it’s at the bottom, but growth there is still negative,” he says. Inflows into commodity ETFs have been about $9 billion year to date. “Commodities had been flat, but we’re seeing some inflows now, particularly in crude oil” he says. “In 2014 it was zero.”

In the sector ETF market, year.to-date growth has been sideways, typical of the first quarter. “Th ere’s been some consolidation in the first quarter of 2015 on the heels of phenomenal growth in 2013 and 2014,” says Dan Dolan, director of wealth management strategies at Sector SPDRs. Over that two-year period, assets nearly doubled, with Sector SPDRs having seen assets grow to $97 billion from $50 billion. The more cyclical sectors are now leading the way, as investors have their eye on the US Federal Reserve and an expected rise in interest rates. “Investors are all asking, ÔWhen will it happen,’” he says. So far, investors are looking more closely at consumer discretionary and materials. In addition, health care continues to grow, up 23 percent in 2014 and 6 percent in the first quarter of 2015. “It’s a thematic play,” he says. “People spend their money on healthcare first,” he says. “The demand will be there, and rising rates won’t affect that.”

Alternatives and Commodities
The alternatives space has seen strong growth as well. “As indexing has taken hold as an investment strategy for equities, fixed-income, and even currencies, investors are looking for indexed approaches in other asset classes as well,” says Patti.

Leaving ETF products derived from the broad benchmark indexes to others, IndexIQ focuses on developing institutional-class investment strategies as low-cost and trans.parent ETFs. “Ten years ago, we recognized the great opportunity in alternatives. We did a lot of research to determine exactly what drives hedge fund performance,” he says. “We asked ourselves the fundamental question, is it really alpha?”

They found that the majority of returns offered by hedge funds was in fact a form of beta, and could be replicated using liquid securities.

While there was some true alpha, many of the alpha opportunities tend to be competed away with crowded trades. “Everyone was pursuing the same opportunities,” says Patti. “Across the board, we found that the vast majority of hedge fund performance boiled down to a form of beta composed of a diversified stream of risk premia.”

This was driven by a combination of multiple asset classes, including equities, fixed income, real estate, currencies and commodities. “Replication of this hedge fund beta is accomplished through a rules based process where we use liquid proxies for those asset classes in the form of low-cost, broad asset class ETFs, and combine them with a weight.ing methodology, similar to a hedge fund, that provides diversification, dampens volatility and provides upside potential,” he explains.

In March 2009, IndexIQ launched QAI, the IQ Hedge Multi-Strategy Tracker ETF. “We wanted it to be as transparent as possible, so we used other firms’ ETFs to build a basket of well-known, low-cost, broad asset class ETFs,” he says.

Over time QAI has become a core alternative holding for many institutional portfolios. “It’s the S&P 500 of the hedge fund market,” he says. “It’s inexpensive core exposure, and if you have the skill and resources, you can try to find good alpha managers for satellite investments.”

There are also significant tax advantages, as the ETF structure is inherently tax efficient, and QAI has never paid out short term capital gains on portfolio turnover. IndexIQ also offers a series of single strategy alternative ETFs, like MNA, the IQ Merger Arbitrage ETF, for investors who prefer to focus on specific strategies or to create their own customized hedged portfolios that are more conservative or aggressive based on investor needs.

Over the past several years, relative valuations in the commodities and natural resources sectors have fallen. “When you consider overall economic activity and the supply/demand equation across specific commodity categories, it’s a good time for long-term investors to buy low,” Patti says.

The available commodity ETFs are either derivative-based or equity-based. The derivative-based ETFs are subject to contango, price volatility based on a mismatch between the future spot price and the current price, as well as K-1 tax documents that report income from partnerships.

Equity-based ETFs, on the other hand, tend to be consistently overweight in energy stocks and subject to higher volatility and correlation to equity markets. “Th e diversification benefits for many equity based commodity ETFs aren’t often there, because many of the underlying stocks are already components of the S&P 500, MSCI World, or EAFE Indices. When constructing GRES, its equity-based IQ Global Resources ETF, IndexIQ solved some of these issues by having broader diversification among eight commodity sectors.

GRES tilts its sector allocation monthly to avoid a consistent overweight in any one sector, overweighting those sectors that are undervalued and underweighting those that are overvalued. In addition, to reduce correlation to the equity markets and reduce volatility, GRES employs a consistent short position against the S&P 500 and MSCI EAFE to negate equity beta and isolate the commodity exposure embedded in the individual securities.

Fixed Income and Active ETFs
Growth in fixed-income ETFs is nearly double what it was in the same period a year ago. “We’re seeing a much faster rate of growth this year,” says Gamba. “It comes up in every conversation that we have with investors that use ETFs,” he says. It comes down to liquidity. “There isn’t enough inventory for investment-grade and high-yield credit,” he says. ETFs are a proxy for investing in bonds. Two years ago, investors had been skeptical of fixed-income ETFs, as they maintained strong relationships with their broker-dealers, inventories were higher, the ETF product was seen as new, and they simply weren’t used to buying bonds on an exchange. “Now it’s the only way some of them invest in fixed income,” he says, “especially over the past four months.”

