Monday, December 20, 2010

ETF Education Part 3 Construction of an ETF


Review: It is hopefully obvious to those following the recent series of blogs, that ETFs are not quite as simple as we might have believed when they first arrived on the scene. They are like a house in that we look at the furnishings and carpeting to see if we like it, but we rarely check the foundation or the attic to see if it is solid.
We have reviewed how indices were created, how that in turn lead to index mutual funds, and then eventually to ETF Index funds. We noted that the names were often misleading (DJIA for example),that there are differences in how various indices were weighted, and we also looked at who the "players" were in the ETF world. We also looked at several of the common characteristics of ETFs and noted they could be positive (low cost) or negative (tracking error) for investors.
 Now we will dissect some ETF structures to see what we actually own when we buy an ETF. We will look at four common structures that can be used to replicate an index.

1- “Basket of Securities” Structure: Let’s start with a plain vanilla ETF Index Fund. This simplest “open ended structure” is what most people believe they are purchasing when they buy an ETF. In this structure the ETF creators duplicate the performance of an index by actually holding a basket of all the underlying securities through a “designated broker”. As an investor you buy a “unit” from another investor or sell a unit to another investor. The underlying stock is transferred in kind which means no capital gains or trading costs need be incurred with respect to the underlying index components. If you attempted the same trade on your own using, for example, a Dow Jones index of stocks, you would make 30 buys on acquisition of the stocks and 30 sells when you sold out; with each transaction generating a tax event (gain or loss)and brokerage fees. A typical simple ETF structure should be able to closely track an index because it directly owns the index components and thus the index performance, minus fees to maintain the ETF.

2- Representative Bundle Structure: If I want to create a Canadian Fixed Income ETF to track the Dex Bond Universe ( 1,100 bonds at last check), I would need to make an extremely large number of bond purchases to capture the whole index. A significant number of the bonds would be difficult to acquire since they may have been a small issue to begin with. Rather than attempt such a ridiculous approach, a creator can do a statistical measure of the characteristics of the DEX Index. The analysis might look at traits such as average term, duration, yield to maturity, and credit rating of the full universe of bonds. They can then select a smaller number of bonds that, on aggregate, match the characteristics of the full Dex Index. Thus with a basket of 30 or so bonds I can reasonably expect to track the Dex Index performance, at a much lower cost for the unit holders. Of course the risk of the ETF not performing exactly as predicted does exist. When you purchase an ETF Index that uses the “representative bundle” approach you should monitor tracking error closely. It is reasonable to assume that this structure can and should reasonably track the index with minimal risk of performance variance and generally lower costs.

3- Future Contracts: Another way to play the market is to buy a futures contract which promises to deliver the value of the underlying securities at a given time. For example, let’s say a one month future contract on the TSX60 can be purchased on a futures exchange. The contract pledges to pay me the value (or actual shares) of the TSX60 at the end of trading on a specified date. If the index goes up I get the higher value and if the index goes down I receive a lower value. An ETF using the future contract structure, is thus not holding the underlying stocks, but is actually exposed to the “contract” which will fluctuate in value. The future value of a share should not be expected to reflect the “current” value of a share. Markets have expectations for price moves that are reflected in the contract values but not necessarily in the stock’s current price. As well the ETF will need to roll over the contracts as they mature and again will pay for “an expected future price”, not the current price. This roll over process is inefficient and as such this type of structure has a greater risk of tracking error. In fact, the ETF is actually exposed to the futures market, not the index itself. With the increased risk comes a few significant benefits as well.
One benefit of this type of structure is that it allows for increased exposure to commodity markets which are not available as a straight stock strategy. Recently oil has been a commodity that many investors are tracking via an ETF, but corn futures or hog futures are also possible to track when you utilize contracts. At the end of a contract the ETF trades out of the contract so that it does not actually take delivery of the underlying asset. The process has some complexity and contract roll over’s can bring significant tracking errors into the picture. This is especially evident in commodity ETFs. For those wanting more information you can look up the impacts of either contango or backwardation on contract rollovers.

