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Cut-throat ETF price war is over, industry professionals say

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A cut-throat price war that has caused fees for mainstream exchange traded funds to sink to unprecedented lows may have now run its course, industry professionals believe.

Average expense ratios for passive equity ETFs have almost halved from 0.34 per cent to fell to just 0.18 per cent in the US during the past decade, according to the Investment Company Institute, a trade body. Index-tracking bond ETFs are cheaper still at 0.14 per cent, down from a peak of 0.26 per cent in 2013, while some equity funds managed by Fidelity Investments are now free.

This has tempered the profitability of ETF providers, even as global assets have risen fivefold to $7tn in the past decade according to data from ETFGI, a consultancy.

However, half of industry professionals, up from 38 per cent in 2018, believe fees for traditional index-tracking ETFs have reached the minimum price point possible, according to a survey by EY, the professional services firm.

Even most of those anticipating further declines only see fees for mainstream passive funds slipping by one or two more basis points.

Bar chart of Global ETF asset-weighted annual expense ratio (bp) showing Low as they can go?

“I think we are probably at the bottom at this stage,” said Kieran Daly, a partner in the wealth and asset management practice at EY. “The only way I can see fees fall further is if we have significantly more inflows,” allowing for greater economies of scale, he added.

Deborah Fuhr, founder of ETFGI, a consultancy, said $2.7tn of industry assets were now held in funds charging less than 10bp, and a further $1.85tn in those charging 10-20bp.

However, she said it was “hard to say” that fees for plain vanilla ETFs were now as low as they could get, because assets were continuing to rise and, in the US at least, fund managers were able to retain the revenues from securities lending, helping offset costs.

Amin Rajan, chief executive of consultancy Create-Research, said fee compression “still has some way to go, particularly as newcomers such as Invesco are trying to muscle in and the only way they can scale up their business is by having lower fee funds to compete with BlackRock and Vanguard,” the industry’s dominant forces.

However Mr Rajan believed the ETF industry was in the process of transitioning from one where rival managers compete on fees to a scenario where the chief selling point is the quality of engagement with investee companies.

In time this might not only lessen downward pressure on fees, but potentially even partially reverse it as the costs of greater environmental, social and governance (ESG) engagement need to be factored in.

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In contrast, 95 per cent of industry figures believe fees for actively managed and so-called “smart beta” ETFs, which are typically far higher, will fall further, the EY survey, based on the views of managers controlling 51 per cent of ETF assets, found.

More broadly, Mr Daly said the ETF industry had continued to power ahead this year despite the difficult backdrop: stripping out March, the peak of the coronavirus-driven market sell-off, inflows had matched last year’s record.

Industry assets would hit $10tn by 2025, he predicted, aided by a growth in self-directed retail investment that has been facilitated by a collapse in face-to-face meetings with financial advisers amid the pandemic.

 



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US regulators launch crackdown on Chinese listings

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US financial regulation updates

China-based companies will have to disclose more about their structure and contacts with the Chinese government before listing in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday.

Gary Gensler, the chair of the US corporate and markets regulator, has asked staff to ensure greater transparency from Chinese companies following the controversy surrounding the public offering by the Chinese ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

“I have asked staff to seek certain disclosures from offshore issuers associated with China-based operating companies before their registration statements will be declared effective,” Gensler said in a statement.

He added: “I believe these changes will enhance the overall quality of disclosure in registration statements of offshore issuers that have affiliations with China-based operating companies.”

The SEC’s new rules were triggered by Beijing’s announcement earlier this month that it would tighten restrictions on overseas listings, including stricter rules on what happens to the data held by those companies.

The Chinese internet regulator specifically accused Didi, which had raised $4bn with a New York flotation just days earlier, of violating personal data laws, and ordered for its app to be removed from the Chinese app store.

Beijing’s crackdown spooked US investors, sending the company’s shares tumbling almost 50 per cent in recent weeks. They have rallied slightly in the past week, however, jumping 15 per cent in the past two days based on reports that the company is considering going private again just weeks after listing.

The controversy has prompted questions over whether Didi had told investors enough either about the regulatory risks it faced in China, and specifically about its frequent contacts with Chinese regulators in the run-up to the New York offering.

Several US law firms have now filed class action lawsuits against the company on behalf of shareholders, while two members of the Senate banking committee have called for the SEC to investigate the company.

The SEC has not said whether it is undertaking an investigation or intends to do so. However, its new rules unveiled on Friday would require companies to be clearer about the way in which their offerings are structured. Many China-based companies, including Didi, avoid Chinese restrictions on foreign listings by selling their shares via an offshore shell company.

Gensler said on Friday such companies should clearly distinguish what the shell company does from what the China-based operating company does, as well as the exact financial relationship between the two.

“I worry that average investors may not realise that they hold stock in a shell company rather than a China-based operating company,” he said.

He added that companies should say whether they had received or were denied permission from Chinese authorities to list in the US, including whether any initial approval had then be rescinded.

And they will also have to spell out that they could be delisted if they do not allow the US Public Companies Accounting Oversight Board to inspect their accountants three years after listing.



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Wall Street stocks climb as traders look past weak growth data

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Equities updates

Stocks on Wall Street rose on Thursday despite weaker than expected US growth data that cemented expectations that the Federal Reserve would maintain its pandemic-era stimulus that has supported financial markets for a year and a half.

