Is an ETF Bubble Looming?

ETF Folklore

“From the industry perspective, what’s brilliant about ETFs are they have the ability to work well under pressure. Any time we’ve seen dips or a bear market, we’ve seen ETFs be a good haven because all you’re doing is going to a different side of a trade.” – Global Asset Manager with >$1T AUM

The appeal of ETFs to investors is diversification. The ETF surge represents a shifting investment ecosystem away from active, toward passive. According to a Charles Schwab 2017 ETF Investor Survey, the percentage of ETF investors by demographic is as follows: 56% of Millennials, 44% of Gen X and 30% of Boomers. In fact, an astounding 96% of millennials see ETFs as a necessary part of their investment strategy, perhaps because they have less money available to invest.

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ETFs are appealing because:

  • They have lower expense ratios
  • You can purchase fractional shares
  • They are more attractive for people with little knowledge
  • Typically there’s no minimum to invest

Crunch Time

However, many ETF investors are unaware of the risks of investing in ETFs. Some [watchdogs] see an ETF bubble that is set to burst, even though what is being invested in is more of an investment wrapper than an asset class in its own right.

Our current financial system is geared towards a much lower average life expectancy. Yet, as people live longer, their portfolios need more durability. So what is the liquidity of ETFs and the ability for ETF companies to unwind when, for example, a boomer needs to start drawing down? Or, what happens during a crunch?

Facing Liquidity

“I’m not worried about ETF liquidity. There’s always fear of that but I don’t think there’s suddenly going to be a liquidity drought in asset classes. It’s really at the very back of our heads.” – Large Pension Fund

High-frequency traders, traditional active fund managers, and other value investors believe that one of the challenges for ETF companies will be unwinding their positions. For some financial institutions that own ETF providers, exiting subscale market positions may prove to be attractive. The rapid growth of the ETF market means that we’ve seen comparatively few exits. In a consolidating market, ready buyers could be plentiful. But the challenging economics of ETFs could mean that sellers find exit valuations disappointing.

Mistaken Valuation

Cash inflows to an ETF that has large holdings of a specific company could misprice a company blindly. “In the largest products, where most of the money sits, about 90% of trading that occurs is in the secondary market, according to Vanguard’s research. That means ETF investors are passing investments between themselves, and not having to transact with fund managers.”

Another reason for concern, a July report from Cirrus Research cites that, “companies with higher ETF exposure have steadily underperformed their counterparts since last June.” While the rise of robo advisors reflects this changing paradigm, a lack of understanding drives ETF demand and introduces risks. And it shows no signs of slowing down with 61% of millennials planning to increase their ETF positions. So while wealth managers used to be too expensive for the masses, automation is changing that and ETFs are democratizing the investment world.

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ETFs played a role in the sell-off in 2015:

  • According to SEC, exchange-traded products experienced higher volume and volatility than standard stocks
  • Swings in price seemed arbitrary among otherwise similar ETFs
  • Many of the shares owned by investors were dealt by short sellers (unbeknownst to the investors)
  • As investors realize they own ‘synthetic’ ETF shares, the situation could explode

Before the Burst

Banks and trading firms happily sell and trade ETFs when the market is calm. When they can buy at a discount and sell at a premium, these firms will continue to offer ETFs in large quantity. But when that is no longer a probability or possibility, the suppliers of ETFs will most likely disappear, essentially undoing the entire system. But there are ways to fix the bubble.

‘Physical’ ETFs have much lower risk because they are actually hard backed by the underlying security. Diversifying with equities that aren’t usually tracked by ETFs can help avoid market cap bias.

How Close is the Burst?

Millennials are pouring their investment dollars into ETFs. They’re also the target of many of the robo advisors and FinTech’s helping investors begin to grow their wealth. Many of these robos and “set-it-and-forget-it” FinTechs are leveraging ETFs in their portfolios due to the lower price point, dollar-based investing, etc.

That said, could the potential burst or liquidity crunch be stalled due to the influx of Millennials investing in ETFs? Or is that a temporary distraction? Will the robos and FInTechs potentially suffer the same fate?

Case in point: look what happened to some of the robos that got squeezed during Brexit as people demanded access to their funds. Will this instance be a case of only time will tell, or are these brakes on their potential roller coaster?   

What do you think?




