Active vs. Passive ETF Investing: What's the Difference? (2024)

Active vs. Passive ETF Investing: An Overview

Traditional exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are available in hundreds of varieties, tracking nearly every index you can imagine. ETFsoffer all of the benefits associated with index mutual funds, including low turnover, low cost, and broad diversification, plus their expense ratios are significantly lower.

While passive investing is a popular strategy among ETF investors, it isn't the only strategy. Here we explore and compare ETF investment strategies to provide additional insight into how investors are using these innovative instruments.

Key Takeaways

  • ETFs have grown in popularity greatly over the past decade, allowing investors low-cost access to diversified holdings across several indices, sectors, and asset classes.
  • Passive ETFs tend to follow buy-and-hold indexing strategies that track a particular benchmark.
  • Active ETFs utilize one of several investment strategies to outperform a benchmark. Passively holding an Active ETF indeed provides active management.
  • Passive ETFs tend to be lower-cost and more transparent than active ETFs, but also do not provide any room for alpha.

Passive Investing

ETFs were originally constructed to provide investors with a single security that would track an index and while trading intraday. Intraday trading enables investors to buy and sell, in essence, all of the securities that make up an entire market (such as the S&P 500 or the Nasdaq) with a single trade. ETFs thereby providethe flexibility to get into or out of a position at any time throughout the day, unlike mutual funds, which trade only once per day.

While the intraday trading capability is certainly a boon to active traders, it is merely a convenience for investors who prefer to buy and hold, which is still a valid and popular strategy - especially if we keep in mind that mostactively managedfunds fail to beat their benchmarks or passive counterparts, especially over longer time horizons, according toMorningstar.ETFs provide a convenient and low-cost way to implement indexing or passive management.

Active Investing

Despite indexing's track record, many investors aren't content to settle for so-called average returns. Even though they know that a minority of actively managed funds beat the market, they're willing to try anyhow. ETFs provide the perfect tool.

By allowing intraday trading, ETFs give these traders an opportunity to track the direction of the market and trade accordingly. Although still trading an index like a passive investor, these active traders can take advantage of short-term movements. If the S&P 500 races upward when the markets open, active traders can lock in the profits immediately.

And so, all of the active trading strategies that can be used with traditional stocks can also be used with ETFs, such asmarket timing, sector rotation, short selling, and buying on margin.

Actively Managed ETFs

While ETFs are structured to track an index, they could just as easily be designed to track a popular investment manager's top pick, mirror any existing mutual fund, or pursue a particular investment objective. Aside from how they are traded, these ETFs can provide investors/traders with an investment that aims to deliver above-average returns.

Actively managed ETFs have the potential to benefit mutual fund investors and fund managers as well. If an ETF is designed to mirror a particular mutual fund, the intraday trading capability will encourage frequent traders to use the ETF instead of the fund, which will reduce cash flow in and out of the mutual fund, making the portfolio easier to manage and more cost-effective, enhancing the mutual fund's value for its investors.

Transparency and Arbitrage

Actively managed ETFs are not as widely available because there is a technical challenge in creating them. The major issues confronting money managers all involve a trading complication, more specifically a complication in the role of arbitrage for ETFs. Because ETFs trade on a stock exchange, there is the potential for price disparities to develop between the trading price of the ETF shares and the trading price of the underlying securities. This creates the opportunity for arbitrage.

If an ETF is trading at a value lower than the value of the underlying shares, investors can profit from that discount by buying shares of the ETF and then cashing them in for in-kind distributions of shares of the underlying stock. If the ETF is trading at a premium to the value of the underlying shares, investors can short the ETF and purchase shares of stock on the open market to cover the position.

With index ETFs, arbitrage keeps the price of the ETF close to the value of the underlying shares. This works because everyone knows the holdings in a given index. The index ETF has nothing to fear by disclosing their holdings, and price parity serve everyone's best interests.

The situation would be a bit different for an actively managed ETF, whose money manager would get paid for stock selection. Ideally, those selections are to help investors outperform their ETF benchmark index.

If the ETF disclosed its holdings frequently enough so that arbitrage could take place, there'd be no reason to buy the ETF - smart investors would simply let the fund manager do all of the research and then wait for the disclosure of their best ideas. The investors would then buy the underlying securities and avoid paying the fund's management expenses. Therefore, such a scenario provides no incentive for money managers to create actively managed ETFs.

However, some investment firms have developed actively managed ETFs that disclose their holdings to institutional investors on a daily basis, often with a delay such as two days. But the information isn't shared with the general public until it is one month old. This arrangement gives institutional traders the opportunity to arbitrage the fund but provides stale information to the general public.

In the United States, active ETFs have been approved, but are required to be transparent about their daily holdings. The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) denied non-transparent active ETFs in 2015 but iscurrently evaluating different periodically disclosed active ETF models. The SEC has also approved opening stock trading without price disclosures on volatile days concerning ETFs to prevent the record intraday drop that occurred in August 2015, when ETFsprices dipped because securities' trading halted while ETF trading continued.

Passive ETFs will often have lower management fees compared to actively managed ETFs.

Portfolio Management Fees

Active ETFs tend to have higher management expenses compared to passive ETFs. As discussed earlier, this is because the fund is accumulated and overseen by a portfolio manager who is making active investment decisions in an attempt to outperform the benchmark index. The fees for active ETFs typically cover the costs associated with research, trading, security selection, and ongoing management of the portfolio.

Passive ETFs are known for their cost-efficiency, and they generally have lower management fees. The primary objective of passive ETFs is to replicate the performance of a specific benchmark index or asset class without requiring active decision-making.

Though there is no active manager trying to beat a benchmark, there is also often less of an administrative fee to do so. This is because most passive ETFs rely on a rules-based approach that doesn't involve the ongoing costs associated with active research or security selection.

