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Vanguard to launch its first actively managed ETFs

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Better late than never.

After years of internal debate, Vanguard has taken one of the final steps necessary to sell its first smart beta ETFs in the U.S. The Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based firm registered seven actively managed factor funds with the SEC that are expected to begin trading in the first quarter of 2018, according to a company statement.

Smart beta is a portfolio strategy that takes techniques used by active investors to pick individual stocks and applies them to broad baskets, called factors, based around concepts such as momentum and value. In the U.S., smart beta ETF assets have grown seven-fold in the past decade to $680 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Vanguard, however, has largely remained on the sidelines of the strategy thus far. The asset manager operates smart beta funds in Canada and the U.K., but the U.S. is by far the biggest market for them in the world.

The funds gained an average of 13.3% a year over the past decade, which began before the financial crisis.
October 25

The new suite of funds includes ETFs tracking minimum volatility, value, momentum, liquidity and quality factors at a cost of $1.30 for every $1,000 invested. Vanguard also registered a multifactor ETF and mutual fund with fees of $1.80.

Though the firm offers market-cap weighted ETFs with slight factor tilts, it has long hesitated to sell concentrated exposure. Everyone from legendary founder Jack Bogle to longtime Chief Investment Officer Gus Sauter lambasted the concept for years, saying there’s no better “beta” than market-cap weighted indexes.

By actively managing the funds Vanguard has discovered a workaround of sorts, using a rules-based model while retaining its belief that smart beta isn’t passive. The company’s struggle for intellectual purity on the issue was summed up in September by outgoing CEO Bill McNabb.

“I don’t believe in this smart beta concept, I don’t think anything is smart about it,” he said at the time. “Some of the factor stuff we think is very legitimate.”

Bloomberg News