China’s Growing ETF Footprint

New survey takes a close look at how investors in Greater China are choosing and using ETFs.

Reviewed by: Cinthia Murphy
Edited by: Cinthia Murphy

In the world of ETFs, Greater China is still a relatively small player, accounting for only 2.1% of the $5.1 trillion in global ETF assets. But the region, comprising three markets—Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan—promises rapid growth ahead, even if ETF adoption still varies significantly by region.

The inside look into how investors are choosing and using ETFs in Greater China comes from Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), which has co-sponsored with a global survey of professional investors, including financial advisors and institutional investors for six-consecutive years. The last two years offered a focused look into Greater China.

Mainland China In Driver’s Seat

In a nutshell, the Asia-centered assessment of ETF usage found that drivers of adoption are unique to each market, but Mainland China is the engine driving that growth.

The number of those allocating to ETFs in mainland China has practically doubled since last year, and 77% of those surveyed say they plan to increase allocations in the next 12 months—a higher number than the 63% of investors looking to up ETF usage across the broader China region.

“Growth in the region is closely aligned with Mainland China, which presents a significant opportunity as the onshore asset management industry continues to mature and internationalize,” the report said. “Hong Kong is well positioned to capitalize on this growth, while Taiwan has been one of the fastest growing ETF markets across Asia with a high level of product innovation.”

Today 63% of investors surveyed in Mainland China allocate at least 25% of their assets to ETFs. In the Greater China region, that adoption rate sits at 38%—results that show “ongoing education efforts around the structural benefits of the ETF wrapper seem to be resonating,” the survey said.


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ETF Selection Not Centered On Cost

Another interesting find this year is on how investors in different parts of the region are choosing ETFs. The selection process is anything but uniform when it comes to what matters most to investors.

For example, in Mainland China, where index methodology used to be the No. 1 factor in the process of picking an ETF, investors say that today their top focus is split between two factors: index and ETF issuers—the brand.

Perhaps even more interesting is that cost (expense ratio) ranks at No. 7 for these investors—way down in the list of their top selection criteria.

By contrast, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the ETF issuer behind a fund is nowhere among the top three most important factors in selecting an ETF. Instead, in those two markets, it’s historical performance that drives ETF choice.

And again, when it comes to cost, in Hong Kong, fees are at No. 3, but in Taiwan, they are the last thing investors look at. That’s significantly different than in the U.S. and Europe, where expense ratio is one of the top factors determining adoption. In Greater China, cost doesn’t seem to be too much of a concern.  

“The emergence of historical performance may come as a surprise to those who subscribe to the conventional wisdom that cost is the single most important criteria for ETF selection,” the report said.

“As ETF adoption by retail investors in Greater China is still at a nascent stage, perhaps investor sensitivity to fees is less acute than in other regions,” the report added. “When compared with regional mutual funds, ETFs on the higher end of the expense ratio—such as active or smart beta ETFs—still often present a significant cost value.”


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Types Of ETFs In Demand

Investors surveyed looking to expand their ETF usage said their wish list of funds includes more smart-beta funds, more actively managed ETFs, as well as more ESG (environmental, social, governance) and core index ETFs. From an asset class perspective, they also want more fixed-income and U.S. equity ETFs (see tables below).

Some interesting stats here include the fact that 97% of investors surveyed in Greater China have at least one smart-beta ETF in their portfolio, the survey notes. And almost 40% of these investors are looking to increase their allocation to smart-beta funds.

On the active front, however, access to active ETFs is still limited, if not completely nonexistent, for most investors in the region. That could be about to change. Earlier this year, regulators in Hong Kong allowed ETF issuers to launch active funds there for the first time. Active ETFs are still not allowed in the mainland or in Taiwan.

“Active management continues to have a strong position in Asia, and the ability to launch active strategies in a low-cost wrapper could be attractive to investors,” the report said.

Also of note is the appetite for ESG investing in Mainland China and Taiwan, according to the survey, which found that investors in Greater China have only one ESG ETF listed in the mainland. Regulators across all three markets have recently taken various steps on this front, introducing new reporting rules and disclosure requirements, all with the goal of encouraging socially and environmentally responsible investing.

“ESG ETFs are still new globally, but given increasing interest from respondents, this will be an area to watch in 2019,” the survey said.


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Head Winds ETFs Still Face

ETF adoption across Greater China is picking up steam, but it still faces some important challenges. The first is ETF trading, still described as “difficult” and “expensive” by a large number of investors in the region. Unpredictable or “too wide” spreads when it comes to execution are another big concern preventing investors from fully embracing the vehicle.

“The results highlight how much opportunity exists for global intermediaries to continue to improve the user experience and make trading ETFs more cost effective,” the report said.


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Sources: BBH,




While challenges persist, the outlook for the ETF market in Greater China is positive thanks in part to ongoing education efforts, as well as to an ETF-friendlier regulatory landscape, encouraging product innovation and improved access across the region.

“Despite 2018’s market volatility, ETF AUM [assets under management] for these three markets grew 18%, from $92 billion to $108 billion,” the survey found. “This year’s results tell a similar story: The Greater China region continues to embrace ETFs and product innovation will accelerate growth.”

You can see the survey in its entirety here.

Contact Cinthia Murphy at [email protected]

Cinthia Murphy is head of digital experience, advocating for the user in all that does. She previously served as managing editor and writer for, specializing in ETF content and multimedia. Cinthia’s experience includes time at Dow Jones and former BridgeNews, covering commodity futures markets in Chicago and Brazil equities in Sao Paulo. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.