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Re-engineering fixed income ETFs

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Q&A with Michael John Lytle, CEO, Tabula Investment Management

Assets in fixed income ETFs are growing fast. Do they really need reinventing?

Growth in fixed income ETFs was inevitable, given the huge shift towards passive products and the success of ETFs in equities. It was also natural that the first bond ETFs would use existing bond indices as their benchmarks. But, with hindsight, these indices are only the first step in terms of efficient ETF construction or in their alignment with how investors actually construct and manage portfolios. 

What is different about Tabula’s approach? Is the name a clue?

People often ask why we’re called ‘Tabula’ and the answer is that our philosophy is to start with a blank slate, a ‘tabula rasa’. If you set out with no preconceptions, what would passive fixed income exposure look like? Evolution in financial services is often rushed or driven by vested interests, so it’s often worth questioning the status quo. And, of course, new instruments can emerge that do the job better than the old ones. 

Our expertise in deconstructing portfolio exposure has given us an interesting perspective too. For example, many portfolio managers think about credit risk and interest rate risk very differently. In the majority of bond ETFs, these two risks are interwoven in a way that the manager cannot control without introducing a hedging strategy. Wouldn’t it be simpler to use different instruments for different risks? This was the rationale behind our first ETFs, using CDS indices to provide precise credit exposure, without the interest rate component. 

The important thing is to have an open mind and listen to investors. In some market segments we’re making small tweaks to existing approaches. In other areas, we see the need for a more serious rethink. 

Does the market need another Euro IG bond ETF?

This is another common question. Clearly, the Euro investment grade bond market is well-served by a handful of large ETFs. However, as we’ve discussed, the traditional indices may not always deliver optimal exposure for investors, or the most efficient ETF. Again, our credit background helped us find a solution. In the past decade, credit default swap (CDS) indices have become the default instruments for credit trading. For example, trading volume in iTraxx Europe, a basket of 125 investment grade European issuers, averages over EUR4 billion a day. Why not launch a bond ETF that closely matches this liquid instrument? Our Euro IG bond ETF tracks an index designed to provide corporate bond exposure that closely reflects iTraxx Europe. 

There are multiple benefits to this approach, including a highly liquid ETF, with more balanced sector exposure and without the additional complexity of US issuer risk. Another plus is that this ETF has a AA ESG rating from MSCI.

I strongly believe that you don’t need 3,000 bonds to track a market. During the stressed markets of March 2020, this ETF traded much closer to its Net Asset Value than its competitors. 

As we approach year end, and the sell side prepares to slim balance sheets while the buy side closes its books, a more liquid approach to EUR IG credit may once again prove beneficial. The current slew of negative factors could also lead markets to experience more than just a seasonal liquidity slump. 

You’ve just launched a US inflation ETF. What was your approach there?

It’s becoming ever more likely that the era of stable developed market inflation is coming to an end. Our newest ETF is, again, the result of stepping back and asking what investors really want. Currently, the ETF market offers a choice between traditional inflation-linked bonds, delivering realised inflation, and more sophisticated products offering exposure to inflation expectations but with no real yield. Our conversations with investors revealed that most want exposure to both realised and expected inflation, ideally in the same product. 

Finally, what’s next for Tabula? 

The overriding issue for the whole industry is sustainability, particularly the climate change emergency, but also social and governance concerns. We’re focused on finding efficient and impactful solutions that suit the specific characteristics of the fixed income asset class. 


Michael John Lytle
CEO, Tabula Investment Management

Michael John (MJ) Lytle is CEO of Tabula Investment Management. Previously MJ was a founding partner in Source, an investment manager focused on the creation and distribution of ETFs, including a partnership with PIMCO to create and distribute a range of fixed income ETFs. Source was purchased by Invesco in 2017. Prior to Source, MJ spent 18 years at Morgan Stanley with a variety of roles across corporate finance, capital markets origination, trading, sales, equity, fixed income, private wealth and technology strategy. Most of these roles revolved around fixed income and evolving and expanding investors’ access to the asset class. MJ has a BA in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College with further studies at the London School of Economics.

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