Innovation ETFs: Real Deal Or Gimmick?

September 09, 2015

[This article previously appeared in our September issue of ETF Report.]

Technological innovations are so integrated into our lives that we don’t think about their impact. Beyond the latest electronic gadget, technology has enhanced everything from medicine to food.

Within the past 12 months, several new exchange-traded funds debuted promoting the idea that innovation is an investable theme. These funds are more than simple technology sector ETFs; rather, their idea of innovation is to look at companies using technology to push their industry forward. In fact, many of these companies aren’t necessarily considered technology firms; instead, they inhabit other sectors like energy or health care.

The biggest of these funds in terms of assets under management by far is the iShares Exponential Technologies ETF (XT), based on the Morningstar Exponential Technologies Index. It’s backed by fund manager Ric Edelman, founder and chief executive officer of Edelman Financial, who seeded the fund with about $560 million after its launch.

There are two other fund families focusing on technological innovation. ARK Investment Management’s funds include four actively managed ETFs: the ARK Genomic Revolution Multi-Sector ETF (ARKG | D-36), ARK Industrial Innovation ETF (ARKQ | D-44), ARK Web x.0 ETF (ARKW|D-29) and ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK | D-32). ARKK contains all three of the other ARK innovation funds. Meanwhile, the newly launched Gavekal Knowledge Leaders Developed World ETF (KLDW) and the Gavekal Knowledge Leaders Emerging Markets ETF (KLEM) follow Gavekal’s Knowledge Leaders indexes.

There is some debate about whether technological innovation is an investment theme, and it may just be pure coincidence that within the space of a year several funds launched based roughly on the same idea without being clones of each other. Technology certainly has blurred the lines regarding the categorization of certain firms based on their business lines—think of Tesla being a car company and focused on energy storage. Yet at least one industry watcher said the name “innovation” is just growth with better marketing.

Another Paradigm Shift?
Managers of these funds said when thinking broadly about innovation, consider how the advent of different technologies changed life over the centuries, such as the printing press, the steam engine and electricity.

Edelman said previously he went to iShares to create a fund focusing on “new economy” companies, a fund that would include everything from robotics to artificial intelligence to energy and environmental systems to medicine. Innovation is neither a market sector nor a geographical issue, but a fundamental theme. Given recent technological breakthroughs, he has said, this fund could not have existed even a few years ago.

XT launched March 23 and has about $689 million in assets under management. Information technology and health care make up the bulk of the fund, a little more than 60% combined, with 67% of the companies domiciled in the U.S. It has an expense ratio of 0.47%.

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