Katherine Moriaty was a very interesting speaker at the ETF event, and she talked us through some of the regulatory issues in relation to ETFs, particularly in relation to non-transparent ETFs. Katherine provided some history on the regulation of the fund industry in the US, particularly in relation to the Investment Company Act of 1940 which was enacted to restore public confidence in the fund management industry following the troubled times of the late 1920's and through the 1930's.
The fundamental concern for the SEC (the regulatory body for this) is that the provider of the fund products cannot game investors, providing false or incorrect valuations to maximize profits. Based on the "'40 Act" as she termed it, the SEC has allowed exemptions to allow various index and fund products, such as for smart indices you need full disclosure of the rules involved, plus with active indices then constituents are published. However with active ETFs, retail investors are at a disadvantage to authorized participants (APs, the ETF providers) since there is no transparency around the constituents.
Obviously fund managers want to manage portfolios without disclosure (to maintain the "secrets" of their success, to keep trading costs low etc), but no solution has yet been found to allow this for ETFs that satisfies the SEC that the small guy is not at risk from this lack of transparency. Katherine said that participants were still still trying to come up with solutions to this problem and the SEC is still open to an exemption for anything that in their view, "works" (sounds like someone will make a lot of money when/if a solution is found). Solutions tried so far include using blind trusts and proxy or shadow portfolios. Someone from the audience asked about the relative merits of Active ETFs when compared to Active Mutual Funds – Katherine answered that the APs wanted an exchange traded product as a new distribution channel (and I guess us "Joe Soaps" want lower fees for active management…)
Vikas Kalra of MSCI had the uneviable position of giving the last presentation of the evening, and he said he would keep his talk short since he was aware he was standing between us and the cocktail reception to follow. Vikas described the problem that many risk managers faced, which was that doing risk management for a portfolio containing ETFs was fine when the ETF was of a "look through" type (i.e. constituents available), but when the ETF is opaque (no/little/uncertain constituent data) then the choices were usually 1) remove the ETF from the risk calculation or 2) substitute some proxy instrument.
Vikas said the Barra part of MSCI had come up with the solution to analyse ETF "styles". From what I could tell, this looked like some sophisticated form of 2) above, where Barra had done the analysis to enable an opaque ETF to be replaced by some more transparent proxy which allowed constituents to be analysed within the risk process and correlations etc recognised. Vikas said that 400 ETFs and ETNs were now covered in their product offering.
Conclusion – Overall a very interesting event that improved my knowledge of ETFs and had some great speakers.