The global investment community was introduced to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) on January 22, 1993, when State Street Global Advisors launched the SPDR S&P 500 ETF. It was designed to track the daily performance of the S&P 500 stock index. The State Street ETF immediately became a popular product among individual and institutional investors because it provided a low-cost approach to portfolio diversification.
Today, 28 years after its launch date, SPY remains one of the most heavily traded investment vehicles within the global financial services industry. It’s not uncommon for daily volume to exceed 100 million shares.
ETFs Gain Popularity Following the Dotcom Crash
During the past three decades, ETFs have exploded in popularity. However, they certainly did not become an overnight sensation. For the first 10 years of their existence, investors basically ignored ETFs because the industry did a poor job of marketing their products and communicating the benefits of owning exchange-traded funds.
Despite the fact that stocks had experienced a roaring bull market throughout the decade of the 1990s, most investors lost money by aggressively speculating in the “high flying” internet stocks. Therefore, by the early-2000s, investors were searching for a low-cost, diversified method for participating in the stock market. ETFs were the perfect solution.
In 2003, the size of the global ETF industry was USD $204.3 billion. Investments in ETFs have exploded during the past 18 years. In fact, with the exception of 2008, the value of exchange-traded funds has increased every year since 2003. In 2010, the ETF asset class reached its first major milestone by exceeding USD $1 trillion in market capitalization.
As you can see from the following table, investors have been pouring money into ETFs during the past decade. In fact, since 2010, the asset class has expanded by 489%. By 2023, the global market capitalization of exchange-traded funds is projected to be USD $12.0 trillion, making it one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles of all time. These numbers are based on data provided by Statista.
- 2010 – USD $1.313 trillion
- 2013 – USD $2.283 trillion
- 2015 – USD $3.423 trillion
- 2017 – USD $4.690 trillion
- 2019 – USD $6.194 trillion
- 2020 – USD $7.736 trillion
ETFs Viewed Through the Lens of Technological Innovation
For the past several decades, the financial services industry has been constantly criticized for its lack of innovation, particularly as it relates to technology. The industry has always been behind the curve in regard to technological innovation. In fact, technology improvements were practically non-existent for the majority of the 20th century.
However, in 1992, one of the most disruptive innovations in the history of financial services was unveiled when E*Trade introduced online trading. This new financial technology introduced millions of first-time traders to the stock market. For example, in 1995, only 300,000 investors in the United States had an online brokerage account. Five years later, in 2000, 11.3 million traders were participating in online trading. This represents a dramatic increase of 3,667%.
Is it simply a coincidence that exchange-traded funds were introduced to the investing public at precisely the same time as online trading? The short answer is, “no.” It’s not uncommon for innovative solutions to arrive in waves or clusters. An important new discovery (like online trading) usually lays the groundwork for other innovators to roll out new trailblazing technology (like ETFs).
In terms of its impact on the financial services industry, ETFs will go down in the history books as one of the most disruptive forces in comparison to other major industry groups. Please review the following list taken from data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, Statista, BlackRock, and the International Federation of Robotics.
Annual Technology Adoption Rate Since 2009 (CAGR):
- Smartphones – 24.3%
- ETFs – 18.0%
- Social media – 13.0%
- Retail sales via e-commerce – 11.8%
- Industrial robots – 10.9%
When most people view this list for the first time, they are shocked to discover how impactful ETFs have been on the financial services industry compared to major innovations across other industry groups. Exchange-traded funds have easily been one of the most disruptive forces of the past 50 years.
Two Disruptive Technologies Join Forces: Bitcoin and ETFs
Bitcoin was launched by Satoshi Nakamoto on January 3, 2009. The early years of Bitcoin (BTC) were very similar to exchange-traded funds. Investors were not the least bit interested in learning about the benefits of owning BTC, which is exactly the same type of reception received by ETFs. It’s not uncommon for people to ignore new discoveries, particularly technological discoveries.
As a general rule, people prefer to avoid disruptive innovations because they don’t like daily changes to their routine. This explains why it takes several years for some of the best discoveries to reach mainstream adoption.
As we previously mentioned, ETFs exploded in popularity beginning in the early-2000s, as investors discovered the benefits of owning exchange-traded funds. It took 17 years for ETFs to reach USD $1 trillion in market capitalization. Bitcoin achieved the same level in 12 years. In fact, BTC became the fastest asset class to reach USD $1 trillion in market capitalization. Most likely, Bitcoin will eventually exceed the asset level of ETFs, which currently stands at approximately USD $8 trillion.
During the past few years, several investment firms have attempted to gain regulatory approval for a Bitcoin ETF. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has not yet approved any Bitcoin ETF application.
However, Canadian regulators provided clearance to Purpose Investments Inc by allowing the investment company to become the world’s first Bitcoin ETF. The official launch date was February 18, 2021. Although the Bitcoin ETF has only been in existence for two months, it has attracted a substantial number of new investors. Recently, Purpose Investments announced that its Bitcoin ETF exceeded USD $1 billion of assets under management. Most likely, this trend will continue as United States investors patiently wait for the SEC to approve a Bitcoin ETF.
Why are Bitcoin ETFs so highly anticipated within the global investment community? Because both of these innovative products provide investors with an opportunity to own a completely new asset class by using a low-cost vehicle like an ETF. Let’s briefly review a few of the main features and characteristics of an ETF.
