Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Next Investment Temptation is Three Years Old

Does being older and wiser and a Boomer make us smarter? We would like to think so. But in fact, we tend to be less patient with our investments even as we grow more conservative in which ones they are. We are worried that we won't have enough to live on - in light of our "extended lifetimes". So we look for a little risk, a little pizzazz in our investments. And the actively managed ETF might be something you are considering.

Investors are divided into two groups: those that see themselves as investors and those that use their 401(k) accounts to invest for their retirement. The latter group tends to refer to this activity as savings, a word that has long since distressed me for its inaccuracy. The other group, the ones who think they can invest, tend to fall prey to the next new thing or on the flip side, spend a great deal of time and money trying to mimic an index fund. This group wants to be their own mutual fund manager and does everything but charge the trailing fees that a mutual fund does.

So we have one group who "invests" and the other who "save".Both use essentially the same tools and with any luck, practice the same prudent practices. Tempting both groups is the ETF or exchange traded fund. When these we first introduced, about a $1 trillion worth of investments ago, they were heralded as the one thing investors needed to keep their assets where they could get to them, when they needed them.

Trading like stocks, you could buy an ETF in the morning, sell it if you wanted to at noon, and buy it back before the end of the day. This was a genius move on the part of Wall Street and began generating buckets of cash via trades. Mutual fund companies wanted a piece of the action and jumped in as well with ETFs that looked eerily similar to index funds they were already selling.

The cost of the trade was about the only thing you could toy with. So they eliminated that fee. But not to be allowing you to do something for free, they found another way to charge you. Back on January 6th, 2011, I wrote: "a Vanguard spokesman said the company believed “that the ability to attract and retain clients, particularly high-net-worth clients, will improve the bottom line and ultimately result in lower fund expense ratios.” The truth is that instead of charging for the trade, they charge you to hold the ETF in your account."

Now, three years into the first appearance of the actively managed ETF, we wonder if this will be as wildly popular as the indexed ETF (which has sliced and diced the market in such a way that no corner of the investment world is un-indexed and because of that, has added to the volatility in the marketplace, particularly at the close of trading). Perhaps but the wary investor and more than one "saver" should approach these tools with caution.

Does an actively managed ETF cost less than a actively managed mutual fund? The short answer is yes. Mutual funds bought outside of your 401(k) - where fees tend be lower and in some cases, different - have fees for distributions and marketing. While these fees are annoying and do take away from your returns, they are needed to attract new investors, pay for research into which stock is next on the buy or sell list and to pay for the services of the fund manager. Could they be lower? Yes. Have they dropped significantly? Over the last several years, yes. But what about their ETF counterpart?

Without many of those "trailing fees", actively managed ETFs are less expensive. But few people add in the cost of the trade when they think of purchasing an ETF and each time you buy or sell, this acts as a fee - albeit right up front.

Several other comparisons come to mind. The transparency of ETFs, which must disclose what they hold everyday seems on the surface like it would be a grand idea. But when it comes to this type of investment, transparency and rules for trading tend to make this a dangerous place. In an index fund or ETF, the investments mimic an index, set and left alone for a year, sometimes longer.

In an actively managed ETF, which discloses its holdings and must disclose its building or restructured portfolio almost as it executes the trade, it allows investors outside of the ETF to "front-run" the fund and buy at a cheaper price than the fund would pay. This is not good for the ETF manager if the stock they are buying is somewhat illiquid.

Taxes are another issue. Mutual funds tax you quarterly and yearly. Index ETFs tax you only when you trade them and because they don't turnover (trade their securities often) as much, the taxes, once levied are less. Actively managed ETFs only charge you taxes when you sell the fund but, because they trade often, the taxes you will pay will be higher than indexed ETFs.

Now there is little I can say that will dissuade you from buying an actively managed ETF once they become more widely available and have logged a track record (currently, they have less than three years under their belts). If you find them in your 401(k) and they are cheaper than actively managed mutual funds, they might be worth looking at if you are looking at adding some risk.

This investor tool is not going away. And it will add to some additional volatility as traders in these funds move around much more than those that hold individual stocks and/or mutual funds. And that can't be good no matter how you view who you are: and "investor" or a "saver".

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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