“Compared to 2007, there is less liquidity in the OTC bond market, but perhaps the situation is not as dire as I read sometimes in the press,” says Schaad. “The markets are still functioning well.” ETF markets are, of course, transparent and traded on exchanges, versus traditional OTC fixed income markets that are conducted primarily over the phone and tend to be more opaque. “In addition to those advantages, they are attracting new types of investors and that has helped liquidity,” he says.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether they can withstand a liquidity crisis. “They held up well in 2008 and the ‘taper-tantrum’ volatility in 2013,” he says. However, if interest rates rise significantly, bonds will fall commensurately, and ETFs will follow.

“Ultimately the price of an ETF will be linked to the underlying fixed income market,” he says. “Fixed income ETFs bring a transparent, readily observable price on an exchange, and I expect them to play a significant and growing role in fixed income price discovery.”

With low yields and liquidity squeezed across the global fixed income landscape, major institutional investors are increasingly turning to ETFs for bond exposures, according to Greenwich Associates’ 2015 U.S. Fixed-Income ETF Study. Among the fixed income ETF investors surveyed, 59 percent have increased their usage since 2011, with one-third of the respondents employing them as liquidity enhancement tools, often alongside individual bonds.

Forty percent of asset managers plan to increase fixed-income ETF usage in the next 12 months, and none indicated they would reduce these allocations. Institutions are increasingly comfortable making large trades, with 20 percent of respondents having traded over $50 million. Among these traders, 93 percent were satisfied with the trading experience, and 98 percent said they would do it again. Investor education efforts are working.

Only 13 percent reported that their investment committees expressed concerns over fixed income ETFs, down from 19 percent in the previous study. “In the wake of the financial crisis, with bond issuance down and many fixed income trading partners pulling back from the markets, many institutions have found it difficult to execute trades and manage appropriate allocations in fixed income,” says Matt Tucker, head of iShares fixed income strategy for the Americas.

“Investors are seeing fixed income ETFs as essential instruments for accessing the bond market, alongside individual bonds and derivatives.”

“The other area of growth we see is active managers listing their strategies in an ETF format with full disclosure of their portfolios,” says Schaad. “We have helped with several successful launches.” Many active managers are looking to continue this as a way to broaden their distribution. “From a market-making perspective, the active strategies we’ve seen listed in an ETF format have been very manageable.”

Investors, of course, like relative ease, tax advantages, and intraday liquidity relative to traditional mutual funds. According to data provided by Morningstar, actively managed ETFs are fairly new, with these types of funds launched only in the last seven years. Nearly half of those funds have been launched since the start of 2014. They are growing quickly, with some 128 funds and $19 billion in assets as of March 31.

New ETF Development
Smart beta strategies are a key focus of development efforts, and investors have a lot more interest in ETFs that are not weighted by market capitalization, but by risk factors, such as quality, value, size, momentum and low volatility.

“We’re expanding the factor suite with a multi-factor product,” says Gamba, “so you don’t have to build a portfolio yourself.” There is a lot of interest in smart beta strategies among pension plans and other institutional investors as they review the performance, strategies and fees of their active managers and determine how much of the returns are based on factor tilts. “All pension plans are talking about factors, and how best to approach this strategy,” he says.

Other new product development has focused on currency hedging. “There is a lot of investor interest in international markets, but hedged to the U.S. dollar,” says Gamba. The dollar has appreciated about 20 percent against the euro, and new ETFs have been launched for European market exposure but hedged. “We launched currency hedged ETFs for European as well as for the local German market,” he says. Now BlackRock is launching hedged single currency ETFs for the British pound, Swiss Franc, and the Korean won.

Socially responsible investing has long appealed to foundations and endowments, and the discourse has generally been around divestment, which can lead to underperformance against certain benchmarks.

BlackRock recently introduced a low carbon ETF that overweights energy stocks based on a low carbon footprint, and underweights those that are heavier.

“This results in low tracking error to key benchmarks, because we’re still including the full spectrum of companies in the sector,” says Gamba.

“The variety of ETFs allows institutional investors to make focused and specific bets in a reasonably well managed way in terms of risk,” says Baer Pettit, global head of products, MSCI.

Indeed, investors are using ETFs for a greater variety of uses. Th ere is a lot of new product development, especially around factors and diversified multi-factors, active managers, and currency hedging. Real estate is another area, and MSCI recently developed a liquid and transparent real estate strategy that blends fixed income to dampen some of the equity market volatility found in REITs.

“There are very few asset classes exempt from interest,” he says. It’s important for investors to focus on what they’re getting in the wrapper, and to understand that the ETF trades in tandem with the underlying assets. “When creating an ETF, keeping the benefits of transparency and liquidity are key,” he says. “Otherwise, you risk investors losing confidence in the category.”

By Howard Moore