Synthetic ETF

Synthetic ETF

A new era in investing began with the introduction of the first exchange-traded fund (ETF). ETFs allow investors to access a wide range of investment options in a cost-efficient, transparent, and easily accessible way while also providing the benefits of pooled investing and trading flexibility. Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are now among the world’s most sought-after commodities. Synthetic ETFs are only one of several new and improved forms of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that have been introduced throughout the years. Synthetic exchange-traded funds are described here. 

The polar opposite of physical or conventional ETFs are synthetic ETFs. Synthetic exchange-traded funds (ETFs) engage in a total return swap with financial institutions that agree to pay the ETF the return on the benchmark rather than holding securities like physical ETFs do. Synthetic exchange-traded funds typically utilise one of two structures: funded or unfunded. 

What is a Synthetic ETF? 

Instead of buying stock, the money in a synthetic exchange-traded fund (ETF) is invested in futures and swaps. 

To clarify, the usual objective of an exchange-traded fund (ETF) is to track the performance of an index, such as the S&P 500, through the purchase of equities. Even though it does not really hold any assets, the synthetic exchange-traded fund aims to mimic the performance of a benchmark index. Instead, the fund’s management contracts a third party, often an investment bank, to guarantee the fund receives the benchmark return. 

Understanding Synthetic ETF 

Individuals now have access to two innovative investing vehicles: exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and synthetic ETFs. After its introduction in the early 90s, the ETF saw rapid adoption. They functioned similarly to mutual funds but were index funds rather than actively managed ones, with minimal management costs. However, instead of being sold at the end of the trading day, they might be exchanged all day long. 

The first synthetic ETF was released in Europe, maybe around 2001. Even though very few American asset managers offer synthetic ETFs, they continue to be popular in European markets. This is because, in 2010, the US Securities and Exchange Commission implemented laws that made it illegal for asset managers who weren’t already sponsoring a synthetic ETF to establish new funds. 

The Federal Reserve has voiced concerns over synthetic ETF safety. According to research by the Fed in 2017, “Synthetic ETFs are riskier structures than physical ETFs because investors are exposed to counterparty risk.” 

Risk of Synthetic ETF 

  • To guarantee that the fund will get a return on the index, synthetic ETFs employ swap contracts to negotiate with one or more counterparties. Therefore, the rewards are contingent upon the counterparty’s capacity to fulfill its obligations. Because of this, counterparty risk is a potential threat to synthetic ETF investors. Certain laws limit the level of counterparty risk that a fund can incur. 
  • A good example is that a fund cannot have more than 20% of its net asset value in counterparties, as per the UCITS regulations in Europe. Compliance with such laws is a common goal for ETF portfolio managers. One common tactic is to engage in swap agreements that “reset” if the counterparty exposure hits the specified level. 
  • Collateralising, and even exceeding collateralisation, the swap agreements can further reduce counterparty risk. To reduce counterparty risk, regulators have begun requiring counterparties to post collateral. So long as the ETF provider can get their hands on the collateral in the event of a counterparty default, investors won’t lose anything. A higher degree of collateralisation and more frequent swap resets better protect investors from losses in the case of a counterparty default. 
  • To keep these funds appealing, investors should be rewarded for the counterparty risk they are exposed to, even though it is limited (more so than in physical ETFs). Less spending and fewer tracking mistakes are the payoffs. 
  • Synthetic exchange-traded funds (ETFs) often have fewer tracking errors than physical funds and are highly successful at monitoring their underlying indexes. While some exchange-traded funds (ETFs) boast a total cost ratio (TER) of zero, synthetic ETFs offer a far lower TER. Due to tracking failures and portfolio rebalancing, physical exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have higher transaction costs than synthetic ETFs. 

Benefits of Synthetic ETF 

Synthetic fund advocates argue that their vehicles more closely mimic the behaviour of an index. Investors looking for access to markets with limited reach, less liquid benchmarks, or other methods that would be costly for standard ETFs to operate can find a competitive offering in this. 

Some people are against synthetic funds because of the hazards they pose, including conflicts of interest, collateral risk, liquidity risk, and counterparty risk. 

Two entities are involved in synthetic ETFs, and both must fulfil their end of the bargain. The use of collateral can reduce risks. 

Types of Synthetic Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) 

Exchanges in Europe and Asia often distinguish synthetic ETFs from regular funds by including an X in their titles. The extent to which investors comprehend the features and dangers of synthetic ETFs is a matter of some worry for authorities in both areas. As a result, the financial institutions that issue them are now subject to more regulations. 

Unfunded and funded synthetic funds are the two most common kinds. 

  • Under an unfunded swap model, an authorised participant pays the issuer with cash and the issuer issues additional shares of an exchange-traded fund (ETF). The supplier invests the funds into a diversified portfolio and then trades them for a share of the benchmark index’s profits with the swap counterparty. 
  • The funded swap concept is somewhat similar to the ETF approach, with the exception that the collateral basket is kept in a separate account. A further crucial point is that the collateral need not follow the benchmark index. Although there is usually a high degree of correlation, even the collateral’s asset classes could deviate from the benchmark. 

When buying, holding, and selling the underlying investment becomes too costly or impractical, synthetic ETFs help investors. However, the fact that these ETFs include counterparty risk must be considered, and the potential gain must be sufficient to justify the potential loss. 

Frequently Asked Questions

While exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that track physical assets hold those assets, synthetic ETFs engage in a swap arrangement with another entity that promises to pay out the index’s return (after costs) instead. 

First, consider the ETF’s past performance, the index it is based on, its structure, when and how you may trade it, and its cost. 

Investors purchase shares in a fund that tracks the performance of underlying assets, which are owned by the fund provider. While shareholders do possess some ownership in an ETF, they do not own the assets that make up the fund. 

There is a trade-off between the higher potential profits offered by synthetic ETFs and the increased risk compared to purchasing equities or other vehicles that entail physically owning the asset. 

Instead of buying stock, the money in a synthetic exchange-traded fund (ETF) is invested in futures and swaps. To clarify, the usual objective of an exchange-traded fund (ETF) is to track the performance of an index, such as the S&P 500, through the purchase of equities. 


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