Jon Maier: WTF Is An ETF?

Dipping one’s toe into a new pond can often mean getting accustomed to a whole new set of acronyms. Well, if you’re treading into the investment world for the first time, here’s one you should know – the ETF, or exchange-traded fund. This week on Sea Change Radio, we learn about the ETF market from Jon Maier, the Chief Investment Officer of Global X ETFs. ETFs are one of the largest segments of the financial services industry even though many of us don’t know the first thing about them. We discuss how ETFs work, what has helped propel them into a $10 trillion industry, and how monitoring ETFs lends insight into trends such as the future of electric vehicles in China. Then, we revisit our 2021 discussion with impact investment pioneer Raj Thamotheram about how the socially responsible investing field has changed over the years.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:20 Jon Maier – As an investor, an investor wants a well-balanced portfolio. They may want stocks, they may want commodities, they may want fixed income. All of that can be accomplished by buying an ETF.

00:34 Narrator – Dipping one’s toe into a new pond can often mean getting accustomed to a whole new set of acronyms. Well, if you’re treading into the investment world for the first time, here’s one you should know – the ETF, or exchange-traded fund. This week on Sea Change Radio, we learn about the ETF market from Jon Maier, the Chief Investment Officer of GlobalX ETFs. ETFs are one of the largest segments of the financial services industry even though many of us don’t know the first thing about them. We discuss how ETFs work, what has helped propel them into a $10 trillion industry, and how monitoring ETFs lends insight into trends such as the future of electric vehicles in China. Then, we revisit our 2021 discussion with impact investment pioneer Raj Thamotheram about how the socially responsible investing field has changed over the years.

01:48 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Jon Maier. Jon is the chief investment officer at global accepts. Jon, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:57 Jon Maier – Alex, thanks for having me on.

02:00 Alex Wise – So I wanted to have an expert on about the exploding ETF market. We’ve never really covered it here at Sea Change Radio, it’s a very popular investment tool. And I thought who better to have on than you. So why don’t you first explain to our listeners what an exchange traded fund is, what these ETFs are and why they’ve grown in popularity so much?

02:25 Jon Maier – Thanks, Alex. ETF stand for exchange traded funds. And the size of the global ETF market currently is about $10 trillion. If you just look at the US, it’s approximately $7 trillion. In comparison to the mutual fund industry, that size in the US is about $26 trillion. And when I started doing this 20 years ago or so, the market was very new. People, even if they’re very educated or well versed in finance, they don’t necessarily know what an ETF is, but they probably own it. So an ETF trades like a stock and ETF you’ll find on the NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange, and you can trade it throughout the day. Typically they’re index funds. So they follow a defined index with defined rules. There are active ETFs and there’s commodity ETF, so it’s not an absolute index that it follows, but for the most part they’re index funds.

03:27 Alex Wise – And how does an ETF differ from a mutual fund, Jon?

03:32 Jon Maier – How it differs then, say a mutual fund – a mutual fund is a collection of stocks or securities that you only can buy at the end of the day. So you can put your order in at 12:00 o’clock, but it’s not going to be executed till the end of the day. Now, with an ETF, you can trade it throughout the day. Now there’s some there are differences in terms of taxes. If you buy a mutual fund, say, in October, and the fund has done rather well, there’s a good chance you’re going to get a capital gains distribution. And if you bought it in October, you didn’t really participate in the appreciation for the entire year. You just bought it in October and then you might get this capital gain distribution. You have to pay taxes on it.  With an ETF, for the most part, the tax consequence usually is zero on the fund level because of the structure of in-kind transfers. So when you create shares, you’re adding stocks into the trust. When you’re redeeming shares, you’re taking them out of the trust, so there’s no actual sale that goes on inside of the trust. Then there’s redemptions and also the portfolio manager can do some tax management with inside of the structure. And another difference would be expenses. Mutual funds typically are a lot more expensive than ETFs, so you look at ETF’s. They trade during the day, they’re cheaper, and they typically don’t provide a meaningful amount of capital gains distribution. Much better structure and assets have grown meaningfully over time.

05:03 Alex Wise – And when you talk about portfolio managers, one of the things that a lot of people research before they invest in a mutual fund is who who’s the portfolio manager, what are their values, what’s their track record, etc. What kind of role does the portfolio manager play in an ET?

