Are ETNs Safe?

Last Updated: 20 March 2023

Matt’s argument is that “most ETNs offer daily redemptions at net asset value, meaning that (even ignoring the quoted market) an investor of size (50,000 shares in the case of iPath ETNs) can sell out of the product within 48 hours and get the full net asset value of the note from the issuer.”

In other words, even if you become concerned about the credit risk of the issuer and there is insufficient liquidity in the secondary market for you to trade, you can get out of a position by selling it back to the ETN issuer.

I agree with Matt that the tax treatment of ETNs gives them a huge advantage for US investors (ETNs are taxed at long-term capital gains tax rates and only on a deferred basis when sold, rather than annually like ETFs). ETNs also offer superior tracking ability since the issuer bank guarantees to pay you the relevant index return.

It’s also undoubtedly true that the credit risk component in banks’ unsecured debt (of which ETNs are a part) has dropped substantially this year, as can be easily seen by plotting a chart of credit spreads or from a glance at the counterparty risk index, so the market is telling investors that the risks of ETNs are nowhere near as large as they were (less than a third the levels of February this year, in fact, if you look at an average of issuers’ CDS spreads).

All the same, I’m a little uneasy about his argument.

Matt’s reassurance that you can put back an ETN holding to the issuer within two days, giving you time to get out if there are problems, sounds fine in theory but may not offer you full protection in practice.

There was a fascinating article yesterday on Bloomberg in which reporters Richard Teitelbaum and Hugh Son tell us that during the summer months of last year, AIG was trying to write down – by up to 40% – the value of credit default swaps it had written to banks.

The central thrust of the Bloomberg article is that the Fed, which paid out AIG’s unsecured creditors at par, was more generous than it needed to be by paying out counterparties in full rather than enforcing a “haircut”.

The reporters quote Janet Tavakoli, a credit market specialist, as saying, “There’s no way they should have paid at par. AIG was basically bankrupt.” As an example of a haircut being applied in similar circumstances, the article cites a case involving Citigroup Inc., which last year agreed to accept about 60 cents on the dollar from New York-based bond insurer Ambac Financial Group Inc. to retire protection on a US$1.4 billion CDO.

What’s the relevance of all this to ETNs? Well, the whole question of whether unsecured bank creditors (such as ETN holders) should be protected by the authorities or forced to accept some cut in the amount they are due if the institution concerned gets into difficulties (or, for example, to suffer a forced conversion into equity) has been swept under the carpet since credit market concerns peaked earlier this year, but it hasn’t gone away.

If anything, given public disquiet at the way banks have gone back to “normal” in their pay policies while still relying on taxpayer support, I’d argue that it would be much harder for governments to convince the public that financial institutions must be saved at all cost should we enter a second round of the credit crisis.

But, more importantly, the Bloomberg article tells us that a writedown of creditors’ claims against AIG could quite conceivably have been negotiated and then imposed across the board with little or no warning. Such negotiations were apparently going on in private and, while they didn’t lead to any settlement, it would be foolish to imagine that such a scenario could not happen again.

So, all in all, Matt, while I agree that unsecured debt exposure to banks via ETNs may well make sense for a number of reasons, this type of investment instrument is likely to remain a poor cousin to ETFs in the tracker market. With almost all ETFs, investors are collateralised and shouldn’t have to lose sleep at night over credit risk.

  • Luke Handt

    Hello, my name is Luke Handt; I am a successful Bitcoin trader, financial analyst, and researcher. I have been studying the market trends for the conventional stock exchange system globally since I was in college.

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