Is An ETF Bubble Looming?

ETF Folklore

“From the industry perspective, what’s brilliant about ETFs are they have the ability to work well under pressure. Any time we’ve seen dips or a bear market, we’ve seen ETFs be a good haven because all you’re doing is going to a different side of a trade.” – Global Asset Manager with >$1T AUM

The appeal of ETFs to investors is diversification. The ETF surge represents a shifting investment ecosystem away from active, toward passive. According to a Charles Schwab 2017 ETF Investor Survey, the percentage of ETF investors by demographic is as follows: 56% of Millennials, 44% of Gen X and 30% of Boomers. In fact, an astounding 96% of millennials see ETFs as a necessary part of their investment strategy, perhaps because they have less money available to invest.

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ETFs are appealing because:

  • They have lower expense ratios
  • You can purchase fractional shares
  • They are more attractive for people with little knowledge
  • Typically there’s no minimum to invest

Crunch Time

However, many ETF investors are unaware of the risks of investing in ETFs. Some [watchdogs] see an ETF bubble that is set to burst, even though what is being invested in is more of an investment wrapper than an asset class in its own right.

Our current financial system is geared towards a much lower average life expectancy. Yet, as people live longer, their portfolios need more durability. So what is the liquidity of ETFs and the ability for ETF companies to unwind when, for example, a boomer needs to start drawing down? Or, what happens during a crunch?

Facing Liquidity

“I’m not worried about ETF liquidity. There’s always the fear of that but I don’t think there’s suddenly going to be a liquidity drought in asset classes. It’s really at the very back of our heads.” – Large Pension Fund

High-frequency traders, traditional active fund managers, and other value investors believe that one of the challenges for ETF companies will be unwinding their positions. For some financial institutions that own ETF providers, exiting subscale market positions may prove to be attractive. The rapid growth of the ETF market means that we’ve seen comparatively few exits. In a consolidating market, ready buyers could be plentiful. But the challenging economics of ETFs could mean that sellers find exit valuations disappointing.

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Disclosure: None.

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