Product Development Should Come Back To Earth

Let's stop trying to reach the moon before we even have a decent selection of currency hedged and single country ETFs

Reviewed by: Allan Lane
Edited by: Allan Lane

Word reaches me that a number of product providers are currently working on a project that will land the first ETF on Mars. For many providers that is a "smart" thing to do, but in the meantime I am begging for more basic building bricks, such as currency hedged and single country funds, ahead of that great celestial landing.

Lack of currency hedged ETFs

As we head to the end of the first quarter in 2015, once again we are playing out many of the same themes that became the hallmark of the global financial crisis: rapidly moving oil prices; central banks cutting their base rates; large idiosyncratic FX moves and a full-on bout of quantitative easing, this time right in the heartlands of Europe.

For much of the last seven years the Euro has simply been overvalued and anything that the central bankers could do to engineer that rate down would offer the best hope of re-invigorating European growth from Calais and Helsinki, all the way to Sicily.

In a nutshell, the Euro has been overvalued since the end of 2008. If an ETF investor can't hedge their currency exposure, the risk for any non-Euro based investor placing their investments into European equities is still quite high.

The risk is evident when you consider that, in the first 10 weeks of the year alone, the Euro has depreciated 9 percent against Sterling, whereas the returns from large cap European equities have been impressive. According to Bloomberg, up until 13 March 2015, the Dax in Germany is up over 21.9 percent, and the broad market Euro Stoxx 50 is up 16.7 percent.

Despite the omnipresent debate about currency hedging, only two ETFs on the London Stock Exchange offer European equity market exposure and hedge currency risk for GBP investors – out of approximately 800 ETFs on the exchange. They are the UBS MSCI EMU 100% hedged to GBP UCITS ETF (UC59) and the Lyxor UCITS ETF EURO STOXX 50 Monthly Hedged (MSEX).

The Euro has never looked more like a one-way bet than over the last four weeks. Of course, since 2008, we have had ample time to observe how QE played out in the U.S.

There is no other way to put it: the equity market returns thus far have amounted to the biggest free lunch in history. It is just a shame that the benefits of the lunch box didn't reach all those who it was intended for.

This lack of ETF choice seems unfair for tactical investors who want to take a view, and goes against the democratisation of investment which ETFs have helped to bring about.

What Would Bogle Do?

Not for the first time while putting this article together, the shadow of John Bogle hovers over my keyboard.

Having the audacity to suggest one could use ETFs to tactically take advantage of QE in Europe is one thing, but it might be one step too far to suggest one could take individual country exposure. Accessing broad market exposure as an ETF is possible in his view, but accessing single country exposures is a definite Bogle no-no.

But in the same way that small stocks offer occasional outperformance, some of the smaller country indices can play a similar role. The MSCI Belgium Index, for example, has often outperformed its European neighbours. However, the product is only listed on the New York Stock Exchange, therefore it would not likely be tax efficient to include these U.S.-listed ETFs in European-based portfolios.

Bogle or no Bogle, the option to access a single country ETF is limited. There are 28 countries in Europe, and yet an investor will only be able to trade seven of the large cap equity markets via an ETF on the LSE.

It is a sad conclusion to draw, but before you check whether these single country ETFs are available in currency hedged versions, it might be worth while checking if these funds are even available on the LSE to start with.

Product providers, please come back down to earth and give me what I need for a basic, diversified and currency hedged ETF portfolio.

Allan Lane is managing partner of Twenty20 Investments.

He holds a position in UBS MSCI EMU 100% hedged to GBP UCITS ETF.

Allan Lane is founder and CEO of Algo-Chain.