ETF and mutual fund problems last week

Both types of fund, exchange-traded and mutual, had issues throughout last week in calculating their per share net asset values .

For fund management firms, the lack of end-of-day mutual fund pricing was a real pain.  For us as investors, however, the ETF consequences were far worse.

mutual funds

The best feature of mutual funds, in my view, is the guarantee that under all but the most extreme circumstances owners can buy in or cash out every trading day after the close at net asset value.   Last week, because of the computer failure at BNY Mellon, the funds that it prices didn’t have NAV information.  So they had to estimate NAV to do daily transactions.

Once they have precise NAV information, they can adjust the number of shares that buyers from last week actually have.  For people who have cashed out, though, it’s not so easy.  If a fund paid too little in a redemption, it must forward the extra to the seller once it finds out.  If, however, it pays out too much in redemptions, most sellers won’t voluntarily return the excess.  The fund may not even ask, either because it doesn’t want embarrassing publicity or because it knows the cost of suing the seller to get the money back will doubtless exceed the potential return.  The fund will presumably try to get BNY Mellon to make good any losses. Failing that, the fund management company has to pony up.

ETFs

ETFs are basically mutual funds that let designated brokerage firms handle the buying and selling for them.  This makes ETF expenses noticeably lower than those of a traditional mutual fund.  It also allows the ETF to trade all day, rather than once after the close.  These are the main ETF pluses.  The offset is that potential buyers and sellers have no assurance that brokers will be willing to transact at any given time and in the amounts they wish to.  We also have no guarantee that transactions will be at, or even near, NAV.  For those of us who are long-term holders or who place limit orders, neither shortcoming should be a big worry.

Then there was last week.

Last week, the ETFs normally priced by BNY Mellon had no current NAVs, only guesstimates.  This had two related consequences for investors:

–Brokers became reluctant to trade, since they couldn’t be 100% sure any bid-asked spread they made would be profitable on both sides (for most ETFs, they had to have had a reasonable idea, I think).

–And they widened the market they made from, say, + / – 0.5% around NAV to a lot more.  On Monday, for example, I decided to throw a long-time clunker in my portfolio overboard and replace it with an ETF.  I soon found that I could only buy at NAV +3%.  And even a small transaction at that price took half an hour to complete.

A lot worse than that happened, however.

The Wall Street Journal offers this account of ETFs during trading early Monday of last week:

“…the $2.5 billion Vanguard Consumer Staples Index ETF …plunged 32% within the opening minutes of trading. The Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF was halted six times over the course of 37 minutes early in the day, according to trading records.

The declines…were notable in that they exceeded the declines in the prices of their underlying holdings. In the case of the Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF, the value of the underlying holdings in the fund fell only 9%, according to FactSet. (my emphasis)”

Yes, Monday was a bad day.  But it wasn’t a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, of the type that occurs occasionally in a bear market.  This characteristic of ETFs–that market makers swing the bid price waaay down in times of stress–is one that all of us as investors should be aware of.  As far as I can see, it’s also something the ETF industry has deliberately de-emphasized.  I don’t think it’s a reason not to own ETFs in the first place.  But there will surely be times in the future like last Monday where the price for cashing out is 20%+ of the value of your holding.  So I think most people shouldn’t be holding only ETFs.  Trying to sell them in a market downdraft should only be a last resort.

 

 

 

 

how one China-related ETF has fared

Yesterday I mentioned a Factset article about the trading behavior of China-related ETFs during the current market gyrations in Shanghai and Shenzhen.  It focuses on the Deutsche X-trackers Harvest CSI 500 China-A Shares Small Cap ETF (ASHS).  Quite a mouthful.

ASHS opened for business last year and has about $41 million in assets.  Its goal is to track the performance of 500 Chinese small caps.  It holds all of the names in the appropriate proportions, to the extent that it can.  Where it can’t, it finds the best proxies available.

Year to date through yesterday, ASHS has risen by 37%+.

The fund melted up in mid-June, however.  Its price rose by 40% from June 8th through June 10th alone, at which time it had y-t-d performance of +113%.

The bottom fell out in the following month, when ASHS lost slightly more than half its value–before bouncing back up by +30% over the past few weeks.

Two points about ASHS:

1.  The fund uses fair value pricing, which is the industry norm in the US.  Fair value pricing, usually performed by a third party the fund hires, does two things:

—-it adjusts the prices of foreign securities in markets that are closed during New York trading for information that has come to light after their last trade, and

—-it gives an estimate for the value of securities that are not trading for one reason or another on a given day.

(Note: in my experience, both types of adjustment are surprisingly reliable.)

