mutual funds/ETFs in time of stress

As I mentioned last week, since the Brexit vote some property-based mutual funds trading in the UK have had to suspend redemptions while they attempt to raise the needed cash through asset sales.  This raises the question about how US mutual funds and ETFs might fare in a similar time of stress.

We have, of course, the large downturn of 2008-09 as a recent example.  The US survived that period of significant stress with scarcely any issues.  T

he worst experience of my working career, in terms of redemptions was in the aftermath of Black Monday in 1987, when the US stock market lost almost a quarter of its value in one day.  In the load fund I was running at the time, which also had a strong record, I lost about 5% of my assets under management over a few weeks.  Colleagues running no-load funds at other firms lost up to a third of theirs.  Again no very serious issues that would have required suspending redemptions.

The entire US stock market was closed for several days following 9/11.  But that was because US trade-clearing banks had their recordkeeping computers, including backups, all located in or around the World Trade Center; it took them several days to get back on their feet.  The banks have since established backup systems at more remote locations, so that presumably won’t be problem again.

It may be, then, that our potential worry is only about specialized funds that hold highly illiquid assets like property.

One significant source of regulatory worry has been the rapid growth since 2009 of passive products–ETFs and index mutual funds, which don’t have large staffs of portfolio managers and traders used to making lots of transactions.

Experience with ETFs has been, to my mind, surprisingly positive from a redemption point of view.  That’s because the theoretical idea that the brokerage houses that trade ETFs would move their bids to such a low price that all desire to panic-trade would evaporate, has so far worked every well in practice.

The only thing we as investors should note is that during several “flash crashes,”  the brokerage bid price for affected ETFs that I’ve seen has been as much as 15% below net asset value.  That’s a clear warning not to use market orders for these vehicles in bad times–or not to sell them at all.

To my mind, the one unanswered question is how liquid index funds might be in a future crisis.  The worst that happens, I think, is that big indexers do the same thing as the UK property funds and suspend redemptions for a time.  On the other hand, my entire working experience is that it’s institutions, not individuals, who panic during crises.  And these tend to cash in actively-managed products in times of stress, not index funds.  So maybe they’re not a big worry after all.

Something to think about and plan for, though.

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