Using ETFs for Efficient Transition Management

When institutional asset owners, e.g., pensions, endowments and foundations, transition from external managers, more are choosing fixed income exchange traded funds (ETFs) to implement their allocation decisions internally. We are also witnessing a growing use of fixed income ETFs to aid in the transition management process.

US-listed fixed income ETFs have seen their assets double since 2015 to over $1 trillion today.1 And while specific ETF holdings data on institutional asset owners remains limited — despite several US pensions recently providing public filings of fixed income ETFs — we estimate that US pensions held over $5 billion of taxable fixed income ETFs at the end Q1 2020.2 “Pensions are increasingly looking to use credit ETFs and portfolio trading to achieve diversified exposure to credit,” says William Wolcott, Managing Director of Credit Trading at Goldman Sachs.

Rob Melton, Head of SPDR ETF Business Development – US Pensions, Endowments & Foundations, notes that the extreme market volatility in March–April 2020 only accelerated that trend. “With more investors getting comfortable using ETFs as an essential portfolio management tool, we’ll continue to see ETFs used in more innovative ways,” he says.

Why ETFs?

Based on their unique structural features, ETFs can help facilitate transition management – defined as the transfer of assets in a separately managed account (SMA) from an existing (terminated) manager to either internal management or to another external manager.

Many of the innovative uses leverage ETFs’ benefits – low cost, high liquidity and improved transparency – that stem from their creation and redemption process. Differentiating the ETF relative to other investment vehicles, “in-kind” creation and redemption is a process whereby ETF shares are exchanged for some or all of the fund’s underlying basket of securities. It was designed to allow designated authorized participants (APs), which are US-registered self-clearing broker-dealers, to engage directly with ETF managers. Working on behalf of institutional investors, APs can exchange bonds with an ETF issuer directly, whereas buy-side firms cannot.

“Creation/redemption can be thought of as the backbone that allows APs and other market makers to provide liquidity in an ETF,” explains Melton. “The process also facilitates their ability to maintain a close linkage between the price of the ETF trading in the secondary market and the NAV of the fund, which is calculated based on the prices of underlying constituents.”

Fixed Income ETFs and Transition Management

Increasingly recognized as offering fungibility with cash bonds, using fixed income ETFs for transition management enables investors to:

  1. Maintain a Continuous Exposure to the Benchmark Index: The process to liquidate individual bonds in order to purchase a more liquid macro instrument can introduce potential market risk and tracking error.
  2. Transaction Cost Savings: Bid-ask spreads for institutional-size ETF trades have historically been significantly lower than indicated spreads for underlying fixed income securities.3
  3. Improve the Strategy’s Liquidity Profile: ETF trading on exchange provides a consolidated venue of observable liquidity. ETFs’ robust secondary market allows investors to tap into market liquidity more easily than they can with single-CUSIP bond holdings. 
  4. Increase Efficiency: ETFs provide operational ease by consolidating many line items to one to facilitate trading relative to buying individual bonds in the OTC market.

Illustrative Transition Management Case Study

Client Need: Pension A decides to internalize management of an intermediate investment-grade corporate bond portfolio that is currently being handled by an external manager.

Hurdle to Overcome: Transitioning from an external manager can take time and leave the pension without market exposure to the specified benchmark during the transition phase.

Prior to the widespread implementation of ETFs, liquidating a sleeve of individual bonds to purchase a more liquid macro instrument was an onerous task, requiring multiple, sometimes staggered, steps: selling the bonds and then purchasing the macro exposure like a credit default swap (CDX) or a total return swap (TRS). These two separate transactions would require investors to:

  • Sell bonds on the bid side of the market (for which they had paid the offer side), thereby realizing bid-ask costs of ~20-30 bps
  • Buy macro exposure, paying the offer side, for a position likely to be marked on the bid side, which may cost another 5-15 bps

Note, there is potential for market risk should the two transactions not be aligned, timed, or linked with the same broker.

Solution: Pension A chooses to implement the transition through an investment-grade ETF in order to maintain market exposure and reduce the cost of the transition.

The versatility and unique ability to exchange shares for bonds and vice versa introduces a variety of new use cases for the ETF. Given the dealer-controlled nature of corporate bond trading, the buy-side is beholden to a more fragmented market when transacting in bonds.

