An article in Forbes laments a recent change of focus in ETF industry conferences from traditional “market-tracking” products to active investment strategies. By “market-tracking,” the author clearly means the classic market-cap weighted indexing that is prevalent in ETFs.

This brings up two questions. The first one: What really qualifies as active management? A one-time decision to invest in the entire stock market, such as through the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), is arguably an act of active management. So is a decision to split the investment portfolio between 60% VTI and 40% iShares Core Total U.S. Bond Market ETF (AGG). Likewise, a decision to adopt

“a fixed asset allocation to various asset classes based on an investor’s long-term needs.”

Periodic portfolio rebalancing to such a fixed allocation is also a form of active management, if not market timing, even if conducted on a fixed schedule. That is because one of its attributes is to “buy low, sell high,” i.e. lock in the gains in appreciated assets to cheaply purchase other assets in anticipation of a reversal to the mean.

Similarly, any modification of a “fixed” asset allocation in response to a change in the investor’s age or life circumstances also qualifies as active management.

Finally, it is worth noting that indices tracked by passive ETFs are also actively managed. Over time, the membership of securities in the index will change, and frequently so due to an arbitrary decision from a management committee rather than as a result of an explicit formula. A recent recomposition of the Dow Jones Industrial Average is one case in point. Another example is a recent switch of the Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF’s (VWO) underlying index from MSCI to FTSE, which caused all South Korean stocks to be removed from the fund.

Active management inevitably takes place at all stages of the investment process, even one based on passive instruments.

The second question that arises: Where is the ETF industry heading? The first wave of ETFs was about attaining economies of scale while implementing traditional market indices. It created a few dominant providers but resulted in a race to the bottom in management fees.

The second wave was about spreading horizontally to all niches of the market. Many of such exotic strategies failed to garner minimum assets of $50-100M that are typically required for an ETF to survive.

The third wave is about non-market-cap indexing, whether equal-weighted or fundamentally-weighted (“smart beta“). Such funds are a blasphemy to market-cap indexing purists who spend a lot of time poking holes in these strategies.

The next wave, pending regulatory approval of infrequent reporting of fund holdings, will be about active management. The ETF structure is attractive to actively-managed mutual fund vendors because it allows them to lower fees and survive the onslaught of cheap market-cap indexed ETFs.

All this makes traditional fee-based advisers nervous:

In the end, most advisers continue to do what’s in their clients’ best interest; they create a long-term asset allocation, buy low-cost index fund, and then stay the course!

The problem is that in many cases investors pay a recurring annual fee of anywhere from 0.2% to 1.5% of assets for a one-time setup of a portfolio pie-chart (frequently with small variations from the adviser’s “moderate” allocation template), followed by periodic rebalancing and reports. That enables a typical adviser to spend only about 11% of time on investment research, while devoting about 18% to client acquisition and prospecting, and 48% to client management.

In the end, the market will rightly decide what type of financial products survive and flourish. Marketing gimmicks aside, innovation in the ETF industry is a good thing because it gives investors more financial instruments to choose from at an ever-decreasing cost. Alpholio™ can use these new products to form reference ETF portfolios that better explain the performance of actively-managed mutual funds and arbitrary portfolios.

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