Beat the market: should you buy active ETFs, LICs or unlisted managed funds?
Knowing the nuances of these three structures can help you make shrewder investment decisions.
Today, investors have a dizzying array of choice when it comes to accessing hands-on professional investment management.
They can purchase:
- Units in an unlisted actively managed fund – a structure where investors pool their capital with other investors. The combined capital is invested by a fund manager on their behalf into assets like shares or bonds.
- Units in an exchanged-traded managed fund (or active ETF) – similar to an unlisted investment trust except that investors can buy and sell units in the trust an exchange; or
- Shares in a listed investment company (LIC) – a structure which allows investors to buy shares in a listed company whose business it is to invest in a range of companies (and other assets).
Such variety is a great development for investors. Never has it been so easy for everyday investors to access professional management and a range of asset classes. We're not quite at Uber Eats-level convenience, but it's a step in the right direction.
Funds are ideal for investors who lack the time and/or expertise to construct and monitor a portfolio themselves.
But with product innovation comes added responsibility. To the untrained eye, these structures offer different but equally beneficial ways to access an actively managed investment portfolio. And there are many similarities, particularly around investment objective, style and management team. But there are subtle differences in the ways each structure allows portfolio managers to manage your money and distribute income. There are also concerns around the way in which these structures are priced and traded.
To help you make more informed decisions, let’s examine how the three structures operate, and the pros and cons of each.
So the next time you're presented with these three options - the ABC Global Equities Fund, the ABC Global Equities Exchange Traded Managed Fund or the ABC Global Equities Listed Investment Company – you'll know what to do.
How actively managed fund structures compare
Unlisted managed funds
For a retail investor without a financial adviser or access to an investment platform, buying units in an unlisted managed fund has historically been difficult. Download a paper application form, print it, fill it in, sign it and send it via snail mail. The forms too are a headache. The Bennelong Funds Management application form, for instance, is 27 pages long - and this is not unique to them.
The ASX's mFund service now makes it easier for individuals to buy and sell unlisted managed fund through their broker. However, not all funds and brokers have signed up.
Active ETFs and LICs
As both structures are listed on the ASX, investors can access them as they would a normal share.
Unlisted managed funds and LICs
Australian unlisted managed funds are not required to disclose their portfolio holdings, and often only list their top 10 investments. Australia is now the only market (out of the 25 assessed) that does not have portfolio holdings disclosure requirements, according to the Morningstar 2015 Global Fund Investor Experience report.
Most LICs similarly publish their top 20-25 holdings each month.
Active ETFs, on the other hand, are required to disclose their full portfolio holdings (comprising the names and weights on the investments) on a quarterly basis. Product providers typically disclose their full positions to internal market makers so they can price the underlying securities. A market maker is a dealer in securities or other assets who undertakes to buy or sell at specified prices at all time.
Pricing & trading
Unlisted managed fund
When you invest in a fund, you're buying units in that fund. The unit price is calculated by dividing the funds' fund's total assets minus the value of any liabilities – known as the net asset value (NAV) - by the number of units on issue at the end of each business day.
The pricing of LICs can be more confusing because of the way they're structured and sold.
In a listed investment company, investors buy shares in a listed company whose business it is to invest in a range of companies (and other assets). The value of the company moves in line with its underlying investments. Under ASX listing rules, LICs have 14 calendar days after the end of each month to disclose their net tangible asset (NTA) backing – the measure for what a LIC’s portfolio is worth – although some voluntarily provide weekly or daily pricing online.
However, as LICs operate in a close-end structure (more on that later), it doesn't necessarily trade at that value. Often, it will trade at a substantial premium or a discount. This is because the price of the shares can be influenced by the level of liquidity and demand for the asset (among other things). If you buy at a premium, you may be overpaying for those assets, while selling at a discount means you might not be getting the best price.
The LIC board may implement measures to close these gaps, such as share buybacks, rights issues, increased marketing efforts, or in extreme cases, winding up the LIC.
Investors must pay a broker to purchase a LIC, which adds to the cost of investment.
