#109 - Matt Hougan - “Anyone Who Tells You They Know What’s Going to Happen in Crypto Is Probably Lying to You"

74 minutes

In Episode 109, we welcome ETF and crypto expert, Matt Hougan.

After a quick, fun story about Matt’s first job…as a 9-foot tall seal mascot for a minor league baseball team…Meb asks about the state of the ETF industry – where we are today, and where we’re going.

Matt tells us that ETFs have become a dominant force in investing. Since the financial crisis, some $2 trillion of capital has flowed into ETFs. In comparison, the mutual fund industry has seen $0 inflows during that time. In terms of issues that are shaping ETFs and will continue to do so over the coming years, Matt points toward fee wars, distribution networks, and the growing reality that it’s getting harder for smaller companies to get a foothold within the ETF space. Overall, Matt believes the days of fastest ETF growth are in front of us.

Referencing back to the capital flows differential between ETFs and mutual funds since 2008, Meb asks if there will there be a Netflix/Blockbuster moment when the lion’s share of assets leaves mutual funds and flows into ETFs.

Matt believes the stream of asset migration will become a flood in the next bear market. He tells us the only thing that has kept mutual fund asset levels up is the bull market of the last decade. That’s created lots of embedded capital gains which many investors haven’t wanted to realize. Yet when a bear market finally hits… Matt believes we’ll see accelerated flows out of mutual funds when we suffer our next 20% market drop.

Next, Meb brings up something which Matt has tracked for since 2008 – the world’s lowest cost ETF portfolio. He started by taking the lowest-cost ETFs representing six major global asset classes. He was curious how much it would cost in order to get full global exposure. In 2008, the combined, blended fee to own the world was 16 basis points. Today, it’s down to just five basis points. Matt and Meb agree this is a great time to be an investor. 

This bleeds into a discussion of direct index investing, which, Matt tell us, might be the next evolution of investing beyond ETFs. If you’re less familiar with direct index investing, it’s a way to own indexes, yet without paying a fund management fee, while enjoying the potential benefits of tax loss harvesting. This leads to an interesting discussion about implementing direct investing via robos, as well as the tradeoff between tracking risk and the potential for tax alpha.

The guys touch on a few more ETF ideas – broad concerns about the ETF market, active versus passive ETFs, and the use of artificial intelligence in replacing discretionary managers – but it’s not long before Meb switches the conversation to crypto.

Though ETFs are Matt’s first love, he’s long been interested in cryptocurrencies, so he was excited at the chance to join Bitwise, creator of the first currency index. Giving us an overview of the crypto world, Matt tells us “an index-based approach is the only sensible approach to the crypto market, because anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen in crypto is probably lying to you.”

At Meb’s request, Matt then describes how to put together a crypto index. Matt tells us the goal is to capture the broad-base crypto market. There are 1,500 cryptos out there, but most of the market cap is concentrated in the top 10-15 currencies. There are many challenges to creating an index, including such basics as “how many Bitcoin are there?” (Do you the current number, or what the number will be x years in the future?) Matt goes into interesting detail for us.

What follows is a great conversation for any listener curious to learn more about the crypto world. You’ll hear about Matt’s ideas for other crypto indexes and ways to approach the market… how Meb got in hot water with crypto investors… what the future may be for crypto and its related technologies… the growing institutional interest… when we’ll see a crypto ETF… where crypto fits into a traditional asset allocation… the impact of government regulation… and why cryptos won’t go the way of the tulip bulb.

Finally, you’ll hear Matt’s answer to “if you had to buy one crypto and not touch it for 10 years, what would it be?” And of course, there’s Matt’s most memorable trade. This one lost him about 90%.

What are the details? Find out in Episode 109.

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