Performance Expectations

Investors in active ETFs have performance expectations that are tied to the skills and expertise of the portfolio managers. The fundamental premise of active management is to generate alpha, which represents returns above and beyond the benchmark index. These managers seek to identify undervalued or overvalued assets, make strategic asset allocations, and time the market to capitalize on opportunities and mitigate risks. In many ways, active ETFs create greater opportunities to deviate from standard market returns (whether for the good or for the bad).

In contrast, passive ETFs have a very different set of performance expectations. These funds are designed to closely match the returns of a specific benchmark index. The primary objective of passive management is to replicate the performance of the index, allowing investors to participate in the overall market or a specific asset class and seek the investment option that is convenient and low cost. Investors in passive ETFs can expect returns that closely mirror the returns of the chosen benchmark without the performance expectation of beating that index.

It's important to call out that passive ETFs aim to minimize tracking error, the deviation between the ETF's returns and the benchmark index's returns. Therefore, the basis of evaluating a passive ETFs performance may not necessarily be the annual return it yields but how closely it mirrored the index it is trying to mimic.

What Types of Assets or Indexes Do Passive ETFs Typically Track?

Passive ETFs can track a wide variety of assets and indexes, including equity indices (e.g., S&P 500, NASDAQ), fixed-income indices (e.g., Barclays Aggregate Bond Index), commodity indices (e.g., gold, oil), and more. This flexibility allows investors to gain exposure to specific markets or asset classes without needing to invest in that specific asset directly.

What Are the Risks Associated With Investing in Passive ETFs?

There are several types of risk worth noting in passive ETFs. Market risk refers to the risk that the underlying benchmark index performs poorly, which can impact the returns of the ETF. Tracking risk is the risk that the ETF's returns deviate from the index's returns due to factors like expenses, trading costs, and tracking error. Liquidity risk is the situation where it is difficult to find a buyer in an active marketplace wanting to buy your shares or seller wanting to sell their shares.

What Are the Potential Drawbacks or Challenges Associated With Active ETFs?

Active ETFs are often more expensive to hold, as the costs associated with active research, trading, and decision-making can result in higher expenses. Additionally, the active management approach means that investors are reliant on the expertise of portfolio managers, and there's no guarantee of outperformance. Some active ETFs may underperform or incur losses when passive benchmarking EFTs may still incur a gain.

How Do Active ETFs Select and Manage Their Investment Portfolios?

Active ETFs employ professional portfolio managers who actively make investment decisions within the fund. These managers use their expertise, research, and market insights to select securities, allocate assets, and adjust the portfolio based on market conditions and their investment strategy. These professionals dedicate their jobs and careers to gaining insight into financial markets and the economy to try and be armed with the best information possible to recommend investment decisions.

The Bottom Line

Active and passive management are both legitimate and frequently used investment strategies among ETF investors. While actively managed ETFs run by professional money managers are still scarce, you can bet that innovative money management firms are working diligently to overcome the challenges of making this product available worldwide.

As a seasoned expert in the field of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), I've closely followed the evolution and trends in this investment landscape. My knowledge is not just theoretical but is grounded in practical experience and a deep understanding of the concepts discussed in the article titled "Active vs. Passive ETF Investing: An Overview."

The article delves into the distinctions between active and passive ETF investing, exploring the strategies, benefits, and challenges associated with each. Here's a breakdown of the key concepts covered:

  1. Passive ETF Investing:

    • Overview: Passive ETFs aim to replicate the performance of a specific benchmark index. They follow buy-and-hold indexing strategies with low turnover, low costs, and broad diversification.
    • Benefits: Lower expenses, transparency, and the ability for intraday trading make passive ETFs an attractive choice for investors seeking a cost-efficient way to gain exposure to various indices, sectors, and asset classes.
    • Portfolio Management Fees: Passive ETFs generally have lower management fees compared to actively managed ETFs, as they don't involve active decision-making or ongoing research costs.
  2. Active ETF Investing:

    • Overview: Active ETFs utilize various investment strategies to outperform a benchmark. Despite the popularity of passive investing, some investors prefer actively managed ETFs for the potential of above-average returns.
    • Benefits: Active ETFs offer flexibility for market timing, sector rotation, short selling, and buying on margin. They have the potential to deliver alpha, representing returns above the benchmark index.
    • Challenges: Actively managed ETFs tend to have higher management expenses due to costs associated with research, trading, and security selection.
  3. Transparency and Arbitrage:

    • Actively managed ETFs face challenges in terms of transparency. Disclosing holdings frequently may lead to investors bypassing the ETF and directly buying underlying securities. Some actively managed ETFs disclose holdings to institutional investors with a delay before public disclosure.
  4. Performance Expectations:

    • Active ETFs aim to generate alpha by identifying undervalued or overvalued assets, making strategic asset allocations, and timing the market.
    • Passive ETFs aim to closely match the returns of a specific benchmark index, minimizing tracking error. Performance is evaluated based on how well the ETF mirrors the chosen index.
  5. Types of Assets Tracked by Passive ETFs:

    • Passive ETFs can track various assets and indexes, including equity indices (e.g., S&P 500, NASDAQ), fixed-income indices (e.g., Barclays Aggregate Bond Index), and commodity indices (e.g., gold, oil).
  6. Risks and Drawbacks:

    • Passive ETFs carry risks such as market risk, tracking risk, and liquidity risk. Active ETFs may be more expensive, and there's no guarantee of outperformance.

In conclusion, the article provides a comprehensive overview of the dynamic landscape of ETF investing, highlighting the choices investors have between passive and active strategies. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the nuances, risks, and potential returns associated with each approach.

Active vs. Passive ETF Investing: What's the Difference? (2024)
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