Risk & Compliance

SEC Considering Tighter Regulation of ETFs

"Despite the popularity and broad success of these funds, their history is not without some turbulence," SEC Chair Mary Jo White says.
Katie Kuehner-HebertMay 20, 2016

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is conducting a sweeping review of exchange-traded funds to determine whether new rules are warranted to reduce risks for investors.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White on Friday outlined the scope of the review, citing the “astounding” growth of the ETF sector. The number of ETFs has grown from 359 in 2006 to 1,594 in 2015, with net assets increasing from $408 billion in 2006 to more than $2 trillion in 2015.

“Despite the popularity and broad success of these funds, their history is not without some turbulence,” White said in her keynote address at the Investment Company Institute’s annual general meeting.

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The turmoil has included the May 2010 “Flash Crash” and the severe price swings in August 2015 that led to trading halts in more than 300 ETFs.  “The staff has been focused on analyzing these events and any broader implications they may have for how we regulate ETFs,” White said.

The SEC is examining the full life cycle of ETFs, from the role that Wall Street market-makers play in creating and selling shares to the sales practices of brokers who sell the funds.

According to White, staff are looking closely at the impact on investors when the fund’s arbitrage mechanism does not function efficiently. “That arbitrage activity is critical for making sure investors don’t buy or sell ETF shares at prices that are out of whack with the fair value of the fund’s assets,” The Wall Street Journal said.

Things got out of whack on Aug. 24, 2015, the WSJ noted, when dozens of funds traded at a sharp discount to the sum of their holdings. In a paper published in February, SEC economists blamed the volatility on a perfect storm of heightened trading volume and a withdrawal of liquidity by market makers.

“The SEC has taken a number of initial actions to share our thinking on these issues, and further regulatory steps beyond additional disclosures may be needed to address some of these issues,” White said.