Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On ETFs: Part Two of What Investment When

This is the mutual fund: There was a time when the art of a fallen empire portrayed something opposite of the reality. In an exhibition at the Asia Society in New York, images from a period in India's past, when the Mughal ruled an empire that spanned from 1707 to 1857, offer the viewer a look at a facade of peacefulness. You are forced to avoid looking at the reality of life in those pre-British days by focusing on images of receptions, celebrations of holidays and the opulence of serenity. While beneath the surface an empire was crumbling under the rule of these princes on palanquins, the art suggests otherwise. We derived the word mogul from these rulers who dressed in pearl-embroidered shoes and decorative tunics.

This is the mutual fund in 2012. The facade belies the undercurrent of decline. It is a time when what was is slowly being replaced by another ruling party, a new-comer to the scene of investing: the ETF. This investment, like the invasion of this nineteenth century country by the British, is on the cusp of replacing the empire of the mutual fund. If you are paying even passing attention to the world of investing, this displacement comes with a price.

The exchange traded fund or ETF is slowly moving to the forefront of our investment options. The question for you, the one you will ask yourself: is this an investment worthy of my attention? Should I look at the picture the enthusiasts of this financial product paint for you and simply admire the brush stroke and the nuance or should you instead focus on the placard alongside the painting for a deeper understanding of the product?

The ETF is building an enviable empire based on the decline of the mutual fund. Largely made of the same materials, the ETF offers many of the same attributes as a run-of-the-mill index fund with several exceptions. Those differences are part of the marketing strategy proponents of this investment push to the forefront. The decision, they suggest goes beyond the what traditional indexed mutual funds offer, giving the investor a different sort of control.

They will tell you that these funds can be bought throughout the trading day. For the average investor, this added ability to buy and sell a fund like a stock on an exchange only leads to more questions. What does this attribute mean to you? Why should this mean anything at all?

Most mutual fund investors are of the buy and hold variety. We use them largely in our defined contribution plans or 401(k)s. They populate a world that is bound by the whim of our plan providers and sponsors. And inside that world, they offer a vision of retirement that is directed by you for you. And while ETFs are making inroads into this closed circle, your current exposure to this investment is largely on the outside of these plans.

The exchange traded fund offers additional options than simple tradability. It offers lower fees in many instances when compared side-by-side with the mutual fund. The difference can be slight but noteworthy over long periods of time. So it may be the best buy-and-hold option for the investor with that mindset. If that is the case, then actively trading ETFs is not a selling point and the fractionally lower fees may make them not worth the effort - or cost.

What does set this investment apart is the construction of the fund itself. Unlike the mutual fund, which is built (or deconstructed) with every contribution (or withdrawal). A mutual fund must sell shares to pay for those exiting the fund and buy shares with new money. ETFs buy a basket of stocks in advance of you ever investing a single dollar. And that dollar doesn't impact the overall "basket" one iota whether you invest in or out. This attribute leads to more stability in the investment, less price variation and more transparency.

But like the Mughal painters whose courtly portrayal of an empire in decline, whose story is masked by opulence and celebration, the artist of the ETF may be masking some truths as well.

The ETF offers a new empire. While the definition of empire is based on how much geographic impact the rulers had at a particular time, the ETF empire is still growing, grabbing investor real estate at an enviable rate. If history offers any indication, the ETF empire will continue to grow, amassing population and expanding boundaries.

And as they do, the territory they claim as their own will be like all empires, hard to rule, sparsely inhabited and lorded over by tribes that only offer allegiance in passing. This will be where ETFs are tested. Not in the traditional and heavily populated markets; but on the fringes.

And this is where you should exercise caution. Like all expansive empires, the rules change the farther one travels from the most populated places. You may think that you are still in the ETF empire and from all indications on the map you are. But the danger in this investment grows with every footfall beyond the center of the empire. This is how the mutual fund began its decline, as fund families looked for more arcane offerings further afield. Will ETFs suffer the same fate, offering the rule of law where law is not always embraced?

Quite possibly. To use ETFs, one must stay close to the glow, the core of the investment idea. Because the farther out you venture, the more likely you will find investment options with higher risks and less transparency, higher fees and more narrow focus. So as ETFs make their land grab be cautious of what the ETF actually is. It is an investment. It does cost less. The risk seems to be lower.

But venture into the hinterlands of this growing empire and you will see the dangers increase, the risk become more apparent and while the names of these far flung locales will always suggest ETF, it won't be the same ETF. It is on the fringes that the mutual fund has begun its decline. It will be the same for the ETF if history is any indication.