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Active ETFs: Underdogs with an Advantage?

Looking at the entire ETF market across asset classes as of May 2021, active ETFs total $200 billion, representing just 3.3% of the current $6.1 trillion total. However, we believe the active ETF share of the market has an opportunity to grow due to both regulatory and strategy-demand driven tailwinds. In addition to recent updates to SEC policies around exemptive relief further streamlining the listing process, active ETFs can provide flexibility that can be hard to find in passive funds1.

An active ETF is simply an ETF that does not track an index. The structure occupies the middle ground between the traditional active mutual fund and a passive ETF. Unlike most passive ETFs, active ETFs can either disclose their holdings daily, or can institute a more opaque disclosure regime (referred to as a semi-transparent ETF). A relatively recent development, semi-transparent structures are not required to fully disclose their holdings, and rely on several different strategies to facilitate efficient trading. Some research suggests that uncertainty about future holdings may decrease liquidity for active ETFs, and a lack of complete transparency certainly does not improve this2.

However, it is too early to tell what level of adoption the semi-transparent structure will ultimately have.

Looking under the hood in Chart 1, the asset class coverage is quite different between passive and active ETFs, with fixed income occupying a much larger share within the active ETF space. One reason for this could be the over-the-counter nature of both bond issuance and transactions, which leads to a preference for non-index based implementation for fixed income-focused ETFs. A second reason could be a lack of demand on the equity side, due to exceptional performance of the market-cap heavy equity index trackers. Within the active fixed income space, First Trust is the leading issuer with over $31.5 billion, more than $10 billion ahead of their nearest competitors JP Morgan and Pimco.

Percentage of total aum by asset class for active and passive etfs
Source: Bloomberg data as of May 11, 2021, calculations by Horizon Investments.
No of etf launches by year and asset class
Source: Bloomberg data as of May 11, 2021, calculations by Horizon Investments.
Top ETF issuers
Source: Bloomberg data as of May 11, 2021, calculations by Horizon Investments.

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