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Ishares and ETFs: Pushing the DJIA Toward the Cliff

By Steve Selengut Published 08/17/2007 | Finance

How many of you remember the immortal words of P. T. Barnum? Of Yogi Berra? 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 lopsided, greed-driven, gold rush toward financial disaster. The dot.com melt down spawned the index mutual funds, and their dismal failure gave life to "enhanced" index funds, a wide variety of speculative hedge funds, and finally, a rapidly growing number 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 not happy.

A market or sector index is a statistical measuring device that tracks the movement of price changes in a portfolio of securities that are selected to represent a portion of the overall market. Index 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 you can trade on the normal exchanges just like ordinary stocks. Unlike ordinary index funds, ETF shares are not handled directly by the fund, and 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 movements of 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 demand in order to minimize the gap between the fund net-asset-value and the fund price. Clearly, these 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 hundreds of the things to choose from. It is also why a famous 30 stock Market Average has gone up at three times the speed of all the other indicators!

Two other ishare/ETF idiosyncrasies need to be appreciated: a) performance return statistics for index funds typically do not include fund expenses... it should be fairly obvious that an index fund will always under-perform its market, and b) some index funds, ishares in particular, publish P/E numbers that only include the profitable companies in the portfolio. How do you feel about that?

So, in addition to the normal risks associated with investing in general, 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 speculations a diversified, passively managed, inexpensive approach to 21st Century Asset Management! How this differs from the roots of the dot.com mess is a mystery to me. Once upon a time, there were high yield junk bond funds that the financial community insisted were appropriate investments because of their excellent diversification. Does diversified junk become un-junk? Isn't "Passive Management" as much of an oxymoron as "Variable Annuity"?  Whatever happened to the KISS Principle?

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 (without the self-centered assistance of the banks and insurance companies) became possible for absolutely everyone. Self directed retirement programs and cheap to administer employee benefit programs became doable. The investment markets, once the domain of an elite group of wealthy entrepreneurs, became the savings accounts of choice for the employed masses. But only because the Funds were relatively safe with their guarantees of diversification and professional management! ETFs are just not the answer to the problems we've experienced lately with traditional Mutual Funds. (Those problems are a function of Fund Manager Compensation, conflicts of interest within Fund Sponsor Organizations, the delivery and pricing system for the funds, and believe it or don't, the self directed retirement programs themselves.)

Here's a thumbnail sketch of how well the major Passively Managed Indices have done since the turn of the century: For those six years, the DJIA growth rate averaged Zero % per year, the S & P 500 averaged Minus 2% per year, and the NASDAQ Composite averaged Minus 8% per year! How many positive sectors, technologies, commodities, or capitalization categories could there have been? Go ahead, add in 1999 just to make yourself feel better and you'll come up with 2% per year for the DJIA, Zero % annually for the S & P, and a stellar -1.5% per year for the NASDAQ. Now subtract the fees... hmmmm. Again, how would those ishares have fared?  Hey, when you buy cheap and easy, it's usually worth it. Now if you want performance, I suggest you try management. Any management is better than no management, so long as you are receptive to the strategies or disciplines employed by the manager. If you can't understand or accept the strategy, don't hire the manager. During the past six years, there have been more advancing issues than declining ones on the NYSE, more stocks achieving new highs than new lows. Why did you lose money?

Sure, you might find some smiles in an ishare or two, particularly if you have the courage to take your profits, and there may be times when it makes good business sense to use these products as a hedge against a specific risk. But please, 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 you (and I mean every one of you) can't learn either to 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, because none of the crystal balls used by those creative product hucksters works very well over the long haul. 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 DJIA stocks included in ETFs is raising their prices to levels that have nothing to do with company fundamentals.

What's in your portfolio?

Note: The 2nd Edition of "Brainwashing" is coming this fall.

Steve Selengut



Professional Portfolio Management since 1979

Author of: "The Brainwashing of the American Investor: The Book that Wall Street Does Not Want YOU to Read", and "A Millionaire's Secret Investment Strategy"