Lifetime Achievement Award: Matt Hougan

May 07, 2021

Matt Hougan

(Editor's note: This article originally ran in our May 2021 ETF Report awards issue.) 

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, to the tune of more than $7 trillion worldwide.

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 winners see methodology here). He currently serves as chief investment officer for Bitwise Asset Management, creator of the world's first cryptocurrency index fund, and one of more than nine issuers pushing to win approval for a bitcoin ETF with the SEC. 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.

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 were 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.

What is the particular skill that you want to be remembered for?
Explaining complex things in simple ways. That’s what I did in ETFs, and it’s what I’m trying to do again today in crypto.

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.

Why did you create the ETF.com ratings/analytics database (that was eventually sold to FactSet)?
We were constantly frustrated that investors were choosing the wrong ETFs. People were picking ETFs based on their ticker rather than any kind of analysis. They would overlook better, cheaper and purer-exposure ETFs, and that drove us nuts.

What’s amazing was that, at the time, there was no way to even find ETFs. There was no classification system; no sorting tools; no tracking error analysis; no holdings screens; no nothing. It was the dark ages.

We thought investors should know these things and should have a systematic way to compare and contrast ETFs. So, Dave, Elisabeth Kashner, our analysts and our developers in Quito [Ecuador] built it. I’m proud that it still exists today and is available publicly free on ETF.com.

What did that mean for the growth of ETFs?
It was helpful because it made advisors experts. They could sit down with clients and tell them that they had evaluated all the ETFs in the U.S. and had chosen one particular ETF for very specific reasons. We put world-class analysis on the desktops of every advisor and made it free. That mattered quite a bit.

One well-loved feature of Inside ETFs has been the keynote speech you and Dave 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.

I’m also 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’s next for ETFs?
ETFs have come a long way. There’s now nearly $7 trillion in U.S. ETF assets, and more globally. ETFs probably save investors $35+ billion a year in fees.

ETFs are only halfway through their growth curve. The fixed income ETF market in particular is only a fraction of the size it should be. Thematic ETFs have a lot of room to grow. Active is interesting. And new areas like crypto are going to be important too.

2021 could be the first year ETF flows top $1 trillion in the U.S., which is amazing. But it’s not going to stop. ETFs are going to be a $10 trillion or $20 trillion industry.

What do you consider your roots of investing?
Going way back, my grandfather, Sam Johnson. He 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.

Drew Voros can be reached at [email protected]

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