As financial advisors increasingly adopt ETFs, the wholesale shift from actively managed mutual funds to passive investment vehicles is driving more inflows to ETF providers like Vanguard and Blackrock and State Street and than all other mutual fund families combined… and leading mutual fund companies into a mad scramble to figure out what they have to do to once again appeal to financial advisors.
Yet the reality is that, with the rise of the internet, the fundamental role of the financial advisor themselves is changing. In a world where consumers can purchase virtually any publicly traded investment online themselves, financial advisors are compelled to add value above and beyond “just” bringing third-party mutual fund managers to the table. In fact, an increasing number of financial advisors appear to be “coping” by eliminating third-party managers, and instead becoming the investment portfolio managers themselves.
In this context, the rise of ETFs is not so much about a shift from active to passive, but simply a recognition that when financial advisors build investment portfolios, we prefer to do it using ETFs as our “building blocks”, rather than individual stocks and bonds. Although in point of fact, a recent FPA Trends in Investing Survey revealed that advisors are increasingly building portfolios with ETFs, and stocks, and bonds, and even private equity funds – anything except third-party mutual funds. Which just helps to show how the shift from active to passive is really just a mirage; what’s really occurring is a process where financial advisors are remaining active, but disintermediating mutual fund managers and going hands-on to actively build the portfolio themselves, whether as an independent RIA, or under a Rep-As-PM arrangement in a broker-dealer.
Of course, the caveat is that just as many mutual fund managers have struggled in an increasingly competitive market for alpha to outperform their benchmarks, there’s no indication that individual financial advisors are any better at the process. Which means ultimately, the financial-advisor-as-investment-manager shift itself may be short-lived, as advisors further shift to providing financial planning value outside of the portfolio altogether. But until financial advisors get to the point that the majority of us truly view our value-add as going beyond the investment portfolio – where a bona fide shift to passive investing may gain further traction – the ongoing rise of ETFs will remain less about a shift to passive itself, and more about how financial advisors are defending their own fees by squeezing out the costs of the investment products they use for client portfolios!