#87 - Michael Venuto - “I Would Suggest Seeking Out High Active-Share, Global Growth Themes"

58 minutes

In Episode 87, we welcome market veteran and ETF expert, Mike Venuto.

Mike briefly walks us through his background, which includes a fun story about a baffling situation years ago when the gold mining company, Newmont Mining, was falling in price despite gold rising in price. Mike tells us the culprit turned out to be the new ETF “GLD” – Mike realized he needed to learn far more about ETFs.

Next, the guys dive into ETFs. Meb starts broadly, asking where we are in the ETF evolution.

Mike tells us we’re still quite early. The growth rate has been largely the same over the last 10 years (a little over 20%); but that growth rate is compounded over a larger base now, so it feels like the growth is greater. And in terms of where ETFs are going, free beta is getting saturated. The next move in ETFs will be people thoroughly detailing the differences between two ETFs that appear largely the same at first blush (nowadays, people tend to see similarly-themed ETFs as somewhat the same).

Meb pushes deeper on this idea, wanting to know more about this next evolution in ETFs. Mike tells us that myriad factors are a part of any given ETF beyond its expense ratio. For instance, there are the spreads, how well an ETF tracks its index, whether the ETF lends out its shares and what it does with that revenue, then there’s the share price itself. All these factors can make two ETFs that appear similar on the surface actually quite different.

This dovetails into the idea of “active share” – basically, the measure of an active ETF that differs from its index. Mike tells us about a tool at Toroso called Smart Cost that helps embrace ETF transparency. The tool helps answer the question “how much am I paying for the smart portion of an ETF?” Mike goes on to tell us that the overall expense ratio is not the most important cost consideration – instead, it’s how much am I paying for the smart portion? He gives us an example, comparing it to its benchmark, then calculate its “price per unit of difference.” The tool shows the amount of the ETF you’re buying that is different – and this helps determine the true value of any given ETF.

Meb echoes much of this, saying that in order to justify actively managed fees, an investor wants an ETF that looks truly different than its benchmark. Otherwise, you’re just paying top dollar for cheap beta.

The conversation bounces around a bit, including some other tools Mike uses, but eventually Meb asks about something Mike is doing that’s on the forefront of tracking the entire ETF space.

It turns out, Mike has created an index that enables investors to track the growth and exposure of the overall ETF ecosystem. This includes not just the issuers, but the exchanges, the data and index providers, the back-office companies, and so on – the entire overall ecosystem. So, Mike has created an index that tracks the growth of all these companies.

Next, the guys move into the “fringe ETF” space. Mike predicts we’re going to see more “characteristic” based indexes. Rather than capture a factor, they systemize how to target characteristics – e.g. a spin-off, or insiders buying a stock, or great brands. This leads into a conversation about “structural” factors, where you create a different form of behavior. An example would be a put-write fund.

The guys touch on a few topics before moving onto cryptos. They discuss whether crypto has any real legs, and what the potential could be. Mike has some interesting thoughts here.

As the interview begins to wind down, Meb asks for Mike’s favorite ideas going into 2018.

Mike tells over the next 10 years, it could prove difficult to achieve the type of beta returns we’ve enjoyed over the last 10 years, so he suggests seeking out high active, global growth themes. Find a PWC or McKinsey study about “things that are going to change the world” then invest in those industries (think robotics). Mike goes on to mention the Internet of Things and the electrification of cars.

Meb agrees on the potential for a challenging return environment. He walks us through why using the 60/40 portfolio with current bond yields, and what equities would have to return to keep us at “average” returns. Given our lofty valuations today, that seems tough.

There’s way more in this episode: The Permanent Portfolio… whether gold bugs should be concerned about the rise of crypto… how Meb has a new army of enemies in the form of Litecoin crypto investors… and how one of Mike’s friends bought a pizza years ago with Bitcoin – probably the most expensive pizza that friend will ever purchase. And of course, there’s Mike’s most memorable trade.

Hear about it in Episode 87.

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