This second feature has doubtless come in handy over the past couple of months, since there have been days when as many as half of the Chinese small caps haven’t traded.

 

2.  A mutual fund transacts once a day, through the management company, after the market close and at Net Asset Value.

In contrast, an ETF like ASHS trades continuously during the day, through a number of broker dealers (Authorized Participants), and not necessarily at NAV.

The idea is that these middlemen will use the very cheap brokerage record systems for fund transactions, thus keeping administrative costs down–and that the brokers will use their market making and inventory capability as a way of minimizing the daily flows in and out of the ETF portfolio.

In June, this worked out in an interesting, and ultimately stabilizing way for ASHS.

As I mentioned above, the market price of ASHS rose by 40% over two days in mid-June.  We know that, according to Chinese trading rules, the stocks in the portfolio itself could rise in value by at most 10% daily, or 21% over two days.  I can’t imagine the ASHS fair value pricing service decided that the portfolio was actually worth 40% more than two days earlier when the market signal was twenty-ish.  If I’m correct, the broker dealers decided to meet (presumably large) demand for ASHS shares by letting the premium to NAV expand substantially  …by 20%?…thereby choking some of the demand off, rather than issue a ton of new ASHS shares at a lower price.

According to Factset, the brokers did create new shares.  But they apparently lent at least some of them to short sellers, who sold them in the market, further tamping down demand.

So the Authorized Participants performed their market-making function admirably–presumably making a boatload of money in the process.   But this situation illustrates that the worst fears of possible ETF illiquidity in crisis times may be overblown.

 

 

 

 

 

Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT) …or an ETF?

When I was reading the Seeking Alpha transcript of INTC’s 1Q15 earnings the other day, I notice that an ad popped up to the right of the text.  It was mostly a list of passive tech-oriented ETFs, with a performance comparison against INTC.  The list showed that INTC had handily outperformed any of the other entries over the pat twelve months   …but that the year-to-date results were a markedly different story.

That started me thinking.  Would I be better off with an ETF than with INTC?

On the one hand,  INTC is a relatively cheap, high dividend yield stock, whose glory days of the PC era are far behind it.  the company finally recognizes this and is in the midst of an attempt to morph into a 21st century-relevant firm. If it’s successful, I can imagine the stock could have, say, a 35% gain in price as Wall Street discounts better future earnings propects (I’d say much the same of the post-Ballmer MSFT).

This isn’t a bad story.  I’m arguably paid to wait.  The stock’s valuation is reasonable.  And at the moment I don’t believe the overall US stock market has very much near-term upside.  So I’ve been content to hold.

The ETF ad, though, got me thinking.   Can I do better, without taking a significantly larger amount of risk?

This question has two parts:

–is there a better tech stock than INTC?, and

–can I locate it?

I’m convinced that the answer to the first is Yes and that the area to look is online services for Millennials and the companies that supply support and infrastructure for them.

For me, the issue is whether to search for, and concentrate, on a single stock–something that requires a lot of time and effort.  I think it’s better to look for an ETF or mutual fund.  The best I’ve found so far is the Web X.O ETF from Ark Investment Management.  The ETF is tiny, so liquidity is a risk–in fact, Merrill Edge wouldn’t accept an online order from me for this reason.  I had no problem with either Fidelity or Vanguard, however.  The other thing is that ARK is a startup.  The principals may have had long Wall Street careers but I see very little evidence of hands-on portfolio management experience.  So ARK is in a sense establishing its bona fides with (a small amount of) my money.  Not exactly the same risk profile as INTC.

Personally, I’m not so concerned about the portfolio manager.  The organization publishes its holdings every day.  For me, liquidity is the bigger worry–and something that would make me reluctant to recommend ARK to anyone else.  Still, I own some.  And I’m looking for other vehicles that can potentially serve the same purpose in my portfolio.

junk bond ETFs underperforming in a down market: it’s the nature of the beast

ETFs

ETFs are a great innovation, in my view.  Legally, they’re set up as investment corporations, like mutual funds (read my posts on ETFs vs. mutual funds for more details).  But, unlike mutual funds, which process buys and sells in-house (and charge a recurring fee to holders for doing so), ETFs outsource this market-making function to Wall Street brokerage firms.

This difference has several consequences:

–no recurring fee, so lower overall fund expenses,

–you can buy and sell all through the trading day, instead of selling at closing net asset value,

–unlike a mutual fund, an ETF holder has no guarantee he can transact at NAV, and

–you pay the broker a commission and a bid-asked spread when you transact (the second is an “invisible” cost that may offset the advantage of lower fund fees).

