Understanding the Risks of Synthetic ETFs

The strong growth of the Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) market in Europe and Asia over the past few years has resulted in an increasing level of scrutiny by regulators, research bodies and media commentators. This growing level of scrutiny has proved something of a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it is an explicit acknowl- edgment that the notion of “passive investing” is gaining ground amongst investors. However, in many instances the ETF industry has been unfairly singled out for issues – mainly pertaining to risk – that do really affect the investment fund industry as a whole.

Whether active or passive, investing always means taking risks in the expectation of a reward. Reduced to their simplest expression we can identify two broad categories of risk, namely investment and structural. Investment risk relates to the market performance of the asset, while structural risk relates to the product used to invest in the asset. Investment risk is unavoidable, but taking on structural risk should be a matter of personal choice.

In Europe, the debate about struc- tural risk in ETFs has always been entwined with that about replication methodology. There are two strands of ETFs in the European market- place: physical ETFs, which replicate the index they track by physically holding all, or a representative sample, of the index constituents; and the so-called “synthetic” ETFs, which deliver the index performance via a swap contract or other types of derivatives.

Conceptually, it is much easier to explain what physical replication is. However, it would be a mistake to equate “easy to understand” with “posing less structural risk”. And yet, this is precisely what some do, citing the existence of swap counterparty risk in synthetic ETFs as unequivocal proof. However, counterparty risk can also exist in physical ETFs, provided they lend out the fund’s constituents. And the main providers of physical ETFs in Europe actually do.

Now, it is important to stress that counterparty risk (i.e. the risk that the other party in a financial contract fails to fulfil its obligations) is not privy to ETFs. It can also affect a multitude of other investment vehicles, including traditional mutual funds, which also engage in securities lending activities and/or use derivatives. Nevertheless, when it comes to ETFs, investors and their advisers must make sure to understand the nature of this structural risk. Equally, they must also be able to judge whether the protective measures in place against it, as well as the compensation for taking it, are adequate.


Synthetic ETFs deliver the perfor- mance of the index they track via a swap contract. The ETF manager builds a so-called “substitute basket” – sometimes also called “collateral basket” – with a mix of assets that may or may not bear any relation to

the index the ETF tracks, and then enters into a swap contract with a counterparty – normally an invest- ment bank – whereby it exchanges the performance of such a basket for that of the index. For this reason, counterparty risk is intrinsic to their structure. This means that investors are irremediably exposed – at least theoretically – to the risk that the swap counterparty fails to deliver the performance of the index. While there may be multiple reasons why this may happen, the worst case scenario would be where the swap counterparty simply goes bust. Irrespective of the cause, the ETF investor would be left with the contents of the “substitute basket” as collateral.

It is generally accepted that investors in synthetic ETFs are compensated for taking on swap counterparty risk with the reward of comparatively lower management fees and more accurate tracking vis-á-vis ETFs employing physical replication techniques. But there is also a series of regulatory measures that providers of synthetic ETFs must comply with as a means of protecting investors against this counterparty risk. Under UCITS rules, for example, the net counterparty risk exposure of an investment fund (i.e. not just ETFs) to any single issuer via a derivative (e.g. swap) cannot exceed 10% of its NAV. In effect this means that 90% of the ETF must be collateralised.

In reality though, the majority of synthetic ETF providers either fully or over collateralise their swap expo- sure on a voluntary basis, thereby increasing the level of protection afforded to investors. Furthermore, parallel to the voluntary enhance- ment of collateral requirements, providers of synthetic ETFs have also made major improvements in the area of transparency. For example, online disclosure – mostly on a daily basis – of the composition of the “substitute baskets” has

become the norm. This level of transparency helps investors in synthetic ETFs to properly assess risk.


The degree of protection against counterparty risk will ultimately be a measure of the available collateral. The quantitative aspect of the collateral is important, and one where “the more the better” is the overriding rule. However, in the event of counterparty default, the level of compensation won’t be solely determined by quantity, but by whether the collateral is of good enough quality to be liquidated fast and at a fair price. And yet, evaluat- ing quality is not a straightforward task. If pushed, we would all be able to come up with a rough classification of assets on the basis of perceived theoretical security. Nonetheless, the ability to sell any asset, and the price at which it can be sold, will ultimately be determined by the market environment at the time of the transaction.

Some of the guidelines published by ESMA last year touched on the issue of collateral quality. Amongst others, factors such as high liquidity, high credit rating, transparent pricing, and sufficient diversification of collateral assets are key towards minimising the chances of a shortfall when liquidating collateral.

In any case, the complete elimination of risk does not seem possible. But then again, it is precisely the assumption of risk that distinguishes investors from savers. What should matter for investors assuming risk of any kind is to do so fully aware. And in that respect, ETFs have set high standards of transparency – certainly much higher than those applied by the actively-managed mutual fund industry – that allow investors to do just that.