One of the Largest Electronic Traders Won’t Touch Some Bond ETFs

  • Virtu CEO says the underlying securities aren’t liquid enough
  • Assets in fixed-income ETFs have surged fivefold since 2010

One of the world’s largest electronic market makers won’t touch increasingly popular exchange-traded funds tied to bonds because the underlying securities are too hard to trade.

Although New York-based Virtu Financial Inc. buys and sells everything from stocks to government bonds and futures on more than 235 exchanges around the world, it shuns products linked to corporate bonds like the $15 billion iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF. The reason, according to Chief Executive Officer Doug Cifu, is that it’s too hard for Virtu to precisely hedge the trades.

“It’s definitely concerning you don’t have full and unfettered access to the underlying,” Cifu said, speaking at a Security Traders Association conference in Washington on Thursday. “That’s troubling.”

Worldwide assets in bond ETFs have surged in recent years, jumping fivefold since January 2010 to about $600 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. About 88 million shares of fixed-income ETFs have traded daily in the U.S. during the past 30 days, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Other market makers including Citadel Securities and Susquehanna do trade the ETFs, but Virtu’s absence is notable given how dominant the company is in other areas. Cifu said Virtu does trade ETFs containing U.S. Treasuries, including the ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury.

To read a Bloomberg Markets profile of Virtu, click here.

Virtu’s strategy involves arbitraging price difference in related assets, quickly entering and exiting the positions. With fixed-income ETFs, the company is concerned it can’t get access to the related bonds fast enough. Market makers with longer trading time frames may be less reluctant. Virtu’s line of thinking echoes worries elsewhere in the industry. Shares of the funds are often easier to trade than their underlying bonds, potentially posing a risk if there’s a sudden rush for the exit.

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