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ETFs: Passing Marks for Liquidity, but What About Performance?

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Proponents of credit exchange traded funds (ETFs) claim the last week of market turmoil was a test for these instruments—and that they passed. We think this takes grading on a curve to a new level.

The cheerleaders say ETFs succeeded because they traded regularly after a high-yield mutual fund failed and barred investor withdrawals. Here’s what they’re not telling you: in exchange for this liquidity, investors ended up with instruments that have woefully underperformed active mutual funds—recently and over many years.

For long-term investors who are saving to pay for college or retirement, that’s an awfully steep price to pay for something they don’t really need.

The numbers speak for themselves: Over the first 11 months of this year, the two largest ETFs—HYG and JNK—have sharply underperformed the average active manager, not to mention their own benchmarks. They’ve also trailed the average active manager so far in the fourth quarter (Display) and since the start of December, one of the year’s most volatile months so far.

ETFs’ longer-term performance falls short, too. In fact, not only have active managers outpaced ETFs over the long run, they’ve done it with lower volatility, as measured by risk-adjusted returns. The Sharpe ratio, which measures return per unit of risk, was 0.45 for JNK and 0.51 for HYG between February 2008, shortly after they began trading, and November of this year. For the top 20% of active high-yield managers, it was 0.71.

How Much Liquidity Is Enough?

Is the ability to get in or out of an ETF at any point in the day worth the underperformance? For asset managers and traders who need to trade frequently to hedge positions, maybe. After all, they’re not investing in these instruments as long-term income generators.

But a large share of the people who own high-yield ETFs aren’t traders. They’re regular folks saving for college, or to buy a new home, or for retirement. In other words, they’re investors, not traders. Most probably aren’t doing any intraday trading at all. If they’re buying ETFs for the liquidity, they’re paying—dearly—for something they don’t need.

In our view, an actively managed mutual fund is likely to offer higher potential returns over the long run—and give investors a better chance of meeting their goals. In fact, the data suggest that investors who want long-term exposure to high yield would do better to pick an active manager out of a hat than invest in an ETF.

With Mutual Funds, Diversification Is Key

All well and good, some investors are no doubt thinking. But what happens when mutual funds fail? That’s a fair question. Liquidity is important for everyone, as the failure of Third Avenue Management’s Focused Credit Fund illustrates. But it’s important to remember that this mutual fund was not a typical high-yield fund. It focused almost exclusively on risky distressed debt issued by highly leveraged companies.

These types of assets are relatively illiquid, and that became a problem when large number of investors wanted to sell their shares. In other words, investors were promised “daily liquidity”—the ability to buy or sell shares in the mutual fund at the end of each trading day—but the assets the mutual fund owned could not be bought or sold on a daily basis. These types of strategies are bound to fail eventually.

Most high-yield managers follow more diversified strategies that focus on a wide array of higher-quality assets. Of course, investors should still make sure their investment managers have a dynamic, multi-sector approach and aremanaging their liquidity risk effectively. Those who do a good job will be in position to meet redemptions during downturns and seize opportunities as they arise. That’s something Third Avenue couldn’t do. High-yield ETFs can’t do it, either.

The recent turbulence in the high-yield market probably isn’t over. But we don’t think that should concern long-term investors too much. In our view, the best approach at this point is probably to ride out the storm. The intraday liquidity ETFs offer comes at a high price—and if you’re a long-term investor in high yield, you shouldn’t be paying it.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.

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