ETF Education: Fixed Income ETFs During A Panic

January 26, 2018

[This article appears in our January 2018 issue of ETFR Report.]

ETFs typically trade at something close to “fair value.” That is, if you calculated the intraday value of all the securities an ETF holds, that would roughly align with the price of the ETF.

The process that keeps ETFs trading at “fair value” is the creation/redemption mechanism (explained on page 14). If, at any time, the price of the ETF deviates from the price of the underlying portfolio, institutional investors can swoop in and arbitrage the difference.

There are various ways and places that this near-perfect relationship gets upset. The most high-profile—and important—is in fixed income. Fixed-income ETFs—particularly in times of stress—can trade to massive premiums or discounts to their net asset values (NAVs).

The question this article aims to answer is: Is this a problem with the ETF or a problem with the underlying bond market?

Bond Market Is Different 
Compared with stocks—like those in the S&P 500, which trade throughout the day on the NYSE and Nasdaq—bonds are relatively illiquid, and their true price is harder to know with certainty. For example, shares of Apple are fungible, so the last price at which a share was traded is a very good representation of the current value of every Apple share. The bond market is different.

First, bonds trade much less frequently than stocks—so the last traded price might not be current at all. Second, they don’t trade on an exchange: Most bond trades are individual “over the counter” agreements between two parties. Third, bonds come in much greater variety than stocks; for example, Exxon has many bond issues, each with different maturities and coupons, and each requiring its own price. Fourth, ETF issuers generally rely on bond pricing services for “fair” value estimations of their holdings; these estimations are based on the current selling price the fund might receive were it to start selling its bonds immediately. That fire-sale price will always be less than what you could pay to buy the bond, so there’s a “natural” depression in the reported NAV of all bond ETFs.

For all of these reasons, it’s not uncommon that a highly liquid bond ETF can serve as price discovery for the true fair value of the basket of bonds it holds. In other words, the market price of the bond ETF can be a better approximation of the aggregate value of the ETF’s underlying basket bonds than its own NAV. Therefore, large premiums and discounts do not necessarily signal any mispricing in the ETF.

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