4- Exchange Traded Notes: ETN’s are very similar to future contracts in that the “note” is a promise to deliver a value on a given day. Typically a note is an agreement with a large financial firm such as a bank. The agreement requires the note issuer to pay the note holder a given value on a given day. An Investor could for example sign a note with BNS to deliver the value of the TSX60 on Jan1st of 2012. They would agree to a price and the bank would likely hedge the underlying stocks and make money on a price spread built into the cost of the note. Of course, in the event BNS becomes insolvent before 2012, the investor may face a large loss due to the inherent credit risk of the note holder. Default risk may seem obscure but it is a large part of the reason for the current market crash we are working out way through.On the positive side, ETNs offer a great deal of customization since any agreement can be structured as a note as long as two parties agree to the terms and fees.

The above structures are all in common use today. If you buy an ETF Index Fund you will need to know the structure to know what you are holding (stocks or contracts) and whether or not you are taking on counter party credit risk (notes ). Each structure has its benefits and its drawbacks and you need to understand when you should favour one structure over another.

Proliferation: One of the reasons for the wide variety of structures in the ETF market is because institutional investors are often looking to build securities that offer either exposure or protection from price fluctuations in a specific asset class or commodity. As these products get built they are also offered to retail investors as an ETF they can use for similar exposure or protection. While institutional investors have a very specific requirement to fill a strategic goal, investment sales people often just want to offer something new and flashy for retail investors. A classic example is leveraged ETFs which were sold to unwitting investors by supposed advisors who often had no understanding of how they worked or what risks they exposed investors to. Eventually the industry had to back off leveraged ETFs under a barrage of negative media coverage.

ETF Securities: Below is a list of some of the more common types of ETF Index funds that are common in the market place.

1- Broad Market ETF’s: An ETF that encompasses a significant portion of a large market index is considered to be a broad based ETF. These are the indexes that started the whole indexing phenomenon. In fact, many ETF gurus will tell you that these are the only ETFs a retail investor should purchase. Examples are ETFs tracking the TSX 60 or TSX Composite index, the S&P500 or the Russell 3000. The concept is that with one ETF you gain full market exposure.

2- Sector Indexes: A number of indexes are provided to allow investors to focus on stocks within a specific sector of a market. An example would be Energy ETFs, Technology ETFs, or Financial ETFs. Typically these ETFs follow international guidelines for determining which securities fit in which category of the standard “sectors” . All the sectors added together will form the whole of a broad based index. As such these are often called sub-indexes. In effect this becomes a bet on a single sector outperforming the general market and is useful for traders who use a sector rotation strategy.

3- Style Based ETFs: You can purchase an ETF to allow you to take a bet on one style of investing being more profitable than the whole index. The most common examples are Growth and Value style ETFs. During a bull market where stock prices are rising rapidly you would expect growth stocks to outperform the market. In periods of recovery or market fluctuations you might expect stock selection to favour those who can find under- valued stocks reflected in the Value Index. Similarly you can focus on small cap stocks or dividend paying stocks to outperform the general market or to better match your investment needs.

4- Fixed Income ETFs can also track sub-indexes. Typical sub-indexes would include short term, mid term or long term bond sectors. These can be subdivided again by high, medium, or low credit quality. The fixed income options listed can also focus on government bonds or corporate bonds. As well an ETF can track “real bonds” for inflation protection.

In fact, an ETF Index can be created to track anything from world markets, to African Banks, to Companies that sell mouthwash! The positive is that we get access to cheap fees and strong diversification; the negative is that we have to sort between hundreds of different ETF Index funds.  The key point is that JUST BECAUSE THEY CAN TRACK IT DOES NOT MEAN IT IS WORTH BUYING! As such you can expect to see many new indexes come and go on a regular basis to meet the investment whim of the moment.

