How do Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) stand up to rigorous analysis?

Exchange Traded Funds (EFTs) have not been subject to the same level of rigorous analysis undertaken upon actively managed funds.  Yet, ETFs are challenging conventional actively managed funds.

While performance of actively managed funds has been extensively investigated, there is not much known yet about the performance of ETFs.

A recent Paper by Robeco provides insightful analysis of ETF’s performance.

Robeco conclude “that the allure of ETFs finds little empirical support in the data and that ETFs have yet to prove that they can generate better performance than conventional actively managed funds.”

The Robeco paper provides a giant leap forward in bridging the imbalance of analysis between actively managed funds and ETFs.

 

Robeco rightly points out, the growth in ETFs has come with little supporting evidence.

They note there are areas in which to be cautious:

  1. “the main differentiator of ETFs, continuous trading, should be of little relevance to passive investors, since the whole idea of the passive approach is to buy and hold for the long term and refrain from trading altogether.”
  2. “not every ETF involves low costs. Whereas the cheapest ETFs have annual expense ratios below 0.05%, there are also ETFs with expense ratios above 1%, which makes them more expensive than many mutual funds”
  3. “if the purpose of ETFs were to facilitate passive investing, then, in theory, one ETF on the broad market portfolio would suffice. In reality one would expect perhaps a few more funds because of practical matters such as competition between different providers, different asset classes, or different time zones; however, not thousands of funds. While there is a handful of very big ETFs which track a broad market index such as the S&P 500, the vast majority of ETFs track indices that themselves represent active strategies.“

 

The Robeco analysis covers US-listed ETFs investing in US equities. It includes analysis of over 900 ETFs, almost $1.9 trillion in AUM, over the period 1993 to the end of 2017.

The Robeco paper also provides a very good analysis on the breakdown of the ETF market, history, size, and different types of strategies.

 

The Results

Robeco’s analysis is the same as that applied to actively managed funds in the academic literature.

“Based on realized returns, 60% of ETFs underperformed the market, 80% exhibited higher volatility, and 80% underperformed in terms of Sharpe ratios. Such figures do not appear to be much different from what has been reported for actively managed mutual funds.“

Robeco zoom in on the different types of ETFs, they find:

  • the small number of generally big ETFs, which aim to track one of the broad market indices, live up to their promises.
  • The weak overall performance of ETFs turns out to be mainly driven by the large number of ETFs that do not aim to replicate any of the broad market indices. In particular, leveraged and inverse equity ETFs

 

Factor Analysis

Robeco undertook analysis on ETFs invested into common investment styles e.g. size, value, momentum, quality, and low-risk.

Their analysis highlighted that none of them managed to consistently add value relative to a capitalization-weighted market portfolio of all US stocks.

“The magnitude of these alphas again appears to be quite similar to what one might expect from conventional actively managed funds.”

This can be partly attributed to the poor performance of equity factors over recent years. The recent environment has not been favourable for the performance of many equity factors e.g. Value.

As Robeco note, “Given that some factor ETFs do provide large and significant exposures to the targeted factors, they can be expected to add value if factor premiums rebound in the future. A caveat here is that the factor exposures of some ETFs may have been obtained by pure accident, which means that these exposures might change in the future.”

In other words, implementation of the factor exposure is critical, this will determine success or otherwise.  The implementation of the factor approach undertaken by the ETF needs to be appropriately researched.

 

Conclusions

Robeco conclude “the performance of ETFs is not as impressive as one might expect it to be, as investors in these ETFs have collectively realized a performance that does not appear to be much different from the performance that can be expected from the conventional actively managed mutual funds.”

 

This Post is not to be taken as an assault on ETFs, they can play a role in a robust portfolio. As can active management. There are shades of grey in investment returns, as a result the emotive active vs passive debate is outdated.

Nevertheless, the growth in Exchange Traded Funds has been spectacular over the last decade and it is only appropriate they are subject to the same level of rigorous research as an actively managed investment strategy.

All investment decisions should be based on robust, independent, diligent, and thorough investment analysis.

Although this may appear self-evident too many, there are good reasons to be cautious in the selection of ETFs as highlighted by the Robeco analysis.

 

In fact, the future trends in ETFs is rather daunting, as highlighted by a 2018 EDHEC ETF Survey.  EDHEC updated this Survey in 2019.

 

Happy Investing

 

Please see my Disclosure Statement

Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand.  Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.

 

 

 

 

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