Rise of ETFs and passive investing
For the investing world, the meteoric rise of ETFs, or exchange-traded funds, has been a key story to follow since the 2008 crisis.
The ETF landscape has changed dramatically over that timeframe. In 2007, there were 1,181 ETFs that existed worldwide. By 2015, that number sailed to 4,396 – that’s a lot of new ETFs. Today, there is so much selection out there that you can do pretty much everything.
Want to go 2x short oil? Then try the ProShares UltraShort Bloomberg Crude Oil ETF (SCO). Want to buy into the cybersecurity boom? Try the PureFunds Cybersecurity ETF (HACK). Want to focus in on a specific geographic region such as Singapore? Don’t worry, the iShares MSCI Singapore ETF (EWS) gets you precise exposure to large and mid-sized Singaporean companies.
You get the idea.
PART OF A BIGGER TREND
Even though the global ETF market is estimated to be worth $7 trillion by 2021, the ETF craze is actually part of a much bigger trend towards putting money into passive funds.
Passive funds aim to “track” a specific market, by allocating dollars in equal proportion to an index. This is in contrast to active funds, which employ professional managers who try to beat the market by having more discretion in choosing which securities make up a portfolio.
The vast majority of ETFs fit in the former category, and passive investing has been on a roll since the Financial Crisis. In 2015, for example, $413.8 billion was poured into passive funds, while $207.3 billion was pulled out of U.S. mutual funds with active management.
PASSIVE OR ACTIVE?
Why have ETFs and passive investing been so popular? In general, it is because many active managers have struggled to beat the market as a whole in recent years.
However, there are some important caveats worth considering.
First, while most managers fail to beat the market, some of them do succeed. Financial planners will be the first to tell you that there are revered mutual funds out there that do often perform to the upside.
Next, passive funds have also profited off of the extreme and unprecedented actions taken by central banks. Since the crisis, central banks have experimented by pumping trillions of dollars of liquidity into the system, creating a very unusual market situation. With the cost of borrowing at record lows, valuations have become extremely distorted in the market. This careful balancing act by central banks benefits passive investors until it blows up.
Lastly, low volatility by definition means smaller price movements that active managers can capitalize on. If the volatility environment changes, passive funds may lose a level of attractiveness as there are more winners and losers at any given time.