So, it has been a longer than normal dialogue for this blog, but there is a lot more to ETFs than meets the eye. If you have gotten this far you can have some confidence that you know more about ETFs than many sales people who sell them and certainly far more than your neighbour who is telling you to buy an ETF to track Outer Mongolian Natural Gas Pipeline Companies! Next blog we will look at some ETF investment strategies! See you in the New Year!

Soismike.........with a special thank you to Ken Hawkins at for his suggestions on how to work my way through this topic.

Friday, December 10, 2010

ETF Education: Part 2 Lifting the Hood on ETFs

ETF Characteristics

In part one, we reviewed the history of Index tracking, index weighting, and the transformation from Index Mutual Fund to an ETF Index Fund. We also remind investors of a comment concerning the increasing complexity of ETF’s.
In today's blog we will explore ETF’s to see why they exist. The key learning point we are focusing on here is the need to understand that ETFs are built to deliver specific characteristics. It can be more challenging to compare one ETF structure to another if you do not know why it was built a certain way! When we know what characteristics are important to ETF investors we can see how different structures best capture different characteristics that investors seek. We will also get an introduction to the players who make index investing possible.

We will start by looking at ETF characteristics. Contrary to the beliefs of many retail investors, ETF investing is dominated by the big institutional players in the industry. As such an ETF is most often constructed to meet the needs of the institutional investors first. In general, the plain vanilla low cost ETFs based on popular indices were designed for cost conscious institutional investors – the more expensive ETFs were targeted to smaller investors without sufficient dollars to build comparable investment pools at low cost. As an example the XBB although based on a popular index is too expensive for many institutions. They can buy or create cheaper investment pools on their own. This is an example of a characteristic (low fee) being the motivator to build a fund and the absolute cost determining the target market (retail clients). We need to understand why specific ETFs are created and what characteristics are driving their new found popularity. When we know "why" they are being created, we can better understand the different approaches that can be used to structure an ETF.

It is important for retail investors to understand the logic behind ETF construction, because while the large investment managers are extremely qualified to analyse the various security characteristics of an ETF structure, that knowledge is not always obvious to investors nor to the poorly trained front line sales staff (typically your so called advisor). These complex structures then bleed down to retail products which are sold as “ETF Index Funds” with no explanation with respect to the ETF structure. The ETF disclosure/sales material is vague at best and often the product is sold without investors being informed of the different risks and characteristics associated with different structures.

More ETF Basics

While it is always dangerous to issue blanket statements about securities, it is fairly safe to say that most ETF Index funds do have some similar characteristics.

A. The Players:

1- The “creator” of the fund is the company that establishes the fund concept and acquires rights to use the target index from the index owner. S&P for example owns the rights to the S&P500 Index and will issue a license to allow a fund company to create an ETF based on the S&P500 Index.). The creator will issue any required prospectus and get approvals to issue the new securities. As an example Blackrock who own the iShares brand are the “creators” of iShares ETFs. Creators are motivated by gathering large pools of investment dollars and skimming a small peice of revenue from every dollar every year.

2- Market Maker: A market maker, according to an Investopedia definition, is a broker-dealer firm that assumes the risk of holding a certain number of shares of a security in order to ease the process of trading the security.
Market makers are looking for the fastest way to hedge trades, create units, and maximize ETF trading capabilities. When an ETF launches, the lead market maker will typically create the first units, delivering the  shares of an ETF product’s underlying index in exchange for units of the ETF. i.e. the market maker gets 100 units of a new TSX60 ETF in exchange for delivering 100 shares of each stock in the TSX60 to the creator.

Lead "market makers" must stand ready to both buy and sell their products on a continuous basis. They typically hedge all bets and make money on bid and ask spreads. It is desirable to keep the spreads as narrow as possible to prevent hedge funds from exploiting differences between the unit value of the ETF and the value of the underlying shares. This works, in live market conditions, to improve both the liquidity of the ETF and to minimize tracking error.Market makers make their profit on trade volumes.

