The structure of Libra is analogous to the popular Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) model, where unit holders are entitled to the financial returns of a basket of financial assets. The units are tradable on exchanges and a select group of authorised participants are able to create and redeem units using the underlying assets.
As we pointed out in our February 2019 piece, the ETF industry has enjoyed considerable growth in the last decade or so, in particular in the area of fixed income (See figure 1 below). In June 2019, in a bombshell moment for the ETF industry and challenge for the established players such as Blackrock and Vanguard, social media and internet conglomerate Facebook, entered the game. In a direct challenge to Blackrocks’s “iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF” (AGG), Facebook announced plans to launch a new ETF, the “Libra ETF”, also focused on fixed income and government bonds.
Figure 1 – Size of the Top Bond ETFs Targeting US Investors – US$ Billion
(Source: BitMEX Research, Bloomberg)
(Note: The chart represents the sum of the market capitalisations of the following bond ETFs: iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF, Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF, iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF, Vanguard Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF, Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF, Vanguard Intermediate-Term Corporate Bond ETF, iShares J.P. Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF, Vanguard Total International Bond ETF, iShares MBS Bond ETF, iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF, PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Strategy Fund, Vanguard Intermediate-Term Bond ETF, iShares Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF, SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF, iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF)
Comparing the new ETF structure with the traditional space
In figure 2 below, we have analysed and compared the new innovative Libra ETF to a traditional ETF, Blackrock’s iShares Core US Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG). Our analysis shows that, although the Libra product is new, much of the relevant information, such as transparency of the holdings and frequency of the publication of the NAV, has not yet been disclosed.
The analysis also highlights that Libra may suffer from unnecessary complexity with respect to portfolio management. The fund appears to be managed by the Libra Association, which consists of many entities in multiple industries across the globe. These same entities are responsible for issuing the ETF and the list of companies is set to expand further. At the same time, the investment mandate is unclear. In contrast Blackrock’s fixed income ETF product has a clear investment mandate, to track the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, which is managed independently of the ETF issuer.
Perhaps the most significant disadvantage of the Libra product, is that unit holders do not appear to be entitled to receive the investment income. This contrasts unfavourably with Blackrock’s product, which focuses on an almost identical asset class and has an investment yield of around 2.6%. Defenders of Libra could point out that the expenses need to be covered from somewhere and that the Libra’s expense fee is not yet disclosed. However, the ETF industry is already highly competitive, with Blackrock charging an expense fee of just 0.05%. This expense fee is far lower than the expected investment yield of the product, at around 2.6% and therefore the Libra ETF may not be price competitive, a key potential disadvantage for potential investors.