Fixed Income ETFs Fact vs Fiction

Fixed Income ETFs Fact vs Fiction

  • Fixed income ETFs only account for 1.5% of the total investable fixed income universe globally1.  It is a young market, but has seen robust growth in more recent years. 
  • Adopted long after their equity-based counterparts, there remain a number of myths around the liquidity, risk levels and trading challenges of these funds. We seek to shatter these myths and explain the fixed income ETF structure. 

The fixed income exchange traded fund (ETF) market is still relatively young. Only 10 years ago, assets under management in fixed income ETFs represented US$48 billion and circa 1.9% of the global fixed income fund industry, according to Morningstar. Today, the market has grown to a significant 10.2% share of the global fund market with US$800 billion in assets2.

  1. Fiction #1: The fixed income ETF market has become so large it distorts the bond market

Despite their rapid growth, fixed income ETFs still only represent 1.5% of the total investable fixed income universe globally.1 Flows have been strong but they have not occurred solely at the expense of other types of existing investment vehicles - they have grown the overall market. 

Because these instruments still represent a relatively small portion of sub-asset classes within the fixed income market, their impact on market prices is limited.  



Fiction #2: Fixed income ETFs are not sufficiently liquid, and investors can run into trouble when many try to redeem at the same time

The unique structure of a fixed income ETF — which packages a diversified portfolio of bonds into a single, tradeable equity — provides two sources of liquidity for investors. These two sources, ‘primary’, which can be accessed via an authorised participant and ‘secondary’, which can be accessed directly, define a fund’s overall liquidity profile.

Fiction #3: When using a fixed income ETF, the investor is overweight the most indebted — and therefore the riskiest — companies

Large issuers of debt are companies with substantial asset bases and revenue profiles. This provides the ability to pay and service the debt on the firm’s balance sheet. Focusing only on the amount of debt an issuer has in an index overlooks a few key variables. 

Indices are rules based, focusing on diversification and liquidity for ensuring investability. As a result, not all of an issuer’s debt is included in an index, which paints an incomplete picture of the firm’s overall indebtedness. For instance, an issuer can have short term liabilities that do not qualify it for inclusion in an index, or debt financing secured in subordinated form, or financing denominated in a different currency

Additionally, an ETF's index construction inherently provides diversification benefits and often employs constituent capping to mitigate concentration risks.

Fiction #4: Fixed income ETFs underperform active managers when markets are volatile

We analysed five significant market events over the last 20 years, including the Global Financial Crisis, which represented periods of volatility or turbulence in the bond markets. The analysis focused on the performance of active managers within the Bloomberg Barclays Euro Aggregate Bond Total Return Index. 

Our findings revealed that index-based fixed income exposures would actually have outperformed, on average, 77% of active managers.3 

Fiction #5: Fixed income ETFs are only useful for the largest, most straightforward bond exposures, while for niche areas, active managers provide a better return

In the past, investors believed an active approach served as the best way to invest in niche areas such as emerging market debt. That belief has been based on a few assumptions, for example that indexed exposure is too expensive to be effectively implemented in emerging markets, and that emerging markets are inefficient – hence active managers are needed to identify and extract value. 

The reality is different. Emerging market debt (EMD) now offers much greater liquidity and diversity, and our analysis suggests the majority of active managers fail to outperform their benchmarks over the longer term. 

While active managers have struggled to consistently deliver excess returns, indexed strategies have evolved and now possess sophisticated techniques capable of delivering the return of the benchmark in a cost-efficient4 manner. Further, an ETF’s diversification can help to mitigate political and sentiment driven events, which are difficult to predict.

Fiction #6: Index investing doesn’t work for bonds because there are too many bonds to index efficiently

Given the sheer number of bonds, it is generally not possible to hold every single one in an index. For example, the Bloomberg Barclays Euro Aggregate Index contains 5,026 different bonds.5 

But an index investment manager’s objective is not to hold every bond in the index – it is to seek to track an index’s return with minimal tracking error. This means replicating the duration, curve, and issuer credit exposure of the index in a smaller sample.

Fiction #7: Many investors are not set up to trade fixed income ETFs — the process is difficult, and understanding ETF pricing and liquidity is challenging

Investors seeking to trade fixed income ETFs have straightforward ways to access fixed income ETFs: via an exchange or via over-the-counter (OTC). When considering which one to select, investors should primarily consider their trade size. As with single stock equities, larger trade sizes exceeding average daily volume should be handled with greater care and investors should work with a broker dealer or market maker OTC.

Fixed Income: A Way to Defend Your Portfolio

Fixed income has the ability to play numerous important roles in a portfolio. For many investors, the role of fixed income is to dampen overall risk, which means a fixed income allocation acts as ballast during times of heightened market volatility. 

Fixed income also allows for capital preservation and provides a predictable income. Whilst cash offers capital protection as well, returns may be lower, and in periods of inflation it could erode in value. 


1 Market Size Data: SIFMA (as of Q4 2018; US IG Corporate Bonds, US Government Bonds, US Municipal Bonds), Bloomberg (as of December 31, 2018; US High Yield Corporate Bonds, US IG FRNs, EM Bonds, US MBS), The Loan Syndications & Trading Association (as of December 31, 2018; US Senior Loans), ETF AUM: Bloomberg Finance, L.P., (as of 12/31/2018). Average Daily Volume (3M ADV) Bond Trading: Bloomberg Finance, L.P. (as of December 2018), EMTA (as of Q1 2018; EM Bonds), SIFMA (as of December 2018; US Government Bonds, US Municipal Bonds, US MBS); BondCliq (US IG FRNs, as of December 2018). Average Daily Volume (3M ADV) ETF Trading: Bloomberg Finance, L.P. (as of December 2018).

2 As at 30 June 2018.

3 Source: Morningstar Direct as of 31 January 2019. Past performance is not a guarantee
of future results.

4 Frequent trading of ETFs could significantly increase commissions and other costs such that they may offset any savings from low fees or costs.

5 Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 28 February 2019. The above diagram is for illustrative purposes only.