Tom Stevenson: ETFs have potential to become the next toxic scandal

Section:

Gold and silver ETF investors should note the reference here to the use of exchange-traded funds to short their own markets.

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By Tom Stevenson
The Telegraph, London
Saturday, September 17, 2011

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/tom-stevenson/8769410/Tom-Ste...

Who says regulators are only good for slamming the barn door after the horse has bolted?

Back in April, the Financial Stability Board (FSB), an international super-regulator, wrote a prescient if less than catchily-titled paper "Potential financial stability issues arising from recent trends in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)."

Its central warning -- that ETFs are not the cheap and transparent vehicles the marketers would have us believe -- was spot on. When UBS's $2 billion black hole hit the screens on Thursday, no one who read the FSB report was surprised to see the words "ETF" and "rogue trader" in the same sentence.

The past 10 years have seen an explosion in the popularity of ETFs. In part this reflects some of their acknowledged benefits -- relatively low costs and the ability for investors to trade them throughout the day. A third claim, that ETFs are simple products, may once have been true but it no longer holds water. Many of these funds are now fiendishly complicated and way beyond the comprehension of the individual investors and professionals alike who are buying them.

Here are just a few of the reasons why ETFs are not all they are cracked up to be.

First, around half of the ETFs in Europe today do not match the index they are designed to track by holding all of its constituent shares. Unlike the plain vanilla "full replication" ETFs which do, 45 percent of the market is in the form of so-called "swap-based" ETFs which instead use derivative agreements, often with investment banks, to simulate the performance of the underlying assets.

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Derivative trades add a second layer of uncertainty to the unavoidable ups and downs of the market, the counterparty risk that the organisation on the other side of the contract might go bust. Even worse, the provider of the ETF might sometimes be a part of the same organisation as the derivatives desk carrying out the swap.

When a bank acts in this dual capacity, and because of inadequate disclosure rules, there is a significant potential for a conflict of interest in which the end investor comes off second best. Because there is currently no obligation for the basket of assets used as collateral to actually match the assets the ETF purports to be tracking, a bank may choose to hold less liquid assets to back the fund which it could struggle to sell if too many investors want out at the same time.

The problem of liquidity is an increasing issue with ETFs because of the way in which the funds have branched out into other asset classes such as fixed income and commodities. In these markets, liquidity is typically thinner than in big equity markets such as those measured by the S&P 500 or FTSE 100.

Liquidity is only ever a problem at times of market stress. Unfortunately, that is precisely the time when it matters, as investors in some real-estate unit trusts discovered a few years back when the property market turned down and, funnily enough, their managers were unable to sell enough properties to pay back redeeming unit holders. Investors were locked in.

A big unrecognised risk with ETFs is related to the ease with which traders -- hedge funds in particular -- are able to use the funds to short markets. For reasons which I'm not sure I could explain even if I had the space, it is possible for the number of shares sold short in an ETF to massively exceed the actual number of shares available. It has been suggested that the "Flash Crash" of May 2010, in which US shares fell 1,000 points before bouncing back in a matter of minutes, was a consequence of this -- around 70 percent of cancelled trades at the time were reported to be for ETFs.

Like many financial innovations -- most obviously, the alphabet soup of mortgage-related debt obligations that triggered the financial crisis -- ETFs started out as a good idea, and for some investors, in their most transparent form, they remain so. But, as so often in the financial services industry, a tangled web of complexity has rapidly developed. What was once a straight-forward means of gaining access to a market has turned into a minefield for investors and one which, as UBS discovered in the middle of the night last week, has the potential to become the next toxic scandal.

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Tom Stevenson is an investment director at Fidelity Worldwide Investment. The views expressed are his own.

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Sona Drills 85.4g Gold/Ton Over 4 Metres at Elizabeth Gold Deposit,
Extending the Mineralization of the Southwest Vein on the Property

Company Press Release, October 27, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Sona Resources Corp. reports on five drillling holes in the third round of assay results from the recently completed drill program at its 100 percent-owned Elizabeth Gold Deposit Property in the Lillooet Mining District of southern British Columbia. Highlights from the diamond drilling include:

-- Hole E10-66 intersected 17.4g gold/ton over 1.54 metres.

-- Hole E10-67 intersected 96.4g gold/ton over 2.5 metres, including one assay interval of 383g of gold/ton over 0.5 metres.

-- Hole E10-69 intersected 85.4g gold/ton over 4.03 metres, including one assay interval of 230g gold/ton over 1 metre.

Four drill holes, E10-66 to E10-69, targeted the southwestern end of the Southwest Vein, and three of the holes have expanded the mineralized zone in that direction. The Southwest Vein gold mineralization has now been intersected over a strike length of 325 metres, with the deepest hole drilled less than 200 metres from surface.

"The assay results from the Southwest Zone quartz vein continue to be extremely positive," says John P. Thompson, Sona's president and CEO. "We are expanding the Southwest Vein, and this high-grade gold mineralization remains wide open down dip and along strike to the southwest."

For the company's full press release, please visit:

http://sonaresources.com/_resources/news/SONA_NR19_2010.pdf