Pre-trade Considerations: While an ETF can enhance a bond portfolio’s overall liquidity profile, managers should consider the following questions:

  • Is there an ETF that matches my portfolio from an exposure perspective?
  • Are my holdings too concentrated in sector, maturity, ratings and ticker cohorts?
  • Can my order management system (OMS), portfolio management, and risk systems handle an equity wrapper in a fixed income portfolio?
  • If I choose to sell the ETF, am I set up for equity trading capabilities and relationships?
  • Am I set up to lend out my ETF to earn additional income?
  • Am I able to book a large amount of bond tickets within the time frame required?

Note: If the answer is “No” to any of these questions, the SPDR Capital Markets desk can propose easy-to-implement solutions.

Implementation: We can use a portfolio of 1–10-year USD Investment Grade Corporates, along with a comparable fund, the SPDR Portfolio Intermediate Term Corporate Bond ETF (SPIB), which seeks to track the Bloomberg Barclays Intermediate Corporate Index.

Given that ETFs may be viewed as being fungible with eligible underlying bonds, converting a portion of a bond portfolio to an ETF involves significantly lower transaction costs.

Counterparties: Use of fixed income ETFs for the purposes of transition management requires an AP to work on behalf of an investor. Sitting between the outside manager and Pension A, the AP (the only counterparty that is legally able to create/redeem ETFs) takes these steps, working alongside the ETF issuer:

1. On the trade date, the basket of securities will be sold by the external manager to the AP.

a. This step may require negotiation between the two parties, based on the fit of the underlying basket relative to the benchmark index of the ETF.

b. If the basket that the investor wants to deliver is not fully compatible or representative of the index, the AP can offer to supplement or complete the list of securities (known as a “completion trade”). The AP will fill in any gaps by sourcing the necessary bonds (either from their own inventory or other avenues) and charge the external manager accordingly for this incremental work, as well as for inherent transaction costs. This process helps to align the underlying baskets that will be used for delivery to the ETF issuer with the ETF exposures.

2. The AP performs an “in-kind” creation with the ETF issuer, delivering underlying bonds as well as a small cash portion (plug) and receiving shares of the ETF on the settlement date (T+2).

 a. The transactions are executed using the Net Asset Value (NAV) (typically bid-side pricing) of the underlying bonds and using the official NAV of the ETF.

 b. The number of bonds delivered to the ETF issuer is typically a smaller subset of the underlying index. This number varies depending on the size of the overall transaction as well as the composition of the basket and the risk exposures of the fund.

3. Upon receipt of the ETF, the AP will deliver shares of the ETF to Pension A in exchange for cash.

The method in which commissions are charged for the transaction may vary slightly amongst the AP community, but it will typically be reflected in slight adjustments of the bond prices or ETF price.

Figure 2 highlights the Net Asset Value (NAV) calculation from the AP to the ETF issuer for a targeted amount of $100 million notional. For the sake of simplicity, this example uses 10 eligible bonds held in the SPDR Portfolio Intermediate Term Corporate Bond ETF (SPIB). However, an actual transaction would typically require a larger minimum number of bonds (i.e., 50-100 securities).

Figure 2: Trade/Basketing Example



Market Value of Create




1 Unit


Create Size (rounded)

27 units





NAV Price


Accrued Interest (t+2)

Total Market Value

CVS 4.3 03/25/28




 $ 7,848

 $ 15,568,140

TMUS 3 7/8 04/15/30



 $ 6,032,040

 $ 2,543

 $ 6,034,538

BAC 3.149 12/20/28




 $ 5,793

 $ 29,703,813

AAPL 2.4 05/03/23



 $ 11,601,040

 $ 2,880

 $ 11,603,920

BA 5.15 05/03/23



 $ 10,105,650

 $ 5,114

 $ 10,110,764

PCG 4.55 07/01/30



 $ 5,536,900

 $ 1,314

 $ 5,538,214

WMT 3.7 06/26/28



 $ 8,354,570

 $ 1,272

 $ 8,355,842

DD 4.205 11/15/23



 $ 3,868,760

 $ 1,402

 $ 3,870,162

RDSALN 3 1/4 05/11/25



 $ 8,928,320

 $ 2,438

 $ 8,930,803













Source: State Street Global Advisors, illustrative example.

