What Are Actively Managed ETFs?

By MP Dunleavey · December 29, 2021 · 7 minute read

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What Are Actively Managed ETFs?

Exchange-traded funds or ETFs generally fall into two categories: actively managed and passively managed. Actively managed ETFs, a growing category in the ETF market, are overseen by a portfolio manager.

The goal of an active manager is to outperform a certain market index, which they use as a benchmark for their portfolio. By contrast, passive ETFs simply mirror the performance of a particular market index; they don’t aim to outperform it.

There are two types of actively managed ETFs: transparent and non-transparent. Active non-transparent ETFs are a new option that was introduced in 2019; these funds are sometimes called ANTs.

Keep reading to learn more about the distinction among different ETFs, the pros and cons, and whether investing in actively managed ETFs makes sense for you.

How Actively Managed ETFs Work

Actively managed ETFs employ a portfolio manager and typically a team of analysts who do market research and make decisions to buy, hold, or sell the assets held within the fund. Most ETFs are designed to reflect a certain market sector or niche. They typically measure their success by using a known index as their benchmark.

For example, a technology ETF would be invested in tech companies and potentially use the Nasdaq composite index as a benchmark to measure its performance.

Despite the fact that passive (or index) ETFs strategies predominate in the industry — index ETFs represent roughly 98% of the ETF market — active strategies are gaining ground. That said, it has been historically quite difficult for active fund managers to beat their benchmarks.

Actively managed transparent and non-transparent ETFs are similar to traditional (i.e. index) ETFs. You can trade them on stock exchanges throughout the day, and investors can buy and sell in amounts as small as a single share. Broad availability and low investment minimums are an advantage that ANTs (and ETFs more generally) boast over many mutual funds.

Actively managed transparent ETFs

When exchange-traded funds first appeared some 20 years ago, only passive ETFs were allowed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In 2008, though, the SEC introduced a streamlined approval process that allowed for a type of actively managed ETF called transparent ETFs. These funds were required to disclose their holdings on a daily basis, similar to passive ETFs. Investors would then know exactly which securities were being traded within the fund.

Many active fund managers, however, didn’t want to reveal their trading strategies on a daily basis — which is one reason why there have been fewer actively managed ETFs vs. index ETFs to date.

Non-transparent or semi-transparent ETFs

In 2019, another rule change from the SEC permitted an active ETF structure that would be partially instead of fully transparent. Under this new rule, an active ETF manager would be allowed to either reveal the constituents of their portfolio less often (e.g. quarterly, like actively managed mutual funds), or communicate their holdings more obliquely, by using various accounting methods like proxy securities or weightings.

The SEC ruling opened up a new channel for active managers, and since then the number of actively managed ETFs has grown. According to Barron’s, in just the past two years the number of actively managed ETFs has more than doubled. Nearly 60% of the ETFs launched in 2020 and 2021 were actively managed — more than all the actively managed ETFs established in the past decade.

From an investor’s perspective, the most noticeable difference between these two kinds of actively managed ETFs — transparent vs. non-transparent — would be the frequency with which these funds disclose their holdings. Both types of ETFs trade on exchanges at prices that change constantly during trading days; both rely on a team of managers to select and trade securities.

Index ETFs vs Active ETFs

So what is the difference between index ETFs and actively managed ETFs? It’s essentially the same difference that exists between index mutual funds and actively managed mutual funds.

How do index ETFs work?

Index ETFs, also called passive ETFs, track a specific market index. A market index is a compilation of securities that represent a certain sector of the market; indexes (or indices) are frequently used to gauge the health of certain industries, or as broader economic indicators. There are thousands of indexes that represent the equity markets alone, and Well-known indexes include the S&P 500®, an index of 500 of the biggest U.S. companies by market capitalization, as well as the Russell 2000, an index of small- to mid-cap companies, and many more.

Because index ETFs simply track a market sector via its index, there is no need for an active, hands-on manager. As a result the cost of these funds is typically lower than actively managed ETFs, and many active and passive mutual funds as well.

How do actively managed ETFs work?

Actively managed ETFs, often called active ETFs, rely on a portfolio manager and a team of analysts to invest in companies that also reflect a certain market sector. But these funds are not tied to the securities in any given index. The ETF manager invests in their own selection of securities, but often uses an index as a benchmark to gauge the success of their strategies.

Transparent actively managed ETFs must reveal their holdings each day.

Actively managed non-transparent ETFs, or ANTs, aren’t required to disclose their holdings on a daily basis. This protects asset managers’ strategies from potential “front-runners” — traders or portfolio managers that try to anticipate their trades. By and large, the cost of these funds is lower than transparent ETFs, and also lower than actively managed mutual funds.

Mutual Funds vs Actively Managed ETFs

All mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are examples of pooled investment strategies, where the fund bundles together a portfolio of securities to offer investors greater diversification than they could achieve on their own. In addition to the potential benefits of diversification, which may mitigate some risk factors, the pooled fund concept also creates economies of scale which helps fund managers keep transaction costs low.

That said, the structure or wrapper of mutual funds vs. passive and active ETFs, is quite different.