05:20 Jon Maier – For the most part, let’s assume that you think about ETFs as index funds and into the ETF tracks and the underlying index like the S&P 500 or the NASDAQ or the Russell 2000. There’s thousands of them, and you can judge a manager of how well the ETF tracks the underlying index – is there minimal tracking error to the underlying index and that’s a good thing. So on that level, you can somewhat judge a portfolio manager from one company to another. There are active ETFs out there which are more analogous to mutual funds in the sense that you do have a manager that’s actively trading and the underlying mandate doesn’t follow an index. And in that case, sure, you can track the manager and how well they’re doing. There is a transparency component, which I didn’t mention about ETF’s, you know, at all times. What’s in that ETF? It’s a list of securities held inside the trust is provided on a daily basis. That’s why ETFs don’t trade at a premium or discount the price of the shares, don’t trade it at a premium or discount to their underlying Navy for any meaningful amount of time because it can be armed out.

06:37 Alex Wise – So for ESG investors, ESG, standing for environment and social governance, these socially responsible investors – environmentally friendly-focused investors, let’s say. The transparency of an ETF is probably pretty appealing, I would guess.

06:54 Jon Maier – Well, I mean, ESG is a whole category unto itself and it’s a newer component in the investing world and if there’s such a large definition of what ESG is, but yeah, the transparency of the structure, every security that’s held inside the trust on a daily basis. So you can say I don’t want to own certain types of companies. I don’t want to own companies that I believe are polluting the environment or perhaps are making guns and you don’t like those type of companies. Sure, you could see if those companies are inside the index. Chances are, unless it’s an ESG index, chances are it’ll be inside that trust.

07:39 Alex Wise – So can you explain in a little bit greater detail, what your company does in the ETF space, Jon? Do you assemble these ETFs on your own? What’s your business model?

07:50 Jon Maier – Globalx ETFs is an ETF provider in the US, Australia, Brazil. We have a European business, so we live up to the name global in the US we have, it keeps growing. We have approximately 95 ETFs exchange traded funds. And these ETFs invest in different areas. We have thematic ETFs. Thematics could include something like cloud computing, financial technology, electric vehicles, battery makers, robotics and artificial intelligence. So roughly half our assets are in the thematic space, the disruption space, things that are industries that are changing, the paradigm changing. How we are doing business, how we are operating as a society, how we’re communicating with each other and, depending on which type of theme, whether it be financial technology moving into the blockchain technology, how is that impacting the traditional banks and how is that technology changing those banks?  Then we also have a group of ETFs that are focused on income. We’ve been in a very low interest rate environment for quite some time. While interest rates are moving up, they’re still historically low. So we have different types of funds that are equity based for them. That provide a higher level of income that investors are looking for, particularly with changing demographics and the aging population. And as people retire, they need more consistent dividends and we have a whole group of ETFs that fall into that category. We also have international ETFs. China Consumer ETFs different sectors in China as well as many other countries, whether it be Nigeria, Colombia, Portugal.

09:43 (Music Break)

11:00 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Jon Maier. He is the chief investment officer for Globalx ETFs. So speaking of some of these disruptive industries, let’s turn to the EV market, the electric vehicle space. Specifically, I’m thinking about how China. Is adopting electric vehicles in record numbers now and it’s really transforming the global market for Reeves and we’re seeing supply chain issues in things like lithium batteries. What can we glean from the ETF markets about China’s transition to electric vehicles?

11:35 Jon Maier – Well, first, let’s let’s look at why there’s been such great adoption of electric vehicles in China. China is very close to the supply chains, so that I think is a big driver of the adoption. And the adoption has been about 53% of all cars sold in China are EV sales.

11:55 Alex Wise – That’s in 2021, right?

11:57 Jon Maier – 2021 in comparison, the US penetration is approximately 5% and being close to the supply chain combined with incentives from the government as well as a lead to bring down pollution, particularly in, say, Beijing. This is all catapulted cells in China. Now if you think about how it impacts the rest of the world, well, you look at the US, we only have about a 5% penetration. But we just had a bill that was passed in, that was passed in Congress and signed by Biden that is really going to help the transition to clean energy. There’s a lot of incentives in that bill. That will you know whether it be tax credits for individuals buying leaves. Charging stations. The push forward to rejigger factories to make them more environmentally friendly. There’s a lot of components of that bill which will drive a lot of other businesses. So it’s projected that 3 1/2 trillion dollars will be spent. Alongside that bill, over the next 10 years, that will help move us towards a cleaner energy transition. And with that, you’ll get a greater adoption of electric vehicles. I think that’s a big play from this bill. In terms of the ETFs, my company has a couple ETF’s that focus on whether it be lithium production and battery production. Or the companies that utilize batteries and sell electric cars. So there’s two ways to kind of play that. You can play the commodity component lithium. Lithium is in short supply and there’s, it’s in great demand. So obviously prices are going up. It takes a while to mine lithium and going back to China. While they’re closer to the supply chain or own some of these lithium companies, so that’s very helpful.

14:02 Alex Wise – And can we kind of connect the dots with what you were just saying and figure out if there’s going to be a stranglehold with US adoption because of this boom in China? