Portfolio Disclosure Practices of Exchange-Traded Funds

This article was originally published in the Investment Funds Practitioner in December 2016.

Staff have recently reviewed the practices of managers of exchange-traded mutual funds (ETFs) for disclosing the portfolio holdings of their ETFs. We have focused our review on instances where ETF managers disclose the daily portfolio holdings of their ETFs to authorized dealers, but not to the public.

Authorized dealers play a critical role in an ETF’s liquidity. They are dealers who have entered into agreements with ETF managers that give them the ability to subscribe for securities in large blocks from the ETF at the net asset value per security calculated at the end of the day. Knowledge of the portfolio holdings of an ETF enables authorized dealers to assess whether there is a discrepancy between the market price of the ETF’s securities and the underlying market value of the ETF’s portfolio holdings (the underlying value) and to determine hedges for their positions. Where there is a divergence in these two values, authorized dealers carry out arbitrage trades that bring the market price of the ETF’s securities closer to the ETF’s underlying value. While investors who are not authorized dealers cannot engage in arbitrage trades with precise portfolio knowledge and the ability to transact directly with the ETF, the arbitrage activities generally help the ETF’s securities to trade close to their underlying value with narrower bid-ask spreads.

Staff questioned whether disclosing an ETF’s daily portfolio holdings to authorized dealers without concurrently disclosing the same information to the public creates a material information asymmetry between the authorized dealers and other investors, particularly retail investors. We focused on whether the information advantage that authorized dealers possess may make it possible for them to engage in unfair trading against other investors that is not consistent with market making activities to provide liquidity. As part of our review, we met with ETF managers, the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC), the Toronto Stock Exchange, and other market participants to discuss our concerns and to better understand ETF portfolio disclosure practices and their impact.

We found that most ETF managers are disclosing portfolio holdings to the public daily and that the issue of asymmetric information is confined to a comparatively small segment of ETFs that are actively managed, where the ETF managers consider portfolio holdings to be proprietary.1 This segment is, by our estimate, approximately 3% of the ETF market, comprising $3.5 billion in assets as of June 2016.

ETF managers submitted that entering into agreements with multiple authorized dealers for an ETF reduces the possibility of an authorized dealer unfairly benefitting from the portfolio holdings information, because competition for trades among the authorized dealers will narrow the quoted spread on the ETF’s securities and bring the market price of the ETF’s securities in line with their underlying value. We also heard submissions that ETF portfolio holdings information may be of limited use for retail investors, who are more concerned with the identity of the portfolio manager and the investment objectives, strategies and performance of the ETF.

Staff had extensive discussions with IIROC about the risks that may arise from the authorized dealers’ possession of the portfolio holdings information of actively managed ETFs. IIROC currently conducts market surveillance and trading reviews of trades of all securities, including ETF securities. We understand that IIROC, as part of its Trading Conduct Compliance (TCC) reviews, will examine the appropriateness of supervisory controls an authorized dealer has implemented to monitor the use of portfolio holdings information.

Based on our review and discussions to date, we believe that access to actively managed ETFs affords additional choices to investors, and that any risks from asymmetric information can be limited by IIROC’s oversight through its TCC reviews. Staff, along with IIROC, will continue to monitor these practices and other developments in the industry, including the introduction of platform trading for mutual funds by various exchanges, which may offer a new avenue for managers of actively managed ETFs to offer their products without the need to disclose daily portfolio holdings to authorized dealers. If the product landscape changes and we find any harm to investors or the public interest as a result of the current portfolio disclosure practices, staff will recommend appropriate regulatory action, including further action to regulate such practices, or any other remedy required by the circumstances.

1ETFs may be broadly classified into “index” ETFs that track a transparent index or asset and “non-index” ETFs that do not. Within the “non-index” group, there are (a) “rules-based” ETFs: ETFs that generally hold a portfolio that is rebalanced periodically in accordance with a rules-based investment methodology, and (b) “actively managed” ETFs: ETFs that have discretion to invest without regard to any index or rules-based methodology.