Opinion

The Great Debate

What’s a leveraged ETF and what makes it dangerous?

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Larry Fink is sounding the alarm. The chairman and CEO of $4.4 trillion asset manager BlackRock is worried about leveraged ETFs (exchange-traded funds). Fink thinks they could “blow up the industry.” His statement is a little unclear, but the industry he’s referring to is probably ETFs themselves, not the global financial system.

Blackrock is itself a huge player in ETFs, but Fink says they’ll never get into leveraged version of the financial instruments.

So, what’s the difference between regular and leveraged ETFs?

Regular ETFs are designed to track the price of a specific set of securities, taking the place of traditional mutual funds that focuses on particular investment sectors or classes of stock. ETFs started in stocks, particularly indexes, but now cover all types of assets. In this way they are similar to a mutual or index fund, but can be bought or sold like a stock. Regular ETFs, particularly the ones that track broad indexes like the S&P 500, are pretty vanilla financial products. Sure, an index fund might be slightly better for achieving individual investment objectives, but ETFs generally have much lower fees than actively managed mutual funds.

Leveraged ETFs take the idea a step further. They are designed to amplify, not mimic, the price changes of the assets they track. If oil goes up $1, an oil ETF should go up $1. If oil goes up $1, a three times levered oil ETF will go up $3. The way that works is that levered ETFs are based on derivatives.

Fink is worried that regular ETFs’ growing good name will lure people who shouldn’t own derivatives into derivatives ownership, without even realizing it. At its core, Fink’s concern is about retail investor access to derivatives products that are not suitable for them. This is a legitimate concern.

from Commentaries:

Fink reaches for Wall Street’s crown

Matthew GoldsteinYou have to marvel at the seemingly Midas touch of Larry Fink.

The BlackRock Inc. chief executive avoided taking over the helm of Merrill Lynch -- something John Thain probably wishes he had done. Fink's firm emerged from the financial crisis as the Federal Reserve's favorite private money manager, with BlackRock getting the lion's share of the government's work for managing troubled assets. And the $13 billion deal Fink just reached with Barclays Global Investors has turned BlackRock into the outright titan of the asset management world with $2.7 trillion in other peoples' money under management.

It's often been said Jamie Dimon is the new king of Wall Street. But one can argue that the 56-year-old Fink, who started BlackRock as a small bond investment shop two decades ago, can also rightfully lay claim to that honor. Even as the Obama administration is about to announce its plan for managing so-called "too big to fail" financial institutions, Fink's BlackRock is getting bigger and more consequential than ever.

The deal puts BlackRock's fingers firmly into every significant asset class-corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities, mutual funds, stocks, cash, hedge funds and now the ever popular exchange traded funds -- a stock index-like security. Barclays now joins Bank of America and PNC Financial in having major equity stakes in BlackRock and a vested interest in the money manager's long-term health.

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