Fund structure

Although a mutual fund invests directly in securities, ETFs do not. With both active and passive ETFs, the fund creates and redeems shares on an in-kind basis. So when investors buy and sell ETF shares, the portfolio manager gives or receives a basket of securities from an authorized participant, or third party, which generates the ETF shares.

By comparison, mutual fund shares are fixed. You can’t create more of them based on demand. But you can with an ETF, thanks to the “in-kind” creation and redemption of shares. This means that ETF fund flows don’t create the same trading costs that might impact long-term investors in a mutual fund. And fund outflows don’t require the portfolio manager to sell appreciated positions, and thus minimize capital gains distributions to shareholders.

Pricing

The price of mutual fund shares is calculated once a day, at the end of the day, and is based on a fund’s net asset value (NAV). Investors who place a trade must wait until the NAV is calculated because most standard open-end mutual funds can only be bought and sold at their NAV.

ETFs, by contrast, are traded like stocks throughout the day. And because of the way ETF shares are created and redeemed, the NAV can vary, creating a wider or tighter bid-ask spread, depending on volume.

Fees

The expense ratio of mutual funds includes management fees, operational expenses, and 12b-1 fees. These 12b-1 fees are a type of marketing and distribution fee that don’t apply to ETFs, which trade on stock exchanges.

Thus the expense ratio for most ETFs, including actively managed ETFs, can be lower than mutual funds.

Pros and Cons of Actively Managed ETFs

As with any investment vehicle, these funds have their pros and cons.

Pros

Potentially for higher returns

One advantage of an actively managed ETF is the potential for gains that could exceed market returns. While very few investment management teams beat the market, those who do tend to produce outsize gains over a short period.

Greater flexibility and liquidity

Active ETFs could also provide greater flexibility amid market turbulence. When world events rattle financial markets, passive investors can’t do much other than go along for the ride.

A fund with active managers might be able to adjust to changing market conditions, however. Portfolio managers could be able to rebalance investments according to current trends, reducing losses, or even profiting from panics and selloffs.

Like passive ETFs, active funds also trade throughout the day (as opposed to some mutual funds who only have their price adjusted once daily), allowing investors the opportunity to do things like short shares of the fund or buy them on margin.

Cons

Higher expense ratios

One disadvantage of investing in an actively managed ETF is the potentially higher expense ratio. Active funds, whether ETFs or mutual funds, tend to have higher expense ratios. The costs associated with paying a professional or entire team of professionals combined with the fees that result from additional buying/selling of investments typically adds up to higher costs over time.

Each purchase or sale might come with a brokerage fee, especially if the securities are foreign-based. These costs exceed those of passive funds, resulting in higher expense ratios.

Performance factors

While active ETFs aim to provide higher returns, most of them don’t. It’s a widely known fact in the investment world that the majority of actively managed funds (as well as most individual investors) do not outperform the market over the long term.

So, while an active ETF may have the potential for greater returns, the risk of lower returns, or even losses, can also be greater. The chances of choosing an active fund that fails to outperform its benchmark are greater than the odds of choosing one that succeeds.

Bid-ask spread

The bid-ask spread of ETFs can vary, and while it’s more beneficial to invest in an ETF with a tighter bid-ask spread, that depends on market factors and the liquidity and trading volume of the fund. To minimize costs, it’s wise for investors to be aware of the bid-ask spread.

Investing in Actively Managed ETFs

Once an investor opens an account at their chosen brokerage, they can begin buying shares or fractional shares of actively managed ETFs.

Historically, brokerages have required investors to buy a minimum of one share of any security, so the minimum investment will most often be the current price of one share of the ETF plus any commissions and fees (many brokerages eliminated fees for buying or selling shares of domestic stocks and ETFs in 2019).

Some brokerages like SoFi Invest® now offer fractional shares, which allow for investors to purchase quantities of stock smaller than one share. This option may appeal to those looking to get started investing with a small amount of money.

It’s important to note that many ETFs pay dividends, which are payouts from the stocks held in the fund. Investors can choose to have their dividends deposited directly into their accounts as cash or automatically reinvested through a dividend reinvestment program (DRIP).

Investors with a long-term plan in mind might do well to take advantage of a DRIP, as it allows for gains to grow exponentially. For those only looking for income, DRIP might defeat the purpose of holding securities that yield dividends, however.

The Takeaway

Like mutual funds, exchange-traded funds or ETFs are considered pooled investments and generally fall into two categories: actively managed and passively managed. Actively managed ETFs, a growing category in the ETF market, are overseen by a portfolio manager. By contrast, passive ETFs simply mirror the performance of a particular market index; they don’t aim to outperform it.

Although actively managed ETFs make up only about 2% of the ETF universe, owing to regulatory changes in recent years this category has been growing. In fact there are now two types of actively managed ETFs: transparent and non-transparent. These funds offer investors the potential upside of active management, with the lower cost, tax-efficiency, and accessibility associated with ETFs. If you’re curious about actively managed ETFs, you can explore these products by opening an account with SoFi Invest®.

Learn more about investing with SoFi.


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