SPY, The 1st US ETF, Now A $100 Billion Fund

January 21, 2012

Nineteen years and a lot of surprise later, SPY crosses the $100 billion barrier.

(Story updated with SPY data compiled by IndexUniverse in second paragraph.)

“SPY,” the very first U.S. listed exchange-traded fund, on Friday  became the first ETF to gather more than $100 billion, almost 19 years after its launch, putting it in the company of some of the more legendary U.S. mutual funds and making it the perfect metaphor for an ETF industry that’s on a roll.

The fund, officially known as SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSEArca:  SPY), gathered $1.31 billion in fresh assets on Friday, ending the session with $101.03 billion in assets, according to data compiled by IndexUniverse. It’s a milestone that’s almost unbelievable to those who created SPY. The ETF was dreamed up by the American Stock Exchange as a vehicle for traders its creators hoped would help pump up volume.

“In January of 1993 when we launched, we were hoping for $1 billion, so $100 billion is a whole lot more than $1 billion,” said Kathleen Moriarty, a partner at the New York-based law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, who was instrumental in getting SPY approved by regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission. The ETF was seeded on Jan. 22, 1993 and began trading on Jan. 29.

Moriarty said that the late Nate Most, the Amex executive who conceived of SPY, envisioned up to about five different exchange-traded funds that would appeal to traders.

“That’s how big our horizons were at the time,” Moriarty added. “Nate was a much cooler customer than I, but he would be very, very pleased right now.”

SPY did indeed end up appealing to traders, and a whole lot more. It’s now the single biggest ETF in the world, and now sits atop a universe of 1,382 ETFs that’s increasingly poaching market share from actively managed mutual funds. SPY makes up about 9 percent of the more than $1.125 trillion now invested in ETFs and looms largely as a symbol of the ETF industry’s growing momentum and clout.

Much has changed since SPY launched in 1993, especially the money management industry itself, where commission-based stock pickers have been surpassed by fee-based asset managers who view thoughtful asset allocation using low-cost vehicles, increasingly ETFs, as the best way to deliver solid risk-adjusted returns at the right price and with more tax efficiencies than actively managed mutual funds.

As Big As Vanguard’s S&P 500 Mutual Fund

SPY is now just about as big as the $101.8 billion Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), the world’s first index mutual fund that was launched in 1975.

It’s also almost as large as the Fidelity Magellan Fund (FMAGX) was at its zenith before the tech bubble burst more than a decade ago. The Magellan Fund had about $106 billion in 2000, though it now has about $13 billion in assets under management.

“It’s obviously great for the product, but it’s a product that has helped spawn an entire industry,” said Jim Ross, the global head of ETFs at SPY’s Boston-based sponsor, SSgA. Ross stressed it’s been a long and winding road, and that hopes were low at times in the early days, such as in 1994 when SPY had net outflows.


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