The moves followed data showing US gross domestic product grew at an annualised rate of 6.5 per cent in the second quarter, missing the 8.5 per cent rise expected by economists polled by Reuters.

The S&P 500, the blue-chip US share index, closed 0.4 per cent higher after hitting a high on Monday. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite index climbed 0.1 per cent, rebounding slightly after notching its worst day in two and a half months earlier in the week.

The dollar index, which measures the US currency against those of peers, fell 0.4 per cent to its weakest level since late June after the GDP numbers.

“Sentiment about the economy has become less optimistic, but that is good for equities, strangely enough,” said Nadège Dufossé, head of cross-asset strategy at fund manager Candriam. “It makes central banks less likely to withdraw support.”

Jay Powell, the Fed chair, said on Wednesday that despite “progress” towards the bank’s goals of full employment and 2 per cent average inflation, there was more “ground to cover” ahead of any tapering of its vast bond-buying programme.

“Last night’s [announcement] was pretty unambiguously hawkish,” said Blake Gwinn, rates strategist at RBC, adding that Powell’s upbeat tone on labour market figures signalled that the Fed could begin tapering its $120bn a month of debt purchases as early as the end of this year.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond, which moves inversely to its price, traded flat at 1.26 per cent.

Line chart of Stoxx Europe 600 index showing European stocks close at another record high

Looking beyond the headline GDP number, some analysts said the health of the US economy was stronger than it first appeared.

Growth numbers below the surface showed that consumer spending had surged, “while the negatives in the report were from inventory drawdown, presumably from supply shortages”, said Matt Peron, director of research and portfolio manager at Janus Henderson Investors.

“This implies that the economy, and hence earnings which have also been very strong so far for Q2, will continue for some time,” he added. “The economy is back above pre-pandemic levels, and earnings are sure to follow, which should continue to support equity prices.”

Those upbeat earnings helped propel European stocks to another high on Thursday, with results from Switzerland-based chipmaker STMicroelectronics and the French manufacturer Société Bic helping lift bourses.

The region-wide Stoxx Europe 600 benchmark closed up 0.5 per cent to a new record, while London’s FTSE 100 gained 0.9 per cent and Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax ended the session 0.5 per cent higher.

In Asia, market sentiment was also boosted by a move from Chinese officials to soothe nerves over regulatory clampdowns on the nation’s tech and education sectors.

Beijing officials held a call with global investors, Wall Street banks and Chinese financial groups on Wednesday night in an attempt to calm nerves, as fears spread of a more far-reaching clampdown. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 3.3 per cent on Thursday, although it was still down more than 8 per cent so far this month. The CSI 300 index of mainland Chinese stocks rose 1.9 per cent.

Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, gained 1.4 per cent to $76.09 a barrel.



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Man Group posts tenfold gain in performance fees

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Man Group PLC updates

Man Group, the world’s largest listed hedge fund manager, reported first-half performance fees 10 times higher than a year ago, in the latest sign of the industry’s robust rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

Strong commodity and equity markets helped take performance fees at the London-based company to $284m in the six months to June, up from $29m a year before when March’s huge market falls hit many fund returns, and the highest level since at least 2015. Performance fee profits were 50 per cent above broker consensus forecasts.

Man also posted $600m of net client inflows in the three months to June, its fourth consecutive quarter of inflows, although the figure was lower than analysts had expected. However, $6bn of investment gains in the second quarter helped lift assets under management to a record high of $135.3bn.

Column chart of Half-yearly performance fees ($) showing Man Group cashes in on market rebound

Man’s results highlight how strongly the $4tn hedge fund industry has bounced back after a turbulent 18 months for markets, including a huge sell-off last spring, as well as sharp market rotations and retail investor-driven rallies in meme stocks that some funds were betting against.

Last year, hedge funds, which have long been criticised for mediocre returns and high fees, made 11.8 per cent on average, according to data group HFR, their best calendar year of gains since 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis.

Investors have taken notice. After three years of net outflows, the industry has posted $18.4bn of inflows in the first half of this year.

Chief financial officer Mark Jones said the hedge fund industry was now benefiting from a tailwind after strong gains last year. “You saw hedge funds deliver exactly what clients wanted,” he told the Financial Times.

“Clients need new sources of return,” he added. They “are trying to reduce their bond exposure, and most have as much equity exposure as they can stomach”.

This year Man has made strong gains at its computer-driven unit Man AHL, named after 1980s founders Mike Adam, David Harding and Martin Lueck, which tracks trends and other patterns in markets.

Its $4.6bn AHL Evolution fund, which bets on trends in close to 800 niche markets, has gained 10.2 per cent so far this year and contributed $129m of the performance fees in the first half. The fund is shut to new money but Jones said that late last year it opened briefly to new investment, raising $1bn in a week.

Man’s first-half profits before tax came in at $323m, well above analysts’ forecasts. The company also said it would buy back a further $100m of shares in addition to the $100m announced last September. Broker Shore Capital said the company had posted “blowout” figures.

Man’s shares rose 2.4 per cent to 196 pence, their highest level in three years.

Last month, Man announced that chief investment officer and industry veteran Sandy Rattray would leave the company. Meanwhile, Jones is set to step down from the board and take on the role of deputy chief executive, overseeing the computer-driven AHL and Numeric units.

laurence.fletcher@ft.com



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