The difference is stark. Vanilla funds that include virtually every U.S.-listed stock, cap-weighted, barely touch the capital markets. The iShares Dow Jones U.S. ETF (IYY)’s portfolio managers are the champions of sitting on their hands, with annualized turnover of a mere 3.83% of the portfolio.
Contrast that with the turnover king, the Direxion All Cap Insider Sentiment Shares (KNOW), which, by FactSet ETF Analytics’ calculations, saw 912% portfolio turnover in the 12 months through May 2018. That’s quite a bit of exposure to slippage in the capital markets.
Slippage could well be the reason that “smart beta” ETFs have consistently failed to produce risk-adjusted outperformance versus broad, cap-weighted benchmarks or ETFs that track them. After all, if the foundations of the strategy remain sound, alpha should persist when packaged into indexes and ETFs, yet we have seen that, most often, it does not.
Narrowness Has Its Price Too
Rebalancing slippage can also weigh down returns of slice-and-dice funds that target portions of the market. The style box has a surprising amount of movement, as companies grow from small- to mid- to large-caps, or shrink, or bounce between categories. A nine-fund suite covering the full style box sees much more capital market activity than a single total-market fund like the iShares Core S&P Total U.S. Stock Market ETF (ITOT).
A quick look down the market-cap spectrum bears this out. Among even the simplest style box funds—vanilla ETFs that cover the U.S. equity market—turnover rises as capitalization size shrinks.
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Perhaps this explains why cost-obsessed Vanguard uses the broadest possible funds in its target-date and personal advisory services products. While heartbeat flows can wash out capital gains, they can’t erase the impact of information leakage.
Avoiding trading is practically a religion at Vanguard. It explains much of Vanguard’s atypical behavior in the ETF industry, including not publishing daily portfolio holdings, the use of transition indexes to manage major index changes, the CRSP value/growth index methodology using “packeting” developed for Vanguard’s use, and the adoption of active management for its new suite of factor funds.
The Cost Of Active Management
Vanguard has explained that its main motivation for active management in factor funds is not to avoid front-running, but to maintain high factor exposure by allowing for adjustments daily, rather than truing up only quarterly or semiannually. The new Vanguard factor funds have shown evidence of high turnover since their launch in February.
The Vanguard U.S. Multifactor ETF (VFMF), the series asset leader, had 43.13% portfolio turnover between Feb. 26 (the first date that holdings are available to FactSet) and June 7, 2018. That’s 265.4%, annualized. Even with the ratcheted-up factor-based exposure, it’s hard to square sky-high turnover with Vanguard’s historic caution toward the trading floor.
Since their inception, none of Vanguard’s actively managed factor funds has had an outflow. That means these funds are at risk of making significant capital gains distributions. Without redemptions, these high-turnover products are on the same footing as mutual funds. No index to track means no capital markets leakage, but it also means no rebalancing flows that magically wash out capital gains.
Simplicity Vs. The Trading Floor
And there is the trade-off. On the one side lies the tax inefficiency and agency in the capital markets that comes with active management. On the other, complex strategies that avoid capital gains and keep explicit costs low, but that do so at the price of depressed performance. Sitting in the middle are the simpleton products: broad-based, cap-weighted index trackers with minimal rebalancing requirements. In many ways, big, dumb, cheap beta brings the best of both worlds.
At the time of writing, the author held no positions in the securities mentioned. Elisabeth Kashner is director of ETF research and analytics for FactSet.