They say it's a game changer, the fund industry equivalent of the iPad. Pimco's exchange-traded version of its megasize mutual fund has yet to launch, and analysts are already predicting how it will alter the $1 trillion ETF industry. But the big question remains: Should investors care?
Today the majority of ETFs -- those baskets of stocks or bonds that trade throughout the day -- passively track a sector or index. For months, the industry has been pushing, with middling success, so-called actively managed ETFs, for which the sponsors buy and sell positions during the day to try to beat the market. But this spring Pimco filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to create an actively managed ETF version of its flagship $241 billion Total Return fund. The move will create a new way to invest with Pimco's rock star bond manager, Bill Gross. Pimco, which manages more than $1.2 trillion, declined to provide details beyond what it said in its SEC filing.
Now that the industry has its equivalent of Dolly the sheep, more mutual funds are expected to follow suit. Pimco's move is a "validation" of the active ETF format, says Robert Goldsborough, ETF analyst with Morningstar. Many fund firms have resisted launching an active ETF because the products must disclose their holdings daily, and active managers are often wary of tipping their hands in real time. Experts say this isn't a big concern for Bill Gross, who makes his views pretty clear as it is: The man once compared the Federal Reserve's effort to prop up bond prices to a Ponzi scheme.
So should investors jump into actively managed ETFs? Their fees are generally lower than mutual funds', but since ETFs trade like stocks, commissions can add up for frequent traders. While Pimco's initial filing for its Total Return ETF didn't include an expense ratio, analysts expect it to be lower than the 0.9 percent charged by the flagship fund. Also, to avoid infringing upon a patent held by Vanguard, the new fund-copying ETFs may not be exact replicas. Expect the ETF version of Total Return to have fewer holdings than the fund, says Tom Lydon, editor of the website ETF Trends, who sits on a board for Pimco's investment advisory division. Pimco will try to keep the performance of the two very close, Lydon says -- because if the ETF outperforms, investors might flee the mutual fund altogether.