Know your ETFs
So far so vanilla. Now lets look at how, as the ETF market has grown, the clever boys and girls of finance have found ‘innovative’ ways of pumping those ETFs up a bit, just like they did to Securities.
Use of Derivatives in ‘Synthetic’ ETFs
The main innovation in ETFs has been the creation of what are called ‘synthetic’ ETFs which instead of actually buying or even borrowing a basket of shares, use derivatives to track the value of the underlying market without the need to match its composition. Instead the Synthetic ETF enters into an asset swap agreement with a counterparty using an over-the-counter (OTC) Derivative. Before explaining what the heck that means let’s just look at how quickly the Synthetic market has grown.
Synthetic ETFs have grown very rapidly in Europe and in Asia. In Europe Synthetic ETFs are now 45% of the over all ETF market. Synthetics doubled their market share between 08 and 09.
The key to Synthetics is the Counterparty. What happens is the ETF Sponsor designs the deal, the AP (Apporved Participant. Usually one of the big banks or brokers) buys the basket of assets to make it, but then swaps that basket with the Counterparty for a different basket of assets in a derivative swap deal. However it turns out that rather too often for comfort, not only will the Sponsor and the AP be the same bank, but more often than not it will be the Asset Management branch of the same bank who will be the Swap Counter-party as well. It is quite common for the same bank to play all three roles. So a single bank creates the ETF, appoints itself as AP so it can fund it and then its Asset Management desk becomes the derivative counterparty in order to mutate the whole thing into a synthetic ETF. Think about what this does to the risk. What was market risk, where the risk was spread out across all the different shares, is now a single counterparty risk. The bank has effectively put all the ETF’s risk in one basket – itself.
But even if it is a different bank acting as the derivative counterparty the situation is only very slightly less incestuous because it is nearly always the case that the Sponsor, AP and Counter-party will all be from the same small group of big banks, brokers and Asset Managers. And it is also a statistical fact that all of them will be counterparties with each other many, many times over, via the over $1.2 Quadrillion of other repo, rehypothecation and derivative deals. This, as theFinancial Stability Board’s report on instabilities in the ETF market rather laconically puts it,
…may also generate new types of risks, linked to the complexity and relative opacity of the newest breed of ETFs. The impact of such innovations on market liquidity and on financial institutions servicing the management of the fund is not yet fully understood by market participants, especially during episodes of acute market stress.
Full must read article here.