1, 2 Citibank “New Approaches to Active Management & The Need for Manufacturing        Flexibility in an Era of Asset Class & Factor Investing” 2016
3 Financial Times
4 Bloomberg

Design Smackdown – Incumbents vs FinTechs

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.” –Paul Rand

We know what you might be thinking. Why is a FinTech company talking about design? Think about it. We all have products or services to offer. Shouldn’t the way we present those offerings be the cleanest, most intuitive and simplest to use? After all, the barrier to entry can take many forms and design or user-experience is certainly a big one.

It’s more than this interface is ugly and this one is clean. It’s about creating the easiest experience for the user. One that allows them to sign up in a few steps and of course then is a no-brainer for continued use. In today’s day and age, the mobile experience is paramount.

We took a look at the customer experience of several Financial incumbents and some FinTechs to see how they compared. This includes things like interface density: color, fonts, spacing, as well as more quantifiable data—steps to sign-up and log-in, overall app navigation and ease of usage.

Author’s note: In our review of incumbents and fintechs, we have attempted to assess the user interaction and experience with quantifiable data points to try to eliminate subjective opinion. If you believe that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, we’ve tried to focus on objective learnings vs subjective opinion.

Clutter vs. Clarity

The incumbents seem to have taken their web experience and tried to leverage those existing workflows into mobile. The screens are dense with information with a less intuitive path to entry, a plane can only land on one runway. In fact, on the sign-in screen, users are given quotes, research, accounts, trades and more. There are in some cases, 60, yes, 60(!), fields or upwards of 10 steps to complete in order to sign up. Some even suggest a 10 minutes process and then tell you it takes 2 days, yes days, to hear back. Who is going to do all that on mobile?

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Meanwhile, many FinTechs were mobile first, starting from the ground up, which allows them to simplify and convey the one thing they want the user to do: sign up, log in and start immediately using the tool. There is nothing distracting them from that goal and it’s literally the only thing they can do on that screen. No distractions. No extra steps. Just sign up or log in. All of these offer 12 screens (some which are inaction screens) to sign up. That’s under 5 minutes. No waiting period. Mission accomplished.

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Incumbents Still Winning…for Now:

While incumbent apps are rated well and—as of now—preferred by experienced traders or those who have broader active investing needs, this rating likely has more to do with the rich legacy features that older generations of investors rely on. In other words, rich features and lack of head-on competition from Fintech apps that aren’t competing to the same level of investors and for the same features are the reason they are being more utilized. An example of this would be a plethora of research and charting tools as found on Etrade but not on RobinHood, something an experienced, active trader leverages to make decisions.

Let’s compare:

Here how Robinhood and Etrade both show AAPL as a quote page. There are two distinct approaches being utilized and it’s clear the apps cater to two types of investors. Etrade is info-rich, providing more information for trading decisions. For a newer investor, this might be more content than is needed. But for an experienced trader, this is what they’re used to seeing.

Robinhood, on the other hand, offers a slicker and cleaner interface. Robinhood presents users with one aspect of the stock and directs them to exactly what they want them to see. For a newer investor, this is likely all they need and doesn’t overwhelm with excess complexity. 

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Understand the Trends

Fintech apps have mainly been focusing on a large pool of inexperienced or young investors, or those that want to take generally a passive role in the investment markets. As we mentioned, Robinhood—the only FinTech broker competing for active trading—is still lacking in basic Incumbent features such research reports and stock screeners for idea generation. However, each segment has something different to offer:


  • Audience: Experienced investors/traders
  • Sign up process: Lengthy and information-rich  
  • Ease of use: High learning curve
  • UI and UX patterns: Complex
  • Capabilities: Feature-rich


  • Audience: Young investors/traders
  • Sign up process: Straightforward and short  
  • Ease of use: Shallow learning curve
  • UI and UX patterns: Simple and modern
  • Capabilities: Limited focus

What the Future Holds

For now, FinTech apps aren’t a threat to Incumbents for serious traders. However, that doesn’t mean Incumbents should rest on their laurels and accept their outdated and clunky app experience. Given a bit more time, FinTech players could, and likely will, gain ground on new waves of investors. Since Incumbents have been really slow to adopt in focusing on the end-user through better UX, FinTechs are picking up Millennials that have grown up using Facebook, Google, Uber and other services that established high standards for their experiences. These are apps that offer low learning curves, simple entry, and minimalistic user interfaces. And they are what the people want. So, it’s only a matter of time before user experience trumps experienced.