ETF Scam of the Week

When I heard that the managers of exchange traded funds were raking in huge fees from lending out shares in their index portfolios I thought “That’s great, the managers are really working hard to maximize returns for their shareholders.” These shares are borrowed by hedge funds which then then sell short. Then I found out the ugly truth.

I was horrified to learn recently that the fund operators are keeping a substantial portion of the fees to be paid out in profits and bonuses for themselves. According to an investigation by the Financial Times, the largest ETF operator, Blackrock, kept, $57 million of $164 million in lending fees earned, while State Street kept 15% of the total. Others are thought to keep as much as 50%.

The problem is that the investors take all the risk in this securities lending, but reap only a portion of the benefit. Sure, the lending is fully collateralized and marked to market on a daily basis. But has anyone figured out what happens if your borrower goes bust, as hedge funds are frequently prone to do? Involvement in litigation can cost millions, and I’m pretty sure that the managers aren’t assuming their share of that liability.

By engaging in this activity, fund managers are making it easy for speculators to drive down the value of the lending fund, wiping out shareholder equity. Am I the only one who sees a conflict of interest here? It is the classic sort of “Heads, I win, tails, you lose” type of management philosophy which has sickened me over the years and seems to be getting worse, but which has become institutionalized.

ETF operators insist that this activity is disclosed in the prospectus. But the exact share of the profit split they keep isn’t. You can always vote with your feet, and flee the funds that are withholding the most in fees. Good luck figuring out who they are. This is the kind of regulation that the industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington to defeat. And you wonder why people are so pissed off at Wall Street.

I’ll Keep the Change