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iShares and ETFs: Speculation To The 3rd Power

Submitted by The Investment Shadow | RSS Feed | Add Comment | Bookmark Me! print

How many of you remember the immortal words of P. T. Barnum? On Wall Street, the incubation period for new product scams may be measured in years instead of minutes, but the end result is always a greed-driven rush to financial disaster.

The meltdown spawned index mutual funds, and their dismal failure gave life to "enhanced" index funds, a wide variety of speculative hedge funds, and a rapidly growing assortment of Index ETFs. Deja Vu all over again, with the popular ishare variety of ETF leading the lemmings to the cliffs.

How far will we allow Wall Street to move us away from the basic building blocks of investing? Whatever happened to stocks and bonds? The Investment Gods are appalled.

A market or sector index is a statistical measuring device that tracks prices in securities selected to represent a portion of the overall market. ETF creators: a) select a sampling of the market that they expect to be representative of the whole, b) purchase the securities, and then c) issue the ishares, SPDRS, CUBEs, etc. that speculators then trade on the exchanges just like equities.

Unlike ordinary index funds, ETF shares are not handled directly by the fund. As a result, they can move either up or down from the value of the securities in the fund, which, in turn, may or may not mirror the index they were selected to track. Confused? There's more --- these things are designed for manipulation.

Unlike managed Closed-End Funds (CEFs), ETF shares can be created or redeemed by market specialists, and Institutional Investors can redeem 50,000 share lots (in kind) if there is a gap between the net-asset-value and the market price of the fund.

These activities create artificial demand in an attempt to minimize the gap between NAV and market price.  Clearly, arbitrage activities provide profit-making opportunities to the fund sponsors that are not available to the shareholders. Perhaps that is why the fund expenses are so low --- and why there are now thousands of the things to choose from.

Two other ETF idiosyncrasies need to be appreciated: a) performance return statistics for index funds typically do not include expenses, but it should be obvious that none will ever out-perform their market, and b) some index funds publish P/E numbers that only include the profitable companies in the portfolio. How about that SEC?

So, in addition to the normal risks associated with investing, we add: speculating in narrowly focused sectors, guessing on the prospects of unproven small cap companies, experimenting with securities in single countries, rolling the dice on commodities, and hoping for the eventual success of new technologies.

We then call this hodge-podge of speculation a diversified, passively managed, inexpensive approach to Modern Asset Management --- similar to the mathematical hocus pocus of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT).

Once upon a time, but not so long ago, there were high yield junk bond funds that the financial community insisted were appropriate investments because of their diversification. Does diversified junk become un-junk? Isn't passive management as much of an oxymoron as variable annuity? Who are they kidding?

But let's not dwell upon the three or more levels of speculation that are the very foundation of all index funds. Let's move on to the two basic ideas that led to the development of plain vanilla Mutual Funds in the first place: diversification and professional management.

Mutual Funds were a monumental breakthrough that changed the investment world. Hands on investing became possible for everyone. Self directed retirement programs and cheap to administer employee benefit programs became doable.

The investment markets, once the domain of the wealthy, became the savings accounts of choice for the employed masses --- because the "separate accounts" were both trusteed and professionally managed. When security self-direction came along, professional management was gone forever. Mutual fund management was delegated to the financially uneducated masses.

ETFs are not the antidote for the mob-managed dismal performance of open end Mutual Funds, where professionals are always forced to sell low and to buy high. ETFs are the vehicles of choice for Wall Street to ram MPT mumbo jumbo down the throats of busy, inexperienced investors... because they are cheap.

Mutual fund performance is bad because managers have to do what the mob tells them to do --- so Wall Street sells "passive products" with controlled content that they can manipulate more cheaply.

Here's a thumbnail sketch of how well passive ETFs may have performed from the turn of the century through 2011: the DJIA growth rate was about 0% per year, the S & P 500 was negative; the NASDAQ Composite is still about half its 2000 value. How many positive sectors, technologies, commodities, or capitalization categories could there have been?

Now subtract the fees... hmmmm. Again, how would those ETFs have fared? Hey, when you buy cheap and easy, it's usually worth it. Now if you want performance, I suggest you try real management, as opposed to Mutual Fund management... but you need to take the time to understand the process.

If you can't understand or accept the strategy, don't hire the manager. Mutual Funds and ETFs cannot "beat the market" (not a well thought out investment objective anyway) because both are effectively managed by investor/speculators... not by professionals.

Sure, you might find some smiles in an ETF or two, but only if you took your profits, and there may be times when it makes sense to use these products to hedge against a specific risk. But stop kidding yourself every time Wall Street comes up with a new short cut to investment success. Don't underestimate the value of experienced management, even if you have to pay a little extra for it.

Actually, there is no reason why all of you can't run your own investment portfolio, or to instruct someone how you want it done. Every guess, every estimate, every hedge, and every shortcut increases risk.

Products and gimmicks are never the answer. ETFs, a combination of the two, don't even address the question properly --- AND their rising popularity has raised the risk level throughout the Stock Market. How's that, you ask?

The demand for the individual stocks included in ETFs is raising their prices without having anything to do with company fundamentals.

What's in your portfolio?

How will ETFs and Mutual Funds fare in the next correction? MCIM portfolios are ready.

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