ETFs as money?

Blair Ferguson. Source: Bank of Canada

Passive investing is eating Wall Street. According to 2015 Morningstar data, while actively managed mutual funds charge clients 1.08% of each dollar invested per year, passively managed funds levy just a third of that, 0.37%. As the public continues to rebalance out of mutual funds and into index ETFs, Wall Street firms simply won’t be able to generate sufficient revenues to support the same number of analysts, salespeople, lawyers, journalists, and other assorted hangers-on. It could be a bloodbath.

Here is the very readable Eric Balchunas on the topic:

Any firm that faces declining profits due to narrowing margins can restore a degree of profitability by driving more business through its platform. In the case of Wall Street, that means arm-twisting investors into holding even more investment products. If Gordon Gecko can get Joe to hold $3000 worth of low margin ETFs then he’ll be able to make just as much off Joe as he did when Joe held just $1000 in high margin mutual funds.

How to get Joe to hold more investments? One way would be to increase demand for ETFs by making them more money-like. Imagine it was possible to pay for a $2.00 coffee with $2.00 worth of SPDR S&P 500 ETF units. Say that this payment could occur instantaneously, just like a credit card transaction, and at very low cost. The coffee shop could either keep the ETF units as an investment, pass the units off as small change to the next customer, use them to buy coffee beans from a supplier, or exchange them for a less risky asset.

In this scenario, ETF units would look similar to shares of a money market mutual fund (MMMF). An MMMF invests client money in corporate and government debt instruments and provides clients with debit and cheque payments services. When someone pays using an MMMF cheque or debit card, actual MMMF shares are not being exchanged. Rather, the shares are first liquidated and then the payment is routed through the regular payments system.

Rather than copying MMMFs and integrating ETFs into the existing payment system, one idea would be to embed an ETF in a blockchain, a distributed digital ledger. Each ETF unit would be divisible into thousandths and capable of being transferred to anyone with the appropriate wallet in just a few moments. One interesting model is BitShares, provider of the world’s first distributed fully-backed tracking funds (bitUSD tracks the U.S. dollar, bitGold tracks gold, BitCNY the yuan, and more). I wrote about bitUSD here. Efforts to put conventional securities on permissioned blockchains for the purpose of clearing and settlement are also a step in this direction.

Were ETFs were to become a decent medium of exchange, people like Joe would be willing to skimp on competing liquid instruments like cash and bank deposits and hold more ETFs. If so, investment managers would be invading the turf of bankers who have, until now, succeeded in monopolizing the business of converting illiquid assets into money (apart from money market mutual fund managers, who have tried but are flagging).

Taken to the extreme, the complete displacement of deposits as money by ETFs would get us to something called narrow banking. Right now, bankers lend new deposits into existence. Should ETFs become the only means of payment, there would be no demand for deposits and bankers would have to raise money in the form of ETFs prior to making a loan. Bank runs would no longer exist. Unlike deposits, which provide fixed convertibility, ETF prices float, thus accommodating sudden drops in demand. In other words, an ETF manager will always have just enough assets to back each ETF unit.

Two problems might emerge. Money is very much like an insurance policy—we want to know that it will be there when we run into problems. While stocks and bonds are attractive relative to cash and deposits because they provide superior returns over the long term, in the short term they are volatile and thus do not make for trustworthy money. If we need to patch a leaky roof, and the market just crashed, we may not have ETF units enough on hand. Cash, however, is usually an economy’s most stable asset. So while liquid ETFs might reduce the demand for deposits, its hard to imagine them displacing traditional banking products entirely.

A fungibility problem would also arise. Bank deposits are homogeneous. Because all banks accept each others deposits at par and these deposits are all backed by government deposit insurance, we can be sure that one deposit is as good as another. And that homogeneity, or fungibility, means that deposits are a great way to do business. ETFs, on the other hand, are heterogeneous. They trade at different prices and follow different indexes. Shopkeepers will have to pause and evaluate each ETF unit that customers offer them. And that slows down monetary exchange—not a good thing.

Somewhat mitigating ETF’s fungibility problem is the fact that the biggest ETFs track the same indexes. On the equity side, three of the six largest ETFs track the S&P 500 while on the bond side, the two largest ETFs track the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. Rather than just any ETF becoming generally accepted media of exchange, the market might select those that track the two or three most popular indexes.

In writing this post, I risk being accused of blockchain magical thinking—distributed ledgers haven’t yet proven themselves in the real world. All sorts of traditions and laws would have to be upended to bring the world of securities onto a distributed ledger. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to see how the fund management industry manages to squirm out of what will only become an increasingly tighter spot. Making ETFs more liquid is an option, though surely not the only one.

PS. Here is the blogosphere’s own Tyler Cowen (along with Randall Kroszner) on “mutual fund banking” in 1990:

In contrast to traditional banks, depository institutions organized upon the mutual fund principle cannot fail if the value of their assets declines. Since the liabilities of the mutual fund bank are precisely claims to the underlying assets, changes in value are represented immediately in a change in the price of the deposit shares. The run-inducing incentive to withdraw funds at par before the bank renders its liabilities illiquid by closing vanishes with the possibility of non-par clearing. In effect, there would be a continuous (or, say, daily) “marking to market” of the assets and liabilities. Such a system obviates the need for much of the regulation long associated with a debt-based, fractional reserve system, as the equity-nature of the liabilities eliminates the sources of instability associated with traditional banking institutions.

With the rise of ETFs and blockchain technology, the modern version of mutual fund banking would be something like distributed ETF banking described in the above post,

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