Anyone with a Google news alert set up for variations on ETFs, exchange traded funds, ETF research or news – as any self-respecting journalist on, say, an ETF-based news and analysis site might – would have noticed in recent months how their alerts and feeds have been overwhelmed by crypto-based stories and opinions.
This is what it would have been like if the Tulip mania occurred in a time of Google alerts.
There has, of course, been some newsflow in recent months on potential crypto-based ETFs. The Winkelvoss twins – those long-time Zuckerberg stalkers and now something akin to the pin-ups of the crypto world – recently had another attempt at twisting the arm of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow a Bitcoin ETF.
It failed, of course, and for much the same reasons the plan was rejected first time around. The SEC is rightly concerned about issues around fraud and price discovery and nothing about the evangelical nature of much of the bitcoin boosters is likely to change their mind.
Yet still the attempts keep coming or the very good reason that many are convinced there is a lot of money to be made from selling a bitcoin ETF. And nevermind what might become of the speculators’ money should the SRC ever succumb to the madness of the ‘holdlers’.
Of course, we cannot tell how the world of the crypto-maniacs would react should the SEC cave. But my guess is that the initial blast of enthusiasm would soon give way to some pretty hard-nosed short trading.
Such would certainly be the conclusion if you take the example of what is happening in another specialist area of the ETF space – marijuana stocks.
The current fervour for marijuana plays in the US right now is being played out in the arena of ETFs as much as with the individual stocks.
The ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF – which owns 35 cannabis-related stocks – was at one point last week trading at 41 cents above the value of its underlying assets.
This is some feat. As one expert was quoted in the Wall Street Times as saying, investors have been “buying and selling at dislocated prices.”
So what is going on? Partly, this is a reflection of the general hype surrounding marijuana stocks in North America. Canadian cultivator and exporter Tilray, for instance, saw its value soar to over $20bn after it floated on Nasdaq just two months ago, and has now fallen back to a ‘mere’ $10bn.
Not bad for a company that notched up revenues last year of a mere $21m.
Ironically, perhaps, the chief executive of the ETF Managers Group which provides the ETF said the activity surrounding the fund was due to the “hyperactivity” in the cannabis market.
Intriguingly, securities lending data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch shows that the stock lender currently has no stock to lend on the ETF despite high interest in it. Peter Sleep, portfolio manager at 7IM, points out that this could be due to two factors. Either, a lot of people want to borrow to short it or a large percentage of the underlying stocks are in the hands of retail investors who do not make their securities available to lend.
Either way, the ETFMG Alternative Harvest fund does point to some characteristics of thematic funds that investors should be aware of.
“Fund management companies are very good on cashing in on exciting trends,” says Sleep. “They hope to exploit what is hot at the moment without much regard to the underlying fundamentals. When commodities were hot 10 years ago there was a slew of related ETFs like a shipbuilding ETF, a nuclear power ETF, a rare earth metals ETF and a number of Gulf Cooperation Council ETFs.
Most have since closed, of course. “In the past the asset management industry has been good at cashing in on interest in the internet during the dotcom bubble, where many investors ended up losing 90% of their cash. They did not issue ETFs back then, but there were plenty of open and close ended funds.”
Sleep suggests that “for the moment it looks like the excitement and mania has gone out of Bitcoin” and the speculative frenzy has moved into cannabis. Yet still the bitcoin-related exchange traded products keep coming, with Swiss corporation Amun announcing just this week that a crypto index ETP has received approval from the SIX Swiss Exchange.
The promoters of that products suggest the ETP is designed to give “the vast swathes of the world excluded from easily participating in the digital assets revolution” access to bitcoin trading.
Further, they add that it has been designed “to make buying crypto as easy as buying a stock, allowing investor around the world to access this burgeoning asset class in a safe and regulated manner.”
To which, surely, the only question is: what have they been smoking?