ETF Price War Heats Up

November 14, 2017

[Editor’s Note: The following originally appeared on FactSet.com. Elisabeth Kashner is director of ETF research and analytics for FactSet.]

For investors, it’s getting easier to make money with ETFs, as issuers keep getting squeezed on costs. This is great news for ETF investors, but hard on the industry.

The October ETF story is one of price wars in headline vanilla funds and price compression in the strategies that had once promised greater pricing power (such as “smart beta” and active management). While pockets of pricing power still exist, they are largely populated by trading vehicles or one-of-a-kind funds that have no real competitors. 

The ETF price war is real and intensifying, particularly in the vanilla space. During October, we saw several major industry announcements for new or revamped cheap core funds:

  • Charles Schwab launched the Schwab 1000 Index ETF (SCHK), a self-indexed fund that is nearly indistinguishable from the Russell 1000-based funds from SSGA, iShares and Vanguard. Self-indexing can create cost-savings, by eliminating index licensing fees. SCHK costs 0.05% per year.
  • SSGA slashed fees on 15 of its core products, and announced that they will be dropping the Russell 1000/2000/3000 indexes in favor of self-indexing, similar to Charles Schwab’s new launch.
  • Invesco PowerShares launched a suite of six funds named “PureBeta.” These funds are broad-based, cap-weighted and priced to compete. At launch on Sept. 22, these funds were priced within 0.01% of their close competitors—mostly matching iShares Core and Vanguard funds, and just 0.01% more expensive than Charles Schwab’s offerings. That was before SSGA made its pricing announcement.
  • This past week, Franklin Templeton launched a suite of 13 plain-vanilla single-country funds, two Europe-wide funds (hedged and un-hedged) and a hedged Japan fund, with expense ratios of 0.09% and 0.19%. This is a clear shot at iShares’ dominance in this space. The BlackRock direct competitors charge between 0.48% and 0.64%.
  • Not to be outdone, Deutsche Bank repurposed two country/region ETFs and cut its fees to 0.15%, while also cutting fees to the same level on its Japan JPX-Nikkei 400 Equity ETF. 

Here’s how the landscape has changed over the past month. For starters, Vanguard and iShares now look overpriced in the 1000/2000/3000 space.

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

137 ETFs Charge 0.10% Or Less

The flows have already begun to follow suit in the 1000-tracking funds. IWB lost just about $600 million in October, while VONE lost $5.8 million. Meanwhile SPLG and SCHK took in $18 million and $102.8 million, respectively. Small-caps have yet to follow suit, perhaps because of liquidity concerns.

As of Oct. 31, 137 ETFs listed on U.S. exchanges carried annual expense ratios of 0.10% or less. These funds hold $1.34 trillion, or 41% of all U.S. ETF assets. Twenty-eight of these funds are now priced at 0.05% or less. That makes for tough competition in the dozen segments covered.

Let’s look at the eight segments where at least one of these nearly costless vanilla funds compete, setting aside the four value and growth segments, where differences in index construction drive the divergence in returns and make direct comparisons difficult. In these eight segments, competition is fierce. 

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

 

Flows Follow Falling Fees

As expected, flows are following expenses. In October, 13 funds garnered 50% of all net inflows; their median expense ratio was 0.14%. Twelve took market share from competitors, 10 of which had expense ratios below the asset-weighted segment average.

In market segments where funds compete by strategy, market share increased for cheaper funds, and decreased for pricier ones over 96.8% of the asset base in October.

While it is true that strategic fixed-income funds that captured market share within their segment charged an asset-weighted average expense ratio of 0.38% (against losers charging only 0.29%), this happened in a tiny corner of the ETF market—a segment with only 0.03% of the asset base strategy-competitive segments.

Overall, October’s market-share gainers cost only 0.19% on an asset-weighted basis, while October losers cost 0.25%.

