Will Vanguard Manage To Crack The Active ETF Market?

Active ETFs face a number of hurdles but Vanguard appears to be on the path to success

Reviewed by: Hortense Bioy
Edited by: Hortense Bioy

This month, Vanguard launched four new European-domiciled actively managed ETFs which provide global exposure to four factors – value, liquidity, momentum and low volatility.

For a number of reasons, Vanguard's move has confounded industry observers. After all, the company is essentially known in Europe as a passive manager; and one that has prided itself in offering broad plain-vanilla exposures. While equity factors are gaining traction, they remain a nebulous concept for most investors. Factor investing, also known as 'smart beta' in the passive world, is anything but simple. Quite the contrary, it requires a great deal of understanding and due diligence.

Also, while Vanguard has in the past shared plans to grow an active business in Europe – as it already has in the U.S. – some may find it surprising that the fund manager has chosen to do it using the ETF wrapper.

Riding Two Waves

Yet, I think Vanguard's move is bold and innovative. By launching a range of active factor ETFs, the firm looks to ride two waves at the same time: smart beta and active ETFs; two areas with huge growth potential, though moving at very different speeds.

Smart beta, which Morningstar refers to as 'strategic beta', has seen explosive growth in recent years. According to Morningstar data, there are today close to 200 strategic beta exchange-traded products (ETPs) in Europe, with collective assets of about €30 billion, representing 6.2 percent of the overall European ETP market. The commonality between all these products is that they track rules-based indices and are therefore passively managed.

In stark contrast, there are only 13 actively managed ETFs in Europe, with assets of €5.8 billion, accounting for only 1.2 percent of the market. And of these, only a handful of fixed income funds have succeeded in attracting large assets so far (see table below).

The two PIMCO Short Maturity Source ETFs and the Lyxor Smart Cash ETF have been particularly successful. Unsurprisingly so, perhaps, given the current context of rock-bottom money market rates (negative in some cases, e.g. Europe). It's hardly difficult to offer returns over those market rates.


NameInception DateFund Size (EUR)TER (%)
PIMCO Euro Short Mat Source ETF11/01/20112,689,949,5810.35
PIMCO USD Short Mat Source ETF22/02/20111,291,442,6990.35
Lyxor Smart Cash ETF C-EUR02/03/20151,006,547,1780.20
PIMCO Covered Bond Source ETF17/12/2013357,318,2520.43
PIMCO Low Duration Euro Corp BD Sour ETF17/11/2014195,105,7840.39
PIMCO Sterling Short Maturity Source ETF10/06/2011178,869,8390.35
UBS ETF (IE) MAP Balanced 7 SF EUR05/02/201547,737,4450.60
Commerzbank CCBI RQFII Mny Mkt ETF C23/03/201534,860,2630.65
PIMCO Low Dur US Coprt BD Source ETF $Inc26/11/201425,979,5220.39
Nordea Stable Equities UCITS ETF25/09/20136,621,8281.55
Nordea Global EM Equities UCITS ETF25/09/20132,783,6512.04
Ashmore SICAV EM Corp Dbt Source ETF Acc26/09/20141,057,8251.32
Ashmore SICAV EM Totl Ret Source ETF Acc26/09/201481,9831.28
Vanguard Global Minimum Volatility UCITS ETF09/12/201515,000,0000.22
Vanguard Global Value Factor UCITS ETF09/12/201515,000,0000.22
Vanguard Global Momentum Factor UCITS ETF09/12/201515,000,0000.22
Vanguard Global Liquidity Factor UCITS ETF09/12/201515,000,0000.22


Source: Morningstar Direct, data as of December 11, 2015

The reality is that the active ETF market is a tough space to crack; as a number of companies have learnt at their expense. Recently, Swiss asset manager Julius Baer closed its range of actively managed 'smart equity' ETFs after struggling for two and a half years to gather assets. Deutsche Bank also retired its only active ETF, the db x-trackers SCM Multi-asset ETF, offered in partnership with London-based fund manager SCM Private.

This begs the question: why has Vanguard chosen to offer factors in an active form, rather than in the more in vogue 'strategic beta' index form? It must be the case that Vanguard believes factors cannot be perfectly captured in a strict rules-based manner. By taking an active approach, the firm gives itself the flexibility to bend the rules and circumvent the constraints that characterise index-based strategic-beta strategies, the main constraint being the obligation to rebalance the portfolio at set dates.


Active ETFs have a lot going for them. Straddling the active-passive divide, actively-managed ETFs are designed to offer the best of both worlds by providing transparent, low-cost and liquid access to active managers.

Is There Room To Grow?

The sector faces a number of challenges, the biggest revolving around transparency. Many active managers – particularly in the equity space – are reluctant to disclose portfolio holdings on a daily basis as would be required to ensure the best functionality of an ETF. They worry that revealing their 'secret sauce' would make them vulnerable to investors front-running or shadowing their portfolios.

Another challenge is simply for ETF providers to find reputable managers with proven alpha-generating ability. Often these active funds have higher fees. Active ETFs may be cheaper than traditional actively managed mutual funds, but they are also significantly more expensive than their passive peers.

It seems however that Vanguard won't face any of these problems. For starters, daily portfolio disclosure is not an issue for the new ETFs, as they follow an active rules-based approach using quantitative models, but where managers have discretion over portfolio turnover. While some investors may try to replicate the signals generated by the models, they won't be able to replicate accurately what (and crucially when) the managers are trading.

Secondly, Vanguard is confident that its position as one of the world's largest mutual-fund companies and its reputation for putting investors' interest first will be enough to attract new money. They have the know-how and don't feel the need to partner with anyone. More importantly, this "we'll do it ourselves" approach allows Vanguard to keep fees on a tight rein. With an annual fee of 0.22 percent, the new equity factor ETFs are undoubtedly cheap, even compared with index-based ETFs that track similar strategies.

So will Vanguard be successful where others have failed? Will it pave the way for more active ETFs in Europe? Only time will tell. Patience may be required, as investors typically wait two to three years for an active manager to build a track record.



Hortense Bioy, CFA, is the director of passive funds research at Morningstar Europe