Hougan: 4 ETFs Stealing Market Share

The old rule about ETFs was that the first fund to market gets all the inflows. Now it’s the best funds.

Reviewed by: Matt Hougan
Edited by: Matt Hougan

The old rule about ETFs was that the first fund to market gets all the inflows. Now it’s the best funds.

It used to be that the first ETF to hit the market got all the inflows. That’s changing … for the better. Today it’s increasingly the best ETFs that are attracting the most attention.

Here are four ETFs where the largest and oldest funds are losing ground to newer/better/cheaper/different alternatives. Do you own the right funds?

S&P 500 ETFs: SPY Losing Ground To Newer Competitors
SPY 1-Year Flows: -$2.6B

IVV 1-Year Flows: $7.3B

VOO 1-Year Flows: $7.0B

The S&P 500 SPDR (SPY | A-97) is the largest, oldest and most successful ETF in the world, with more than $160 billion in assets. But despite its popularity, it’s not my favorite ETF tracking the S&P 500. I prefer both the iShares S&P 500 ETF (IVV | A-97) and the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO | A-96) to the venerable SPY.

What’s the difference? Because of the way SPY is structured, it is not allowed to reinvest its dividends over the course of each quarter. Instead, it simply holds them in cash. As a result, it has a small but persistent cash drag.

That means when the market is rising, SPY will tend to underperform peers like IVV or VOO. Not by much—maybe 0.05 percent a year—but by a little. Over the past year, SPY returned 15.04 percent on a net-asset-value basis, while IVV returned 15.11 percent and VOO 15.15 percent. That’s fairly typical in a rising market.

For a long time, investors didn’t seem to care, sticking with SPY because it was familiar and highly liquid. But recently, investors have favored the modernized and lower-cost IVV (0.07 percent expense ratio) and VOO (0.05 percent expense ratio) over SPY (0.09 percent fee).

In the past year, IVV has pulled in $7.3 billion and VOO $7.0 billion in new assets, while SPY has bled $2.6 billion in outflows. In fact, both IVV and VOO have outpolled SPY by billions since the market bottomed on March 9, 2009.

SPY is still a great fund, and will likely remain the largest ETF in the world for decades (if not forever). But IVV and VOO are catching up.


China ETFs: A New Generation of Funds Replace FXI
FXI Flows Since GXC’s Launch: -$3.2B

GXC Flows Since Launch: $517M

MCHI Flows Since Launch: $960M

The iShares China Large Cap ETF (FXI | B-51) was the first China ETF to launch and is still by far the largest, with $4.71 billion in assets. But it’s never been a favorite of mine. The fund only holds 25 mostly government-supported mega-caps in China, largely ignoring the fast-growing consumer and technology sectors.

FXI succeeded because it was first to market. But in early 2007, State Street Global Advisors launched the SPDR S&P China ETF (GXC | B-40), the first ETF to provide comprehensive exposure to Chinese stocks. It took some time, but GXC finally caught on. Since it launched in March 2007, GXC has pulled in $517 million in net new assets, even as FXI has lost $3.2 billion in outflows. GXC is our Analyst Pick in the China segment.

Interestingly, China ETF innovation hasn’t stopped. iShares itself launched an improved China ETF in 2011—the iShares MSCI China ETF (MCHI | B-40)—and it has done even better, pulling in $880 million in assets. Investors like it because it tracks an MSCI-based index, which means it fits in seamlessly with other parts of an international ETF portfolio.

More recently, Deutsche Bank came to market with an ETF (the db X-trackers Harvest MSCI All China Equity Fund (CN)) that is the first to combine stocks from mainland China with those listed in Hong Kong and other foreign locations (where FXI, MCHI and GXC draw their components). CN is arguably the most comprehensive China ETF out there. It will be interesting to see if it, too, gathers assets at the expense of the old guard funds.

Frontier Markets: FM Getting All the Love
FRN Flows since Sept. 13, 2012: -$35M

FM Flows since Sept. 13, 2012: $702M

The Guggenheim Frontier Markets ETF (FRN | D-19) was the first frontier markets ETF to come to market, and for a while, it gathered significant assets. From its launch in June 2008 through Sept. 13, 2012, it pulled in more than $160 million in net inflows.

But iShares launched the iShares Frontier Markets ETF (FM | C-93) last September, and since then, the flows have been one-sided: FM has garnered $702 million in net flows, while FRN has lost $35 million in outflows.

Investors favor FM because it gives much purer exposure to frontier markets than FRN. Despite the name, the majority of FRN’s portfolio is invested in emerging markets, not frontier countries, led by a 41 percent allocation to Chile. FM is 100 percent allocated to frontier countries and has less concentration risk, with its largest single-country exposure (Kuwait) standing at slightly more than 20 percent.


There are plenty of other examples out there; this blog could easily have been 4,000 words. But this makes the point: Investors are taking the time to reach past the most familiar ETFs and search out the best. And that’s exactly what they should do.

At the time this article was written, the author held no positions in the securities mentioned. Contact Matt Hougan at [email protected].

Matt Hougan is CEO of Inside ETFs, a division of Informa PLC. He spearheads the world's largest ETF conferences and webinars. Hougan is a three-time member of the Barron's ETF Roundtable and co-author of the CFA Institute’s monograph, "A Comprehensive Guide to Exchange-Trade Funds."