ETF.com’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award isn’t like our past winners. He’s not a globetrotting ETF market maker, like last year’s winner, Reggie Browne, or the long-standing CEO of a top-five ETF issuer. He hasn’t even issued an ETF (yet; he’s working on it).
Instead, he’s seen as a simple messenger: a teacher, preacher and prophet, leading investors to understand and use the greatest investment vehicle ever created—the exchange-traded product.
Explaining how this new financial invention would be the sliced bread of the future and win out over traditional, more established alternatives like mutual funds was no easy trick. Along with other early analytical disciples, Matt Hougan blazed a new path of financial analysis, coverage, data, education and even conferences that are still the standard in the ETF industry.
Until 2015, Hougan served as CEO of ETF.com, among other key roles over his 10 years at the firm, and the company’s predecessor, IndexUniverse.com (ETF.com staff did not determine this year’s or any other year’s past winner; see methodology on page 30). He currently serves as chief investment officer for Bitwise Asset Management, creator of the world’s first cryptocurrency index fund and a potential future bitcoin issuer. He also serves on the board of directors of the ETF issuer Equbot; is a co-founder of Advisor Circle; and is a strategic advisor to a number of firms, including Blockworks and StratiFi.
In short, Hougan helped the ETF industry grow to this point, and continues to blaze new financial paths for the future, all while constantly helping people discover a better way to invest.
(Editor’s note: Read the full interview at ETF.com)
What did you do in the ETF space that makes you a legend?
I don’t know about legend, but I think I helped in a few ways.
Most importantly, I helped spread the word about ETFs. I probably gave my core “ETFs 101” presentation more than 1,000 times: to financial advisors, family offices, endowments, pension funds, asset managers, regulators, college classes, MBA programs, high schools and the media. I probably wrote more than 1,000 blogs, stories and interviews on ETFs. Anytime someone wanted to know how ETFs worked, I was ready to talk.
Beyond that, I was part of the first generation of analysts who cared if ETFs were any good. There was a handful of us—me, Dave Nadig, Eric Balchunas, Ben Johnson, Elisabeth Kashner, Todd Rosenbluth—who loved (and still love) to dig under the surface, compare ETFs and talk about them publicly.
In so doing, I think we achieved two things. First, we helped investors choose better ETFs. But more than that, I think we opened up design space for innovation. We told ETF entrepreneurs, if you build a better mousetrap, we’ll shout it from the rooftops. In that way, I think we contributed to the innovation we’ve seen in the ETF space over the years.
And of course, there’s a third thing that I’m working on—a bitcoin ETF. We’ll see if I get there.
When you look back at what you built at ETF.com—the website, the magazines, the data and analytics, Inside ETFs—what are you most proud of?
The whole thing. The sum is more than the parts. We needed media to tell the stories about ETF growth; data to help investors find and evaluate ETFs; conferences to get people fired up and make connections; academic-style publications to support new ideas in a robust fashion; finely tooled messaging about why ETFs were good and how they could help investors. So we tried to deliver all of that, while being straight-shooters about the risks as well.
We also did a lot of things behind the scenes that I’m pretty proud of too.
I can’t tell you how many hours, days and years Dave Nadig and I spent with the mainstream media helping them understand ETFs and beating down ridiculous theories about fixed income liquidity-doom loops, ETFs as weapons of mass destruction and so on. I’m pretty proud of the work we did there.
One well-loved feature of Inside ETFs has been the keynote speech you and Dave Nadig give each year, where you talk about the industry and where it’s going. What are you trying to do?
We always try to do a few things in our State of the ETF Union speeches, which we are now migrating to the Exchange conference. We ask: What can we tell the advisors in the audience that will actually help them? Can we help them build better portfolios, win new business, understand new risks?
Sometimes, we try to help the industry peek around the corner to see what’s coming next. We were among the first people to talk about robo advising, and were some of the first people to talk about direct indexing. And Inside ETFs was one of the first traditional finance conferences to highlight bitcoin (we had the Winklevoss twins give a keynote speech in 2015, when bitcoin was trading for $200).
Was there was a bit of ETF revival in our speeches, with our lofty asset growth predictions and talk of “ETF manifest destiny”? Of course there was. We wanted to fire people up to go out and spread the ETF gospel. And we did.
Why did you leave ETFs to move into crypto?
Well, first, I haven’t left. I’m on the board of directors of Equbot, helping build the next generation of AI-powered ETFs. I helped found Advisor Circle, a new growth community and product studio for financial advisors. I’m creating a new ETF conference called Exchange. And I’m working day and night at Bitwise to bring crypto ETFs to market, including a bitcoin ETF. But more broadly, I transitioned from ETFs into crypto full time because I’ve seen this movie before and I like how it ends.
Bitcoin, crypto and blockchain technology represent an incredibly elegant technological solution to a massive problem, which is how to move money into the internet age. This is a multitrillion-dollar market—a much larger market, honestly, than ETFs—and it’s seeing real traction. But people are skeptical of it because it’s unfamiliar, complex, imperfect and poorly explained.
I joined Bitwise because I thought I could play a role in helping traditional investors—and particularly financial advisors—understand and invest in crypto. And along the way, I get to participate in another industry that’s experiencing exponential growth and making a positive impact on the world.
I couldn’t be happier.
What do you consider your roots of investing?
Going way back, my grandfather, Sam Johnson. Sam was a low-cost, buy-and-hold, tax-sensitive investor before that was cool. I owe a lot to him. More immediately, Dave Nadig. He gave me my first job in investing, at a time when I probably didn’t deserve one. Of course, I also gave Dave his first job in ETFs. He’s been a friend, a colleague and an inspiration to me for two decades.
And then, big picture, Jack Bogle. It’s hard to think of anybody in finance who did more to improve the lives of everyday Americans. When you think of all the money Jack helped funnel away from Wall Street and into retirement accounts, college savings and emergency funds of everyday Americans, it’s incredible. He helped millions of dreams come true. He’s a constant inspiration and a reminder that what we do in this industry matters.