An audacious plan to give bond dealers more time to reveal large corporate-debt transactions has sparked a blowback from traders of exchange-traded funds.
Jane Street Group, one of the largest ETF market-makers, hedge fund Citadel LLC and an association of proprietary trading firms have all raised red flags about the impact that reduced transparency could have on the $2.2 trillion-a-year market for fixed-income ETFs. Vanguard Group also warned that the plan could increase costs for investors, as did Dimensional Fund Advisors.
These funds, which derive their price from the value of the cash bonds they own, have emerged as a lightning rod for complaints about the repercussions of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s proposal. If information about demand for certain bonds is incomplete, an ETF’s price won’t reflect the true value of its holdings. This raises the stakes for traders making markets in those funds, encouraging them to charge a premium that ultimately ends up hitting investors.
ETF traders “risk bearing a significant portion of cost shifting that will occur as a result of not disclosing block trades,” Matt Berger, Jane Street’s global head of fixed income and commodities said in a letter to Finra. “Instead of fully bearing these costs directly, however, ETF market-makers will pass them along to ETF investors.”
Jane Street says it trades $1.6 billion of debt ETFs every day, and is responsible for more than a third of share creations and redemptions in these funds, which manage $720 billion in the U.S.
Broker-dealers must currently report all corporate-bond transactions to Finra’s Trade and Reporting Compliance Engine program, known as Trace, within 15 minutes. The contemplated pilot program would extend that to as long as two days for large transactions to study whether a delay improves bond liquidity. Trades of investment-grade securities worth $10 million or more, as well as $5 million-plus blocks of junk debt, would be eligible.
More than half of these transactions involve securities owned by the seven-largest fixed-income ETFs, according to the Healthy Markets Association, a non-profit that wants the pilot abandoned and counts the California Public Employees’ Retirement System among its members.