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Investors Say These Are the Top ETF Providers and Benchmarks

A new global survey reveals the preferences of asset owners and managers.

Global assets held by ETFs pierced the $7 trillion barrier in September 2020, according to the consultancy and research firm ETFGI.1 The year proved to be another banner one for the funds despite the Covid-19 pandemic – and in part due to aggressive stimulus packages pushed forward by policymakers around the world to dampen the effects the virus had on economies. Among U.S.-listed ETFs alone, 2020 inflows shot up 55% from the $326.3 billion recorded in 2019, according to

“Post-March and April [2020], we put money into ETFs because we wanted to focus on a specific index or ETF. We believed that we would see a beta rally as the market in general came back up, so we were able to participate. We put money into a few active, high-conviction managers that we thought would bounce back, but a lot of the money that we invested into equities went to ETFs,” said the CIO of a foundation interviewed as part of a new global survey, Managing Market Volatility in 2021: What institutional investors did in 2020 – and what they learned.

Among other results, the survey reveals why investors opt for one ETF over another, and which ETF providers they prefer. The survey of 766 institutional investment decision makers at insurers, endowments, family offices, foundations, pensions, and asset management firms was conducted by Institutional Investor during Q3 2020. The timing of the survey means participants were able to reflect on how they used ETFs during the heightened volatility early in the year.

Among the more interesting results to emerge from the Institutional Investor survey, three stand out, namely:

  • An ETF’s benchmark index is the second most important contributor when choosing among ETFs, according to 53%3 of respondents, far outpacing transaction costs and management fees, among others.
  • MSCI, S&P, and FTSE Russell are the most commonly used benchmarks for equities among all survey respondents, and – drilling down a bit farther – for factor-based and sustainable investing strategies. S&P, FTSE Russell, and Bloomberg are the preferred benchmark indices in fixed income among all survey respondents. “Investors are increasingly using index products in their asset-allocation process to target specific exposure to countries, sectors, or factors, with added flexibility to apply any views on ESG and climate change,” said Raman Aylur Subramanian, Managing Director and Head of Equity Solutions Research for Americas and EMEA at MSCI.
  • Nearly 7 in 10 (69%)4 respondents said portfolio construction is the value-added service from ETF providers that is found to be most useful. Asked to identify their ETF provider of choice, survey respondents named BlackRock/iShares as the top choice globally (24%).5 State Street/SPDR ranks second globally, with 12%, followed by Invesco and Vanguard, at 9% each, and Wisdom Tree and ProShares, at 5% each.6

Other influences on ETF selection

Not surprisingly, AUM, liquidity, and trading volume are the most important considerations in selecting an ETF, according to 69%7 of survey respondents. Other than the focus on the benchmark index already noted, noteworthy contributors to the decision-making process for specific ETF use include brand and market position (48%), historical performance (46)%, and value-added services from the ETF provider (45%).8 In addition, when evaluating ETFs, survey respondents are likely to use an electronic market data and trading platform (64%); tools provided by asset managers (62%); and broker-dealer analysis tools (60%).9

In addition to portfolio construction, 60%10 of survey respondents said their expectations of ETF providers include client service teams, market insights, and education. Next on the list of expectations are portfolio consulting solutions (such as fund comparison, index and ETF deep dives, and product expertise, 56%), and portfolio modeling and trading tools (51%).  

Download “A Preference for Large, Liquid ETFs Linked to the Optimal Benchmark,” the fourth chapter of Managing Market Volatility in 2021: What institutional investors did in 2020 – and what they learned., as of Sept. 9, 2020., as of Jan. 4, 2021.

3Of 762 respondents.

4Of 762 respondents.

5Of 762 respondents.

6An additional 19 firms – none of which earned a share of 5% or more – received votes from survey respondents. Ranking is not based primarily on ETF provider, asset manager, or investment advisor client evaluations. Ranking is based on 762 responses to the question: “Which firm is your ETF provider of choice?” in this global survey of institutional investors conducted by Institutional Investor. Ranking is not representative of any one client’s experience. No asset manager, advisor, asset owner, or ETF provider paid a fee or was paid a fee to participate in the survey. The ranking of any ETF provider is not indicative of the future performance of any ETF, ETF provider, asset manager, or investment advisor.

7Of 762 respondents asked to choose “all that apply” among seven possible answers.

8Of 762 respondents asked to choose “all that apply” among seven possible answers.

9Of 762 respondents.

10Of 762 respondents.


Carefully consider the Funds' investment objectives, risk factors, and charges and expenses before investing. This and other information can be found in the Funds' prospectuses or, if available, the summary prospectuses which may be obtained by visiting or Read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Fixed income risks include interest-rate and credit risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in bond values. Credit risk refers to the possibility that the bond issuer will not be able to make principal and interest payments. Non-investment-grade debt securities (high-yield/junk bonds) may be subject to greater market fluctuations, risk of default or loss of income and principal than higher-rated securities.

International investing involves risks, including risks related to foreign currency, limited liquidity, less government regulation and the possibility of substantial volatility due to adverse political, economic or other developments. These risks often are heightened for investments in emerging/developing markets and in concentrations of single countries. Funds that concentrate investments in specific industries, sectors, markets or asset classes may underperform or be more volatile than other industries, sectors, markets or asset classes and the general securities market.

Transactions in shares of ETFs may result in brokerage commissions and will generate tax consequences. All regulated investment companies are obliged to distribute portfolio gains to shareholders. There can be no assurance that an active trading market for shares of an ETF will develop or be maintained.

Shares of ETFs may be bought and sold throughout the day on the exchange through any brokerage account. Shares are not individually redeemable from an ETF, however, shares may be redeemed directly from an ETF by Authorized Participants, in very large creation/redemption units.

This information should not be relied upon as research, investment advice, or a recommendation regarding any products, strategies, or any security in particular. This material is strictly for illustrative, educational, or informational purposes and is subject to change.

The iShares and BlackRock Funds are distributed by BlackRock Investments, LLC (together with its affiliates, “BlackRock”).

This study was sponsored by BlackRock. BlackRock is not affiliated with Institutional Investor or any of their affiliates.

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