ETFs in 2019: Three Trends to Watch

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By Sandra Testani - March 12, 2019

By most accounts, 2018 was a challenging year for investors. Yet, with $312 billion in flows last year, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) experienced their second largest year of flows behind 20171. What's particularly impressive about these figures is that nearly one-third of 2018 flows came during the fourth quarter—during the same time period the S&P 500® Index declined by more than 13%.

What's to come in 2019? That is, to be sure, the million-dollar question. But considering the biggest months of the year for ETF flows have been January, February, November and December, it's too early to say. One thing we do know is that investor interest continues to grow—as evidenced by the roughly 2,300 that joined several colleagues and me at last month's Inside ETFs conference .

In our second trip to the event, I walked away with three big takeaways:

  • ETFs continue to innovate, evolve and deliver value for investors.
  • Active management is growing within the ETF space.
  • Advisors know about factors; the struggle is now with implementation.

Delivering Value

Much of the conference reinforced that ETFs are seen by many as innovative, disruptive and delivering on their core value proposition for investors. Some of the most interesting data points and impressions I noted include:

  • The return of market volatility will offer opportunities and risks for investors. The opportunities discussed ran the gamut from traditional equity and fixed income to robotics, artificial intelligence, and sustainable investing. ETFs enable investors to build diverse portfolios or to express timely, thematic views and can be used in concert with mutual funds and other vehicles in client portfolios.
  • ETF assets as a percent of mutual fund assets was 23% at the end of 2018. Industry sponsors were very bullish on future growth, wagering that ETF assets may surpass those of mutual funds as soon as 2024.
  • Fees are coming down. ETFs have always offered good value for investors through low costs and limited capital gains. The trend towards lower fees only improves that value proposition.
  • Women play an integral role within ETFs—the standing-room-only Women in ETFs (WE) sponsored breakfast shared that members top 4,700 globally, with 29% growth in 2019.

The Trend Toward Active

Many investors equate ETFs with passive investing. They may be surprised to learn that active within ETFs is one of the higher-growth segments, with the majority of active assets being held in fixed income. There's an almost consensus view within fixed income that markets are so inefficient that indices leave opportunities and risks on the table.

Passive fixed income indices don't take a view on a company's ability to pay—and whether you think we're in the fifth or tenth inning of this credit cycle, understanding what you own and whether you are being compensated for the potential risk you're taking should matter. These indexes may also rely heavily on the investment grades issued by rating agencies to determine the quality of the underlying securities. While credit agencies have a place and role in ETF decisions, they're not the be-all and end-all for decisions on a company's attractiveness. There can be a wide range of company quality within each grade.

Active managers can help narrow the range by creating their own proprietary models to further screen for quality beyond the initial rating and by employing fundamental analysis. At American Century, we use a proprietary system to evaluate company fundamentals and independently grade every security we invest in. We simply use rating agencies to bucket companies into investment grade and high-yield.

The Struggle with Implementation

If active investing was the focus within fixed income, factor investing led the commentary within equities. Factors are, simply put, characteristics that influence an investment and drive return. Some of the most common factors are value, size, momentum and quality. There doesn't appear to be confusion around the concepts with the advisors but end investors do find it somewhat unclear considering the seemingly endless ability to combine factors.

For advisors, the pain point is in implementation—and the inability to check factor exposure.

Head of ETFs Edward Rosenberg joined a panel presentation at Inside ETFs, "Figuring Out Factors: Strategies for Implementation." Audience members hoping for clarification were likely left surprised at how different the approach and views on factors were, even among this small subset of practitioners. While factor-based investing, according to Edward, is a viable long-term approach for portfolio construction, it doesn't alleviate the need to understand the individual strategy, how it's constructed and its objectives to ensure it is well-suited to meet individual objectives.

With factors, active money managers still play a critical role—actively making decisions to ensure the correct level of exposure. There is a place for both active and passive in most investment portfolios. Be thoughtful how you use them.

The conference reinforced that ETFs are the wave of the future. The structure is still early in its lifecycle, but clearly growing faster than other parts of the financial industry. There are still innovations to be made and, as the products get more complex, it is more important than ever for advisors and clients to really understand both what a product is trying to accomplish and how it works.

1 Strategic Insight Simfund, as of 12/31/2018.

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Sandra Testani
Sandra Testani

American Century® Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

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