Importantly, as shown above, the individual prices for bonds (and accordingly, the ETF’s NAV), are struck after the transaction takes place. As a result, the cash plug has to be adjusted ex-post for a perfect reconciliation. The cost of this transaction for the AP vis-a-vis the ETF issuer is minimal: it includes booking fees and a nominal creation fee (typically $250–$500 as a flat fee). Incremental fees the AP would charge Pension A may include the cost of rebalancing a portfolio from the initial external manager, plus a commission.

The fixed income ETF becomes a tool to allow for an efficient transfer of assets from one counterparty to another. This process benefits from the transparent pricing of securities based on the Net Asset Value of the fund. The expectation is that the overall sum of fees would be significantly lower than the transaction costs mentioned in Figure 1, therefore minimizing costs for Pension A.

Broad ETF Usage to Drive Innovation

In addition to using fixed income ETFs as a transition management tool, more investors are using ETFs to alleviate broader operational burdens, such as handling scores of individual CUSIPs. For example, Darryl Trunnel, Senior Fixed Income Portfolio Manager at Principal Global Investors, recently turned to fixed income ETFs to help manage a collection of more than 300 individual bond positions.

“We had taken in a significant number of small line items across multiple portfolios and needed to adjust some of the positions to align with a broad corporate index exposure,” he explains. “We were concerned about the cost of execution as well as the timing of managing these positions, and we also wanted to be sure to maintain a broad index exposure during the process.”

“This allowed us to better align our corporate credit exposure across three different funds,” he notes.

Investors’ increasing reliance on US fixed income ETFs was particularly evident during the recent bout of volatility in March 2020. When bond market liquidity was constrained, we saw record volumes in fixed income ETFs.

In fact, as shown in Figure 3, trading volumes of investment-grade and high yield corporate bond ETFs increased substantially as a percentage of cash bond trading during March 2020 compared with the preceding and subsequent time periods.

Figure 3: Trading Volume of Corporate Bond ETFs in Percentage of Cash Bond Trading


2019 (%)

Jan 2020 (%)

Feb 2020 (%)

Mar 2020 (%)

Apr 2020 (%)

May 2020 (%)

Investment Grade







High Yield







Source: State Street Global Advisors, Bloomberg Finance Ltd as of May 31, 2020.

As Andreas Roy, a fixed income trader at Jane Street, highlights, in times of volatility, it is more important — and often more difficult — for portfolio managers to transfer risk efficiently. “ETFs have been an effective solution by allowing PMs to gain diversified exposure with minimal market impact. They also serve as a tool for PMs to quickly respond to outflows and inflows and transition between different exposures,” he explains.

When it is difficult to trade bonds and face dealers in stressed markets, market participants can rely on the pricing transparency and centralization of liquidity, which allows fixed income ETFs to act as a liquidity valve.

Figure 4 highlights some of the bid-ask spread differences between individual cash bonds and a fixed income ETF for institutional-size trades. The average ETF bid-ask spread across fixed income sectors such as high yield, intermediate and long-term corporates and convertibles averaged 54% less than the respective cash bond market.

*“Institutional size” defined as $50 M for JNK, SJNK, SPIB, SPLB and CWB. As represented by the Barclays Liquidity Cost Score (LCS) metric for the respective index - Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Very Liquid Index, Bloomberg Barclays U.S. High Yield 350mn Cash Pay 0-5 Yr 2% Capped Index, Bloomberg Barclays Intermediate U.S. Corporate Index, Bloomberg Barclays Long U.S. Corporate Index, Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Convertibles Liquid Bond Index. There can be no assurance that a liquid market will be maintained for ETF shares. As of 12/31/2019.

Looking Ahead

Fixed income ETFs have become a dynamic tool for institutional fixed income trading and portfolio management. Today, whether you seek broad index, targeted subsector or active exposures, more than 400 US-listed fixed income ETFs offer diversification across numerous bonds with a single trade. They also provide access to segments of the fixed income market in which purchasing individual bonds can be prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

As the usage of ETFs continues to increase and technology advances, institutional investors are taking advantage of the ETF’s unique features and flexibility to implement a variety of innovative solutions. This includes using ETFs for transition management. As more investors choose ETFs to manage various risks and portfolio exposures, we believe innovative uses for fixed income ETFs will continue to increase.