Securities lending – the dark side of mutual funds
A topic that hasn’t been discussed by market observers and regulators for a while is securities lending, but it might be on the agenda again soon. iShares–the exchange-traded fund (ETF) arm of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock–has announced that the firm will increase its engagement in securities lending and has therefore scrapped its self commitment on the percentage of securities held by the firm that can be lent to third parties. This step is rather surprising, since securities lending by ETFs was one of the main points raised by critics in the past. The reaction of the ETF industry to this announcement was for some ETF promoters to introduce a ban on securities lending, while others such as iShares introduced a maximum percentage of securities that can be lent.
From my point of view, this discussion did not go far enough, since securities lending is not done only by ETFs. The vast majority of securities-lending activity is done by actively managed mutual funds, since the overall assets under management are much higher in this market segment.
Is securities lending bad for the investor?
Don’t get me wrong, securities lending is not bad per se, but one needs to think twice about getting a fund involved in this kind of activity, since it can have negative impacts on the fund’s performance.
The first point to take into consideration is that most counterparties that lend securities use them to build short positions. If this works, the fund and therefore the shareholder of the fund will face a loss on the given position, since it is still a long position for the portfolio. This raises the question of whether securities lending is in the best interest of the fund owner/investor, since the loss might have a higher negative impact on the fund’s performance than what the lending fee adds on the positive side.
Income from securities lending as a source of return
The income from securities lending is the second point one needs to take into consideration, since the fund does not benefit from the full lending fee. Even though the fund and therefore the investor bear the full risk of the default of a borrower, the lending fee is normally shared between the investor and the fund promoter. Securities-lending activities offer a free lunch to fund promoters, since they get return without bearing any risk. This stream of risk-free cash might be one of the reasons iShares has scrapped its restrictions on securities lending. iShares has lowered dramatically the management fees for some of its ETFs on major market indices to compete with Vanguard in Europe. This means the revenue of iShares and therefore the revenue of the asset manager, BlackRock, might have decreased, and they may want to regain profit by increasing their securities-lending activity–one of the easiest ways to achieve this goal.
I think it would be much fairer if the fund promoter got a fixed handling fee for its involvement in the securities-lending activities of the fund instead of a large percentage of the overall income generated by these activities. Again, the fund promoter does not bear any risk and should therefore receive only a small part of the income. An investor should carefully read the annual report of the fund, especially where it is stated how much revenue the fund has made from securities lending and how much of this revenue has been paid to the fund promoter.