Institutional Investors Increasing ETF Use

The use of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) by institutional investors is increasing, a study finds.

According to Greenwich Associates’ report “ETFs: An Evolving Toolset for U.S. Institutions,” as recently as 2011, less than 15% of U.S. institutions were using ETFs in their portfolios. That share climbed to 18% in 2012 and reached 21% in 2013.

But the overall averages understate the extent to which ETFs have been embraced by certain types of investors, Greenwich Associates says. For example, 40% of U.S. endowments employ ETFs in their portfolios, as do one-third of the largest public defined benefit (DB) pension funds—those with at least $5 billion in assets under management (AUM)—and roughly 25% of the largest corporate defined benefit funds.

Although ETFs represent a small percentage of total U.S. institutional assets, some institutions have begun building sizable ETF allocations. Forty-six percent of institutional ETF users that participated in Greenwich Associates “2014 U.S. Exchange-Traded Funds Study” allocate 10% or more of their total assets to the funds, with almost three in 10 reporting ETF allocations from 10% to 25%, and nearly one in five making even greater allocations.

The current study shows that institutional investors adopt ETFs for routine portfolio functions, as well as a means to obtain long-term strategic investment exposures. This year, approximately 80% of participating institutions that use ETFs do so to obtain core portfolio exposures, making this the most common ETF application among study participants. That share is up from the 74% using ETFs for this task in 2013.

ETFs are gaining traction in asset classes outside equities, especially in fixed income, where changes in market structure could boost ETF use. The share of institutional users employing the funds in domestic fixed income increased to two-thirds this year from just 55% in 2013. Another 35% of institutions overall utilize ETFs for international fixed-income access, up from 29% last year. Forty percent of the institutional ETF users employ the vehicles in commodities, and 45% use them in real estate investment trusts (REITs).

In addition, ETF holding periods are lengthening. The share of institutions reporting average holding periods of two years or longer jumped to 49% in 2014 from 36% in 2013.

The results of the study suggest ETFs will continue to gain momentum in the coming year. Among institutions currently employing ETFs in their portfolios, nearly half say they expect to expand use in the next year. One-third of the institutions in the 2014 study expect to grow allocations by 1% to 10%, while nearly 15% plan to increase them by 10% or more.

For the study, Greenwich Associates interviewed 201 U.S.-based institutional exchange-traded fund users in an effort to track and uncover usage trends. The respondent base included 49 institutional funds (corporate pensions, public pensions, foundations and endowments), 32 asset managers (firms managing assets to specific investment strategies/guidelines), 31 insurance companies, 70 registered investment advisers (RIAs) and 19 investment consultants. The study was sponsored by BlackRock.

The study report may be requested from here.