ETFs make stock market investments more expensive: new study

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are the new darlings of the investment world, much to the chagrin of many asset managers who have generated enormous wealth by selling their skills as expert stock-selectors. As ETFs continue to soar in the popularity stakes, debate grows ever uglier about their strengths and weaknesses. Scientists from the US and Israel recently teamed up to explore how ETFs might be changing bid-ask spreads and stock ownership patterns, coming to the conclusion that there are unintended consequences for investors as ETFs continue to suck in funds at the expensive of actively managed funds. The study has drawn criticism from industry players, who say their day-to-day observations do not match the research findings. Besides, although ETFs are mushrooming, they still represent a relatively small proportion of investors. – Jackie Cameron

By Dani Burger

Bloomberg – Exchange-traded funds are making stock markets dumber – and more expensive.

That’s the finding of researchers at Stanford University, Emory University and the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya in Israel. They’ve uncovered evidence that higher ownership of individual stocks by ETFs widens the bid-ask spreads in those shares, making them more expensive to trade and therefore less attractive.

This phenomenon eventually turns stocks into drones that move in lockstep with their industry. It makes life harder for traders seeking informational edges by offering fewer opportunities to capitalise on insights into earnings and other signals. 

The study is the latest to point out signs of diminished efficiency in markets increasingly overrun by the funds.

“ETFs are clearly an important development in financial markets, which have brought many well-documented benefits to investors,” researchers Doron Israeli, Charles Lee and Suhas Sridharan wrote in a paper last month. “Our evidence suggests the growth of ETFs may have (unintended) long-run consequences for the pricing efficiency of the underlying securities.”

Read also: Meet the asset management rock star who has made an investment fortune out of bond ETFs

A single percentage point increase in ETF ownership has demonstrable effects on an individual stock, the researchers found. Over the ensuing year, correlation to the share’s industry group and the broader market ticks up 9 percent, while the relationship between its price and future earnings falls 14 percent. Meanwhile, bid-ask spreads rise 1.6 percent and absolute returns grow 2 percent.

The cause? Unsophisticated investors and the ways they buy securities. Before index funds, traders who thought they knew something others didn’t could turn a profit in transactions with less informed buyers of individual stocks. That disadvantaged cohort now buys ETFs, locking up securities that traders once could pick off when price discrepancies arose.

Less Trading

The detrimental effects to the market snowball from there. Fewer trades occur, so liquidity in single stocks deteriorates, raising transaction costs. That only further discourages professional traders, so the price discrepancies remain without the informational arbitrage to close the gaps.

Making matters worse, the reduced interest in individual equities also results in less analyst coverage, the researchers argue.

However, not everyone’s sold on the findings.

Pedestrians pass in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

State Street Corp., the third-largest issuer of ETFs, hasn’t observed any measurable difference in bid-ask spreads as a result of their usage, Dave Lavalle, head of SPDR ETF capital markets, said on a panel last month. Correlation between S&P 500 members also hovers near a record low, siting 47 percent below the six-year average.

What’s more, the funds, while growing, still represent a fraction of the overall U.S. market. More than $1.8 trillion of the U.S. equity market is held by the funds, a $460 billion increase over the past three years, aided by record inflows in 2017. However, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. pegs passive investors at around 14 percent of the S&P 500, up from 9 percent in 2013.

Doomsday Literature

The idea of tighter correlations and a dumber market as consequences of index fund usage is well trodden territory in doomsday ETF literature. A Virginia Tech paper in 2014 found that fewer signals about corporate performance seeped into prices over time because of passive investing. Instead, the investors arrive all at once when earnings results are disclosed.

Read also: On the investment hot list: Leveraged ETFs attract the crowds, set to mushroom

Goldman Sachs last month found that institutional stock pickers held a record amount of ETFs. That coincided with sector correlation falling below individual stock correlation for the first time since at least 2011, meaning industry bets mattered more than single-stock bets as passive vehicles chopped up the market into sectors.

Still, the researchers on the most recent report note an important caveat to their findings. Though higher ETF ownership coincides with higher trading costs, “this association alone does not imply causality,” they wrote. Index funds are just the most likely culprit, they reason.

“ETF’s are a great innovation, but an over-population of any innovation could cause unintended consequences if left unmonitored,” said Troy Draizen, global head of electronic trading at Convergex Executive Solutions LLC. “We have seen this in many market cycles, from dot-com to the credit crisis.”

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