Visualizing the Expanse of the ETF Universe
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Under the right circumstances, an innovation can scale and flourish.
Within the financial realm, there is perhaps no better example of this than the introduction of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), a new financial technology that emerged out of the index investing phenomenon of the early 1990s.
Since the establishment of the first U.S. ETF in 1993, the financial instrument has gained broad traction — and today, the ETF universe has an astonishing $5.75 trillion in assets under management (AUM), covering almost every niche imaginable.
Navigating the ETF Universe
Today’s data visualization comes to us from iShares by BlackRock, and it visualizes the wide scope of assets covered by the ETF universe.
To start, let’s look at a macro breakdown of the “galaxies” that can be found in the universe:
| ||Global ETFs (AUM, $USD)||Share of Global Total
|All ETFs||$5.75 trillion||100.00%
|Money market||$0.04 trillion||0.6%
As you can see, equities are by far the largest galaxy in the ETF universe, making up 76.4% of all assets. These clusters likely comprise the ETFs you are most familiar with — for example, funds that track the S&P 500 index or foreign markets.
That said, it’s worth noting that the fastest expanding galaxy is bond ETFs, tracking indices related to the debt issued by governments and corporations. The first bond ETFs were introduced in 2002, and since then the category has grown into a market that exceeds $1 trillion in AUM. Bond ETFs are expected to surpass the $2 trillion mark by 2024.
Everything Under the Sun
While the sheer scale of the ETF universe is captivating, it’s the variety that shows you how ubiquitous the instrument has become.
Today, there are over 8,000 ETFs globally, covering nearly every asset class imaginable. Here are some of the lesser-known and more peculiar corners in the ETF universe:
Thematic ETFs: Gaining popularity in recent years, thematic ETFs are built around long-term trends such as climate change or rapid urbanization. By having more tangible focus points, these funds can also appeal to younger generations of investors.
Contrarian ETFs: In a healthy market, there can be a variety of different positions being taken by investors. Contrarian ETFs help to make this possible, allowing investors to bet against the “herd”.
Factor-based ETFs: This approach uses a rules-based system for selecting investments in the fund portfolio, based on factors typically associated with higher returns such as value, small-caps, momentum, low volatility, quality, or yield.
Global Macro ETFs: Some ETFs are designed to mimic strategies used by hedge fund managers. One example of such a strategy is global macro, which aims to analyze the macroeconomic environment, while taking corresponding long and short positions in various equity, fixed income, currency, commodities, and futures markets.
Commodity ETFs: There are ETFs that track gold or oil, sometimes even storing physical inventories. Interestingly, however, there are commodity ETFs for even more obscure metals and agricultural products, such as zinc, lean hogs, tin, or cocoa beans.
Whether your investments track popular market indices or you are more surgical about your portfolio exposure, the ETF universe is impressively vast — and it’s projected to keep expanding in size and diversity for years to come.