By Ashley Lau and Michael Flaherty
NEW YORK, May 13 (Reuters) - The biggest providers of exchange-traded funds, which have been funneling billions of investor dollars into some little-traded corners of the bond market, are bolstering bank credit lines for cash to tap in the event of a market meltdown.
Vanguard Group, Guggenheim Investments and First Trust are among U.S. fund companies that have lined up new bank guarantees or expanded ones they already had, recent company filings show.
The measures come as the Federal Reserve and other U.S. regulators express concern about the ability of fund managers to withstand a wave of investor redemptions in the event of another financial crisis. They have pointed particularly to fixed-income ETFs, which tend to track less liquid markets such as high yield corporate bonds or bank loans.
"You want to have measures in place in case there are high volumes of redemption so you can meet those redemptions without severely impacting the liquidity of the underlying securities," said Ryan Issakainen, exchange-traded fund strategist at First Trust. The company has increased a credit line it has set up to $80 million at the end of last year, the most recent reporting period, from what was originally a $20 million line in early 2013. The line is shared by two of its ETFs and two mutual funds with a combined $645 million in assets.
Under the Wall Street reform act known as Dodd-Frank, banks have been shedding their bond inventories, resulting in less liquidity in fixed-income markets. Because there are fewer bonds available for trading, a huge selloff in the bond markets could worsen the effect of a liquidity mismatch in bond ETFs.
Vanguard, the second-largest U.S. ETF provider, lined up its first committed bank line of credit last year and now has a $2.89 billion facility backed by multiple banks and accessible to all of Vanguard's funds, covering some $3 trillion in assets, the Pennsylvania-based fund company told Reuters. The new setup is to "make sure that funds will be available in time of market stress when the banks themselves may have liquidity concerns," Vanguard said.
The issue for ETFs is this: When investors sell fund shares and there aren't enough ETF buyers in the market, the ETF manager in many cases will need to immediately sell shares of the underlying securities in the fund to meet those redemptions. But a sudden selloff of an ETF in an illiquid market could cause the manager to have to dump those securities at any price, causing their share prices to collapse. With a line of credit, fund managers could instead meet redemptions and take their time to sell some securities.
"These funds offer daily or even intraday liquidity to investors while holding assets that are hard to sell immediately, thus making the funds vulnerable to liquidity risk," U.S. Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer said in a speech in March in Germany, pointing directly to ETFs and saying they have mushroomed in size while tracking indexes of "relatively illiquid" assets.
That is all exacerbated because investors have been pouring money into bond ETFs, while banks, under regulatory pressure to limit their own holdings, have been slashing their bond inventories.
Growth in fixed-income ETFs also means there are now more products tied to corners of the bond market previously untapped by ETFs. Assets in U.S.-listed fixed-income ETFs are up nearly six-fold since 2008, to $335.7 billion at the end of April, according to Thomson Reuters Lipper data.
With overall fixed-income ETF growth has come expansion in some esoteric corners of the bond market. Assets in loan ETFs, for example, have grown almost five-fold over the past three years to $7 billion at the end of April. Many of these funds weren't in existence during financial crisis that shook global markets in 2008 and haven't been tested by a widespread run.
BOLSTERING CREDIT LINES
Like paying for insurance, maintaining these liquidity backstops comes at a cost.
Banks facing their own reserve requirements against these lines are charging commitment fees that can range from 0.06 percent to 0.15 percent, according to company filings. If a line is actually drawn upon, there would be additional interest charged on any amount borrowed. In many cases, these costs are included in the ETF's annual expense ratio, and borne by the funds' investors.
Borrowing costs vary from firm to firm, but they are typically charged interest at a rate equal to the higher of the federal funds rate or the adjusted London interbank offered rate plus an agreed upon spread.
Most fund managers cite the expansion of their credit facilities as commensurate with the growth in assets of their funds. But they are also able to point to them as ways to head off regulator concerns at a time when asset managers have been the subject of increased scrutiny about whether or not they should be classified as "systemically important financial institutions," a tag that would involve more regulation.
Vanguard, for example, referenced its committed credit line in a letter to the Financial Stability Oversight Council in March, noting it was one of the measures it has in place for liquidity risk management.
BlackRock Inc, the world's largest ETF manager, hasn't opened lines of credit for its bond funds because it doesn't trade in the less liquid corners of the bond market, but it has opened a line of credit against its some of its emerging market stock ETFs as "a source of cash to be used to facilitate settlement requirements associated with trading in smaller markets," spokeswoman Melissa Garville said.
State Street Corp, the third biggest ETF provider after BlackRock and Vanguard, and Invesco Ltd's PowerShares, the fourth-biggest, have credit lines set up for their respective senior loan ETFs. For State Street, its senior loan ETF alone has exclusive access to $100 million of the total $300 million credit facility the fund company has in place.
Other ETF firms that have expanded their credit lines include New York-based Guggenheim and Dallas-based Highland Capital. Highland increased its credit line six-fold to $150 million last October in part because of one big investor who "wanted to get a little more comfort" that the fund would be able to meet a potentially large redemption, said Ethan Powell, the firm's chief product strategist.
"In order to accommodate that investor effectively, we upsized the size of the facility," Powell said. "We don't anticipate drawing on it, but it really serves as more of a security blanket." (Reporting by Ashley Lau in New York and Michael Flaherty in Washington; editing by Linda Stern and John Pickering)