Yesterday I referenced an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about possible liquidity problems with junk bond funds as rates begin to rise. Based on information provided by Barclays, a huge provider of ETFs, the reporter, Jason Zweig, concluded that junk bond ETFs are a safer alternative to traditional mutual funds.
My comment from yesterday, boiled down perhaps to the length it should have been, was that since the first junk bond crisis in the late 1980s, junk bond funds have adopted very rigorous pricing mechanisms, so the chances a junk bond fund is badly mispriced are very small. On top of that, mutual fund companies have lots of tools available to deal with high levels of redemptions.
As to ETFs, while as a practical matter it may be that these vehicles themselves may not be subject to the same selling pressures as traditional mutual funds, the way that ETFs insulate themselves can be an issue for you and me.
In the case of traditional mutual funds, we buy and sell directly with the fund, once daily, after the close, at NAV.
ETFs are considerably more complicated. We deal with broker intermediaries who make a continuous market throughout normal trading hours, though with no guarantee about how closely the bid-asked spread they set will match up to net asset value. (Authorized participants, who typically deal in minimum blocks of 50,000 shares are the only ones who transact directly with ETFs.)
The tendency of ETF market makers in times of market stress is to widen the bid-asked spread. This does two good things for the broker. He gets a higher return for transacting at a risky time. And the wider spread discourages people from trading. Translation: liquidity for you and me dries up.
How bad can it get? I don’t know. Several years ago I tried to collect data on the performance of stock ETFs at the market bottom in early 2009. The only information available then was a comparison of the last trade on given day with the NAV calculated after the NY close. In one case, for a foreign stock ETF, the last trade was at a 12% discount to NAV. The discount may have been considerably wider during the day. At that time, ETF companies told me they just didn’t know.
I haven’t checked since. I haven’t done this for bond funds. And one might argue that the 12% discount is an outlier. But the horrible problems ETFs had during the last week of August suggest to me that the situation hasn’t changed for the better.
My experience is that trying to trade during highly emotionally charged times is usually not a good idea. But it also seems to me that the potential risks inherent in trading in mutual funds at times like this to you and me, not to the fund company, pale in comparison to those involved with ETFs.
This has gotten much longer than I intended. More tomorrow.