Line In The Expense Ratio Sand

An expense ratio of 0.20% is now expensive in the U.S. ETF landscape. In the vanilla equity space, margins are even tighter; funds that gained market share cost 0.15%, while losers cost 0.19%, both on an asset-weighted basis. In the vanilla fixed income segments, market share gainers cost 0.17% on average, while the losers cost 0.28%.

While non-vanilla strategies still bear higher price tags than their simplest brethren, costs are shrinking there, too, as market share flows from richer funds to cheaper ones. Should current trends continue, within a few years, most strategies will be offered at cost, or close to it, in most asset classes. 

Below are some of the market share shifts we saw in October.

GLD (expenses 0.40%) to IAU (expenses 0.25%).

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

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EFA (expenses 0.33%) to IEFA (expenses 0.08%).

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

ACWI (0.33%) to VT (0.11%).

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

IYR (0.44%) to VNQ (0.12%).

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

SPY (0.0945%) to IVV and VOO (both 0.04%). While SPY took in $5.8 billion in

October, it lost market share because of its relative size. VOO began October at 30.7% the size of SPY, but it took in 35.7% as many dollars. VOO’s growth rate is faster than SPY’s. Ditto IVV.

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

These screenshots were taken on Nov. 6, with October flows shown in the far right.

 

Fee compression is not limited to plain-vanilla funds; it’s happening across all strategies, especially in segments where more than two funds compete within a strategy. For the 14 non-vanilla strategies that saw net October inflows of $50 million or more, the median monthly cost for market share gainers was 0.075% lower than it was for the losers. 

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

Trendwise, while pricing power remains for some of the active and idiosyncratic funds, the strategics have joined the vanilla funds in a race to trim expenses. The strategic funds have also been losing market share all year, with the exception of September.

Diving into the data, we find less cause for optimism on the persistence of pricing power. Let’s look at a few examples of pricing power and its demise outside of the vanilla space. 

In the world of actively managed ETFs, we would expect competition to drive fees lower. In general, this seems to be true, as most segments with more than two actively managed ETFs are seeing investors access cost savings by moving market share from expensive funds to cheap ones. But the table below shows that this is not uniform.

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

There was a particular willingness to pay within the eight funds of the “Equity: Global Total Market” segment. This segment offers several different flavors of active management, including income, long-term capital growth and outperformance, along with one-off themes of disruptive innovation and copying famous investors.

In October, only four had inflows; no dollars went to the income funds or the copycat. The flows to the outperformance-oriented funds were minimal (just $5 million). The bulk of the money went to three funds: the Davis Select Worldwide ETF (DWLD), Innovator IBD 50 Fund (FFTY) and ARK Innovation ETF (ARRK).

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

 

Cheaper Options Winning

The ARKK is the only broad-based fund with an innovation focus. It has a monopoly at the moment. Any investor who wants to access innovation broadly must agree to the 0.75% annual expense ratio. 

Nearly all the pricing power in actively managed funds is attributable to highly specialized funds that have no direct competition. Where funds compete within the same strategy and segment, investors have been flocking to the cheaper option. 

This is even truer for the strategic (smart-beta) ETFs that many issuers hoped would warrant a premium over basic vanilla. In October, not only did strategic funds lose market share by taking in 3 percent less, dollar-wise, per starting market share, than their vanilla, active and idiosyncratic counterparts in competitive segments, they also experienced severe cost pressure.

The U.S. High Dividend Yield segment is an excellent example.

 

 ETF Price War Heats Up

For a larger view, please click on the image above.

 

The largest flows went into the funds that cost 0.07% or 0.08%, while funds costing more than that experienced outflows, on the whole. 

Asset managers may have reason to hope that October’s growth in market share for active and idiosyncratic funds will allow them some breathing room—and pricing power—for new launches. But October’s cost migration suggests pricing power will be fleeting, as competition can come to challenge any successful fund. 

At the time of writing, the author held no positions in the securities mentioned. Elisabeth Kashner is director of ETF research and analytics for FactSet.

 

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