Mergers & Acquisitions Surge; M&A Funds Flat

The headline-making M&A deals aren’t translating into blockbuster returns for ETFs in the segment.

Reviewed by: Cinthia Murphy
Edited by: Cinthia Murphy

There’s been another wave of headline-making mergers and acquisitions this year following a hot year for deals in 2015, the latest of which was the blockbuster $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner deal announced this week.

If you are an ETF investor, does a pickup in M&A activity offer you any investment opportunity?

In theory, yes. There are two ETFs in the market today that look to capitalize specifically on these types of corporate deals through long/short hedge-fundlike portfolios. They are:

But the reality is that the pickup in M&A activity does not necessarily mean an uptick in the performance of these funds.

Consider that, other than the AT&T-Time Warner deal, there have been some pretty notable ones recently, as Bloomberg reported: the British American Tobacco-Reynolds American $58 billion deal; the Qualcomm-NXP Semiconductors $46 billion deal; the Anheuser-Busch InBev bid to buy SABMiller for $100 billion; and talks of a “possible” CBS-Viacom $30 billion deal.

And yet, here’s how these two ETFs have performed relative to the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) this year—they have practically not gone anywhere: 

Chart courtesy of


Flood Of Deals Don’t Boost Performance

“Both ETFs seek to benefit from a merger arbitrage situation, where a stock will not trade as high as the terms of the deal, on risks the deal may not close as expected,” said Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF research at S&P Global. “While M&A activity has picked up recently, these ETFs have lagged the S&P 500 index, as their performance is less tied to the traditional catalysts for U.S. equities.”

In the case of the AT&T bid to acquire Time Warner, Time Warner stock traded at a “discount to the deal’s value” because investors aren’t sure this deal will actually close, Rosenbluth notes.

This is where merger arbitrage opportunity lies, but also the challenge. It’s not easy to predict where the next big deal is going to happen, and when the news is made public, the potential to capture outsized premiums tends to diminish.


How MNA Works

MNA tracks an index that takes long positions in firms that are acquisition targets, and shorts broad equity indexes to manage downside risk associated with the deals. Any money left over is tied to short-term bonds.

The design is meant to capture any premium associated with the companies being acquired, much like a hedge fund would do.

The long side of the portfolio weights deals based on liquidity—on average dollars traded—of a company. The short side of the portfolio can represent as much as 40% at times. 

One of the main risks associated with this strategy is that a deal can be broken, and when that happens, stock prices of the target companies tend to drop. In the case of MNA, stocks aren’t removed immediately from the portfolio if that happens—they stay on until the next monthly rebalance. That can impact returns.  

Bonds Top Allocation

Right now, the portfolio’s largest single allocation is to short-term bonds in the form of a 19% allocation to the SPDR Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill (BIL) and a 6.3% allocation to the iShares Short Treasury Bond (SHV)—that’s roughly a quarter of the portfolio. These ETFs are in the black year-to-date, but not by much. They have each returned less than 1% so far in 2016.

Leading individual companies with a 9.6% weighting is LinkedIn, followed by St. Jude Medical and Rackspace—all takeover targets.

On the short side of the portfolio, the largest weighting is to a few sector ETFs. The Healthcare Select Sector SPDR (XLV) and the Energy Select Sector SPDR (XLE) are at a combined weighting of about -10%. XLV’s share price is down this year, but XLE has rallied more than 16%.

MRGR Similar Build   

MRGR, launched in 2012, goes head to head with MNA and is built in much the same way. The fund is vastly smaller, however, having gathered only about $5.5 million in assets in four years.  

MRGR longs stocks of companies that are the targets of acquisition, and it shorts the acquiring firms, with the goal of capturing the spread between the two. The fund also has a currency-hedge component given that it’s global in scope.

The underlying index in this strategy usually comprises about 40 announced deals. Among the fund’s largest single company holdings right now are names such as Yadkin Financial, Starz and Valspar Corp.

Perhaps due to a positive stock market, or to low interest rates, or to companies’ need to grow through acquisition, or to all of the above, M&A deals continue to pop up as the year-end nears. Some even say that the massive AT&T/Time Warner deal “could potentially trigger another M&A wave due to the strategic merits of vertical integration,” according to Rosenbluth.

These funds offer a direct vector for ETF investors to tap into the deals themselves, but it’s important to remember that more and bigger M&A deals don’t necessarily translate into more and bigger returns in these hedge-fundlike ETFs.

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.