The value of an active ETF also represents the value of the securities it holds. Its value is determined intraday by dividing its total assets by the number of units on issue.
Active ETFs should trade close to the fund's underlying net asset value (NAV) of its holdings because when there is excess supply or demand, an internal market-maker steps in to create or redeem units.
However, investors may also be circumstances where the iNAV – the estimated intraday net assets under value – is inaccurate, particularly where there is a major market event, ASIC says.
ASIC last week called for a "pause" in the listings of new exchange-traded managed funds that rely on internal market makers to make their market, due to conerns around potential conflicts of interest. A review is currently underway and is expect to last till the end of the year.
Like LICs, investors must pay brokerage to purchase active ETFs, which adds to the cost of investment.
Entry & exit
Unlisted managed funds
For investors wanting to directly purchase units in an unlisted managed fund, managers will typically set a minimum entry threshold. While this amount varies from manager to manager, for retail investment trusts the amount tends to be between $10,000 to $25,000.
To make additional investments, managers have also set a minimum threshold. However, some managers allow investors to participate in a regular monthly investment plan, which can have lower limits. For example, for the Magellan Global fund:
- Minimum initial investment $10,000
- Minimum additional investment $5,000
- Minimum regular monthly investment $200
Direct investors can withdraw from the fund at any time, although some funds set minimums. Again, this is done via a paper form and payments can take up to a week to appear.
Funds can freeze withdrawals in certain (but rare) circumstances. For example, when they receive a mass redemption request – as what happened in the case of UK-fund Woodford Equity Income and several mortgage funds during the Global Financial Crisis.
LICs and active ETFs
Investors can buy shares in LICs or units in active ETFs trading on the ASX via a broker. Providers typically have no minimums, but the broker may apply minimums, as they do with shares.
To exit the structure, investors must find a willing buyer of their units or shares. In the case of active ETFs, this can be the market maker.
Unlisted managed fund and active ETFs
Unlisted funds are open ended. This means they're always open to daily inflows and outflows. Practically, this means that if an investor wants to leave the fund, the manager may be forced to liquidate some assets to finance the redemption.
LICs are closed ended. When an asset manager wants to create a LIC, they turn to the market to raise capital via an initial product offering (IPO). When the IPO is fully subscribed, they list the company on the ASX and issue shares to the participants.
The funds are considered “captive” in the sense that the assets are closed-in for the manager to invest and cannot be redeemed. For investors who didn't participate in the IPO, they can buy and trade shares in the LIC on the ASX off other market participants.
This type of closed-end structure can be advantageous for LICs because the portfolio manager doesn't have to worry about investors pulling money out of the fund.
Unlisted managed funds and active ETFs
In an unlisted managed fund, all net income is considered a capital gain and is distributed on a pre-tax basis. Therefore, the end investor is liable for any taxation at their marginal tax rate.
This may result in a difficult to predict income stream. But the biggest advantage is the investor will most often be likely to be eligible for a discounted capital gains tax concession for assets held longer than 12 months.
An unlisted fund may also present the manager with more flexibility in paying distributions, being able to pay over and above the underlying income levels, through a return of capital. This can be useful where a manager wishes to pay out a set proportion of the fund each year to provide investors with a predictable income stream.
Here’s where it gets complicated. There are two types of LICs. Ones that hold their investment on capital account, and those that hold their investments on income account.
The capital account LICs are also known as ‘Buy and Hold’ LICs. These are low turnover and trade rarely. Capital gains from these LICs are eligible for the CGT discount.
Income account LICs are also known as ‘Trading LICs’. These are higher turnover, and the profits on trades are treated as income, so are taxed at the company tax rate and are not eligible for the CGT discount.
Capital account LICs generally pay fully franked dividends by passing on the franking credits received from their underlying investments. They may withhold some dividend income and franking to be able to smooth dividends from year to year. If the underlying stocks drops their dividends, then more than likely the LIC will have to reduce their dividend.
Income LICs need to build up a profit and franking credit reserve to pay fully franked dividends. This means they will get eaten into when market falls, but the LIC may be able to continue to pay dividends for a time depending on the buffer built up by the LIC.