If you’re a buy-and-hold investor (the wisest course for you and me, in my opinion), ETFs have it all over index funds, especially for very liquid products like an S&P 500 index.

what about junk bond ETFs?

Why, then, have junk bond index ETFs been seriously underperforming their benchmarks during the current period of rising interest rates?

Several obvious factors:

–junk bonds aren’t particularly liquid.  Many don’t trade every day.  In fact, junk bond fund and ETF managers employ independent pricing services, which estimate the value of bonds that haven’t traded that day, in order to calculate daily NAV.

This means that if redemptions come, a junk bond index fund/ETF has to go hunting for buyers and won’t get the best prices for the bonds it’s selling.  The sharper-than-benchmark falls in ETF NAVs suggests they’re taking big haircuts on the positions they’re liquidating.

–ETFs attract short-term traders, who are more prone to redeem

–ETFs can be sold short, adding to downward  pressure

–ETFs don’t accept dribs and drabs of redeemed shares from the investment banks it uses as middlemen.  Brokers hold until they have minimum exchangeable quantities.  While they’re waiting, they may hedge their positions–meaning they may short the ETF, too.

Ouch!

One not-so-obvious one:

Unlike a mutual fund, the broker you’re buying and selling through has no obligation to transact for you in an ETF at NAV.  Quite the opposite.  Your expectation should be that the broker will make a profit through his bid-asked spread.

The broker typically has a very good idea what NAV is on a minute-to-minute basis.  Individuals like us usually don’t.  NOt a great bargaining position to be in.

In addition, in contrast with an S&P 500 index fund, where the broker gets an up-to-date NAV every 15 seconds, no one knows precisely what a junk bond fund NAV is at any given time (certainly the broker has a better idea than you and me, but that’s another issue).  This uncertainty makes the broker widen his spread.

On top of that, when a broker is taking on more inventory of shares than he feels comfortable with, he’ll widen his spread further, to discourage potential sellers from transacting.

Brokers know how much money they make through these spreads.  No one else does.  We do know, though, that in past times of stress the last trade of the day in a less-liquid ETFs has often been substantially below NAV.  My guess is that recent junk bond ETF sellers have paid a hefty price through the bid-asked spread to get their transactions done.  If you’re one, compare your selling price with that’s day’s NAV and see.

current equity market money flows

There’s been a lot of press recently about investors suddenly waking up after four years of strong market gains and deciding to take their money out of “safe” fixed income investments and put it into stocks.

What’s implied in many of these articles is that this flow is what’s putting the recent zip into the S&P 500.  What’s also implied, and sometimes stated, is that this is the “dumb money” whose arrival on stage is a signal that we’re entering the closing act of the current bull market.

Both implications might have some truth to them.  But neither is anything like the full story.   Most people are a lot smarter than that.  Money flows are a lot more complex.

This is what I see:

1. Any money going into stock market mutual funds or ETFs is not coming out of bonds.  Bond funds have had large inflows every month since January 2009, except for tiny outflows in December 2010 and August 2011.

Money coming into bond mutual funds accelerated in 2012, to around $25 billion a month, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund trade organization.

2.  Bond inflows have been matched by steady though smaller, outflows from stock mutual funds.  The lost stock mutual fund money may be feeding part of the bond buying binge.  But there are also two important trends within the equity world.

–There’s a big multi-year shift away from actively managed equity mutual funds toward index ETFs.  Two reasons:  better performance, and lower costs.  ETF flows are clearly much healthier than equity mutual funds’.

–Virtually all the net equity mutual fund outflows have been coming from US-only funds.  Global, international and emerging market mutual funds have been at least treading water.  Similar ETFs are seeing large inflows.  Again, this has been happening for years.

3.  So far in 2013 over $60 billion in net new money has come into equity mutual funds, breaking an almost two-year stretch of outflows.  Two-thirds of that has gone, as usual, into global etc. funds.

Much more interesting, to my mind, but almost completely unnoticed, is the HUGE outflow of over $112 billion from equity funds that occurred last year, from August through December.

Why this rush to the door?  My guess is that this is the final shoe dropping from the stock market collapse of the Great Recession. In my experience, some investors will panic and sell at the bottom.  Others will nurse their wounds and refuse to sell until they get back to breakeven.  Then nothing on heaven or earth can persuade them not to take their money and run.  I’ve turned around two woefully underperforming global funds for two different organizations.  In both cases, this sort of almost inexplicable outflow was the last step in the healing process.

If that’s what happened during the second half of 2012, it’s a significant bullish sign for stocks.