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The ETF Arms Race

In our previous blog (See Here), we discussed Vanguard and its unseating of Fidelity as the largest money manager in the U.S. Vanguard has done this with low-priced attacks on virtually every market Fidelity serves. Fidelity, and much of the rest of the market, is allowing Vanguard to get away with this, at least for now. In this blog, we want to see how pricing affects even a fast-growing market and then watch what happens when a Vanguard flexes its muscles in such a fast-growing market.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are some of the hottest products in the financial industry today. They are cheaper and, often, more tax efficient than are mutual funds. Because of these advantages, many independent registered investment advisors and individual investors have shifted out of mutual funds and into ETFs. The ETF market is growing rapidly.

A year ago, Schwab decided to take share in this market by using low prices. Schwab offered eight ETFs to its customers on a commission-free basis. Since Schwab is such a leader in the market, the company’s move started a war. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is seeing its first price wars” on StrategyStreet.com.) In short order, E-Trade, Fidelity and Vanguard joined the fray. Fidelity offered twenty-five iShares ETFs, commission-free. Recently, TD Ameritrade upped the ante. This company offered more than one hundred ETFs, commission-free, to both individual investors and investment advisors. This is a real arms race in the fast-growing ETF market. Prices on already inexpensive ETFs continue to fall.

Why this focus on industry prices? The industry has learned that high prices cost you market share. This is a sure signal that customers are having increasing difficulty making buying decisions among the top industry ETF providers on the basis of Function, Reliability or Convenience. When an investor can not chose among peer competitors on the basis of performance, that is Function, Reliability or Convenience, they make their decisions on the basis of Price. (See the Perspective, “What Ends Hostility” on StrategyStreet.com.)

In this price war, Vanguard stands to gain the most, at least in the short term. This company is well known for its low-cost funds. So far this year, Vanguard has garnered 37% of the new money coming into the ETF market. Their 37% share of new money is greater than the combined shares of the two biggest ETF companies, iShares and State Street Global Advisors, combined.

For their part, the top two ETF sponsors argue that they will not be drawn into a price war. This is simply a Leader’s Trap. You can ignore these protestations. They, and everyone else in the market, will have to respond to Vanguard, or stand aside and watch Vanguard trample them in the market.

Posted 11/11/10

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