Swap-based ETFs offer price and performance advantages—for a price

There are currently two swap-based ETFs in Canada. In Europe, they represent about 50% of ETF assets, according to Howard Atkinson, CEO of Horizons Exchange Traded Funds, which created the two Canadian ETFs.

Most Canadian ETFs hold the underlying shares of an index. With large-cap indexes, they hold shares in all constituent companies. In illiquid markets, the ETF may hold a sample of the constituents.

Swap-based ETFs provide a way around this latter constraint. Exposure to the constituents of an index is synthetic, obtained by means of a futures contract or a customized derivative—namely, a swap. And swaps even have advantages in more liquid markets.

Savvas Pallaris, an independent capital markets researcher who wrote a report on swap-based ETFs, notes 75% of passive institutional exposure to the S&P/TSX 60 is through synthetic rather than cash replication. This changes the cost structure, performance and risk profile of the ETF.

Swap-based ETFs are cheaper because they don’t have to trade the underlying shares. Instead, a bank delivers the total return value of an index to the ETF, for a price. That price is low for two reasons (see sidebar, “Two reasons why costs are lower”).

“The banks are able to offer total-return [swaps] off Canadian benchmarks like the TSX 60 at extremely competitive rates—negative rates in many cases,” says Atkinson. “This is what would happen if you were a large institutional investor and you went to [an organization] like Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and said you wanted to do a total-return swap.

“It’s a quite competitive market and the banks have bid themselves down to the point that they will do it for less than zero. The counterparties are making money on this. They’re just not charging per se for the swap when it comes to Canadian equities.”

They would charge, however, for swaps based on U.S. equities and that fee is currently set at a maximum of 30 basis points.

Swap-based ETFs are cheaper in two other ways that affect investors. There are no trading costs, and the ETF doesn’t own the shares, so there’s no need to rebalance. It’s up to the bank to track the index. Also, because it doesn’t own the underlying shares, the ETF doesn’t receive the dividends. Instead, dividend payments are added directly to the value of the swap. Hence, investors don’t face a performance drag in waiting to reinvest the dividends, nor do they face tax on those dividends.

Pallaris compares HXT and XIU, the iShares competitor for tracking the S&P/TSX 60. The management fee for HXT is seven basis points. There are no operating costs. The management fee for XIU is 15 basis points and operating costs are capped at 2 basis points. Those costs will add to the tracking error.

Pallaris also estimates a 62-basis-point saving for investors from not having to pay taxes on dividends. That’s for Canadians with non-registered accounts. Foreign investors receive no dividend tax credit, so their savings are even higher with a swap-based ETF. The same holds true for Canadians who hold foreign ETFs in a taxable account. Pallaris calculates a Canadian holding a swap-based ETF that targets U.S. stocks would realize a tax saving of 93 basis points.

The risks

Of course, there is no free lunch. Swap-based ETFs come with a different set of risks, which has raised alarm in Europe. Two different issues have been highlighted.

One is the quality of the collateral. In a cash replication strategy, the ETF owns the underlying securities. In a swap-based strategy, the ETF provider posts collateral against the contract.

In Europe, researchers at both the IMF and the Bank for International Settlements have noted the collateral basket can be very different from securities targeted by the ETF, because it is chosen by the counterparty.

For example, in Europe, the collateral for one MSCI Emerging Markets ETF consists mostly of developed market bonds, of which only half were rated A, or higher.

But that’s not the Canadian structure, notes Atkinson. The ETF is fully cash-collateralized. Collateral is not usually an issue except in times of economic crisis. That’s when banks default and their assets get tied up in bankruptcy court.

Again, the Canadian practice is different. Once the marked-to-market gains portion of the Net Asset Value (NAV) exceeds 10% (effectively 110% of investor capital), the ETF provider is forced to reduce specific counterparty exposure back below 10%.

Physical versus synthetic replication

1. Value at regular settlement periods
Opening position $100 in index securities $100 in collateral
Index appreciates by 8% +$8 price appreciation +
taxable dividends
+$8 net payment from swap counterparty
Total Value of position: $108 in index securities $108 in collateral account
Opening position $100 in index securities $100 in collateral
Index depreciates by 8% -$8 price depreciation +
taxable dividends
-8% net payment to swap counterparty
Total Value of position: $92 in index securities $92 in collateral account
2. Value prior to regular settlement periods
Opening position $100 in index securities $100 in collateral
Index appreciates by 6% +$6 price appreciation +
taxable dividends
+$6 net receivable from swap counterparty
Total Value of position: $106 in index securities $106 in collateral and MTM (positive)
Opening position $100 in index securities $100 in collateral
Index depreciates by 6% -$6 price depreciation +
taxable dividends
-$6 net payable to swap counterparty
Total Value of position: $94 in index securities $94 in collateral and MTM (negative)

Source: “Education Report: Swap-Based Exchange Traded Funds,” by Savvas Pallaris

If the counterparty risk exceeds 10%, “we must add another counterparty and/or unwind part of that swap, where the counterparty would deliver a portion of the marked-to-market gain of the ETF so that we’re under the 10% threshold,” explains Atkinson.

If the NAV increased 10% from its original value and the counterparty went bankrupt, investors would still be able to access the principal value of the ETF. This means on a $100 investment, instead of it being worth $110, the ETF would be worth $100. The credit risk only applies to gains, and then only up to 10%.

Bankruptcy is unlikely, but could happen. Outstanding balances are settled periodically, and always when they get close to 10% over the initial NAV. So most likely, any potential loss resulting from counterparty failure is under 10%. “[Part of the swap would unwind] when there’s a gain and the counterparty has to deliver part of the total return to the ETF,” says Atkinson.

That’s in a rising market, where the counterparty owes the ETF money. In a falling market, where a bank is more likely to be under siege, the ETF would owe the counterparty money.

Thus, in a rising market, “there could be a loss to the investor—that is capped at 10% of the marked-to-market gain of net asset value. When you use a swap-based versus a physically replicated ETF, you’re trading off the very remote possibility of a small counterparty loss, with the certainty of better tracking and better after-tax performance.”

That’s why it pays to look under the hood of the ETF.

Scot Blythe is a Toronto-based financial writer.