3-  Advisor/Salespeople: ETFs are marketed to both institutional investors (pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds etc) and retail investors. The products sold are often identical, but the resources necessary to understand the product varies greatly between the two investor types. The role of sales people is to ensure the playing field is level by doing two things; learning how the product works before selling it, and clearly disclosing how the ETF works, what it costs, and the risks of owning the ETF to investors. Their track record at doing these basic things is dismal to say the least.

B- Dual Liquidity Characteristics of ETFs:

The liquidity of a normal widely held mutual fund or an individual stock security is based strictly upon trade volumes of the fund or security. With an ETF, because it is easy to create or release units on demand, the liquidity restrictions are not solely based on the “ETF unit” liquidity, but also on the liquidity of the underlying securities. This means a new ETF offering on the TSX60 can have high liquidity regardless of trade volumes in the actual ETF units. This is because the TSX60 has high liquidity in the underlying stocks. If I request 50,000 units of a new ETF, the market leader just puts in a request for the shares through computerized trading and issues the 50,000 newly created units within minutes (actually seconds).
CAUTION: While liquidity may appear better in the ETF structure, in actual practice an ETF with low trading volume will tend to have greater tracking error than an ETF with high trading volume even though the liquidity of the underlying securities might be the same. As an example the new and smaller BMO ETF will likely have greater tracking error than the XIU until volumes help the designated market maker to keep the bid and ask spreads narrower.
The one wild card in the liquidity situation , is if the market maker for the ETF abandons the market. The risk is similar for most securities but may be more relevant for ETFs given what happened in the “May 2010 flash crash”. (a story for another blog)

C- Cost Advantage:

 Although some active managed expensive mutual funds are starting to use the term “ETF” in their name to confuse investors; a general advantage of the ETF structure is low cost. This low cost is a significant advantage and thus ETF index funds with higher MERs (expenses) generally are not desirable. ETF Index funds for major Canadian market indices can cost as little as 0.08% annual MER. Typically you will not see any deferred sales fees or trailing commission expenses with an ETF, unlike many high cost mutual funds.

D- Tax Advantage:

Typical ETFs have a more passive approach to investing and thus generate low trade volumes , which then translates to low tax costs. A broad based index ETF would rarely need to add or subtract securities from the underlying basket of securities comprising a unit, since most indices are quite stable. Exceptions would be where mergers eliminate a security or where a security was added or dropped from an index.

E- Tracking Error:

Index funds, whether ETF or mutual funds, attempt to duplicate an index’s performance. In all cases there is likely to be some level of tracking error since the index fund charges an annual expense ratio to cover the cost of maintaining the fund. Also, various structures may be prone to tracking error due to the fact the index fund lags the index when changes are made. An index fund is not generally allowed to make changes prior to the actual index making a change. This allows large investors to "front run" changes to the index which increases tracking error and reduces performance. Another significant cause of tracking error is the ETF structure, so without further ado let’s look at what makes an ETF tick!

So, in summary, in part two we learn:

- ETFs often start life as a specialized product to meet the needs of institutional investors, and then are sold later to retail investors through generally poorly trained advisors(tip; some advisors are ETF specialists and better trained than a typical salesperson on the intricacies of ETFs)

- we now can recognize who the ETF industry players are and how they make their profit from ETFs

- we understand the common characteristics of ETF Index Funds that investors either seek to aquire (low cost, high liquidity, low taxes) or to avoid (tracking error, high bid/ask spreads)

I confess this blog was an added step to my initial ETF education series plan. In preparing the next section on ETF structure, I realized it is easier to understand the "what" of creating an ETF if we better understood the "why" and "who" of  ETFs. Hopefully with this better understanding of the above ETF common characteristics, it will make the next section a little less confusing.

Our next blog, I promise we will get down to the serious business of how ETFs actually work! Part 3 coming very shortly!