What is an ETN?
Investors typically use the term “ETF” to mean a lot of things that aren’t technically “exchange-traded funds”: commodity pools, grantor trusts and debt securities.
We’re guilty of this too: After all, this is ETFR, but we cover all types of products. It’s the term of art, so we’ll roll with it.
The most important of these structures to understand is the exchange-traded note (ETN).
ETNs are debt notes issued by a bank. When you buy an ETN, the bank promises to pay you a certain pattern of return. If you buy an ETN linked to the price of gold, for instance, the value of that ETN will increase if the gold price goes up.
The beauty of the ETN structure is that it can be linked to anything. There are ETNs that track commodities, and ETNs that track hard-to-reach corners of the equity market. They sometimes combine stock or bond positions with options overlays, or use other sophisticated strategies that would be difficult to package into a traditional ETF. In the commodity space, the ETN also offers significant long-term tax advantages compared with most ETFs.
The downside of an ETN is that if the underlying bank goes bankrupt, you lose essentially all of your money. There were, for instance, a few ETNs backed by Lehman Brothers. While most investors in Lehman’s ETNs fled before the firm shut down in 2008, anyone who held to the bitter end probably still has a bad taste in their mouth.
The good news is that this credit risk in most situations is minor. Institutional investors can “redeem” (get their money back) from the underwriter of an ETN daily. While anything can happen, you usually see major bank defaults coming more than a day or two ahead.
The even-better news is credit risk is easily monitored. ETF.com’s data provider monitors and reports on the credit risk of every ETN daily. It does that by watching the cost of credit default swaps (CDS) on the underwriting banks each day. CDS are like insurance—investors buy them to protect themselves against a company’s default—so they are the best possible view of the likelihood a bank will go down.
How do you check? Just pull up the Efficiency Tab on any ETN (e.g., www.etf.com/AMJ) and check out the ETN Counterparty Risk measure. If it says “Low,” you’re OK. If it says “High,” run for the hills.
The current roster of ETNs trading in the U.S. includes 94 products, with a total of $11.5 billion in assets under management. The number of ETNs stood at more than 160 at the end of January 2020, not too long before a large number of ETNs closed during the COVID crash in March 2020.
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