In comparison to mutual funds, exchange-traded funds are much cheaper in terms of the fees investors are required to pay. For example, a typical mutual fund charges a wide variety of fees. The list includes management fees, 12b-1 fee, administrative fees, operating fees, trading fees, auditing fees, and legal fees. The list of fees is endless.
All of these mutual fund fees are added together to create an expense ratio, which represents the total cost paid by the investor to own shares of the mutual fund. It’s not uncommon for investors to pay 1.5% to 2.0% annually. The fees are even higher if the investor uses a financial advisor.
ETFs offer some of the lowest fees in the financial services industry. The average annual ETF fee is 0.4%. Many exchange-traded funds are lower than 0.4%. In fact, many ETFs to charge less than 0.1%. This explains why investors have moved a substantial portion of their investment dollars into ETFs during the past 20 years.
As we previously discussed, the dollar value of ETFs has increased substantially during the past decade. The current value of assets invested in ETFs is approximately USD $8 trillion. This provides investors with a tremendous amount of liquidity to buy and sell without affecting the price of the underlying ETF. The bid/ask spread for the average ETF is very tight because of liquidity.
Over the course of the past 20 years, the financial services industry has introduced a wide variety of new investment products to the global investment community. The majority of these products were released prior to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Unfortunately, many individual investors, large institutions, and public pension plans found themselves locked in these opaque and highly complex investment products. When the financial markets began to unravel in late-2008, it became impossible for investors to liquidate their positions. Of course, this only exacerbated the financial crisis.
The financial crisis taught many investors to avoid highly sophisticated investments. This explains why there has been a large increase in ETF activity since 2009. ETFs are one of the most transparent investment products within the financial services industry because ETF providers openly communicate important information to investors in terms of how these products are structured. Consequently, investors have a much better experience participating in ETFs compared to other financial products.
Exchange-traded funds are an excellent choice for investors who are attempting to diversify their portfolios. Unlike individual stocks or bonds, ETFs provide investors with the opportunity to select various sectors, industry groups, and geographic locations.
As of 2020, the total number of listed ETFs in the United States was 2,445. Investors can select from a number of different categories: stocks, bonds, commodities, currencies, real estate, and alternative assets. These various categories provide investors with a tremendous amount of diversification. This data is provided by ETF Database.
As you can see, exchange-traded funds provide investors with several excellent features. These features and characteristics are the main reason why investors find Bitcoin ETFs so attractive. It will be a low-cost way for investors to gain exposure to BTC. Due to regulatory constraints, many investors have been unable to purchase BTC through a traditional brokerage account. Therefore, Bitcoin ETFs will allow these investors to purchase BTC for the first time.
GBTC Is Not a Bitcoin ETF
In September 2013, Grayscale Investments launched the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust, which allowed accredited investors to gain exposure to BTC through a private placement offering. The minimum investment was USD $50,000. While this product is still actively managed, it is no longer accepting new investors.
In May 2015, Grayscale received approval from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) to allow shares of the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust to trade publicly on the over-the-counter (OTC) market, using the ticker symbol GBTC. This allowed individual investors to buy and sell shares of GBTC through a traditional brokerage account.
During the past six years, GBTC has become an incredibly popular product within the Bitcoin community. Prior to the launch of Purpose Investments’ Bitcoin ETF in February, GBTC was the only way to invest in Bitcoin without purchasing BTC through a crypto brokerage account. GBTC exploded in popularity during the 2017 BTC bull market. In late-2020, GBTC experienced another wave of new money, as Bitcoin enjoyed a dramatic rally. As of March 31, GBTC has USD $45.6 billion of assets under management, making it one of the most popular investment products within the financial services industry.
Despite its popularity, many investors are under the impression that GBTC is an ETF. This is not true. Even though it trades on a regulated exchange like other ETFs, GBTC is officially an exchange-traded note (ETN). Essentially, an ETN is an unsecured debt instrument issued by a financial institution. In the case of GBTC, Grayscale Investments created the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust for the purpose of issuing the ETN.
Exchange-traded notes are designed to track an underlying index or security. In terms of GBTC, the underlying security is Bitcoin. When an investor buys GBTC, Grayscale purchases an equal amount of Bitcoin. The investor does not own the BTC. Instead, the BTC is held by Grayscale in the name of the trust.
Grayscale Bitcoin Trust was legally established as an investment trust, which means that the trust is a closed-end fund. The distinguishing characteristic of a closed-end fund is that it issues a limited number of shares when a new product is launched, like the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust. Therefore, GBTC has a limited number of shares that trade on the OTC exchange. These shares can trade at a discount or a premium to the underlying security, which is Bitcoin.
Consequently, it’s not uncommon for the share price of GBTC to trade in the opposite direction of Bitcoin. There are days when the price of Bitcoin rises while the share price of GBTC declines.
ETFs are a much better product because they are not structured like GBTC. Additionally, ETF fees are substantially lower compared to ETN fees. For example, the annual management fee for GBTC is 2.0%. As you know from our previous discussions, the average ETF fee is substantially lower than 2.0%.
Overall, a Bitcoin ETF is a much better product than GBTC. This explains why many investors are waiting to invest in Bitcoin until an ETF is launched in the United States. Most likely, Bitcoin ETFs will go down in the history books as one of the greatest investment products of the 21st century.
Digitex writers and/or guest authors may or may not have a vested interest in the Digitex project and/or other businesses mentioned throughout the site. None of the content on Digitex is investment advice nor is it a replacement for advice from a certified financial planner.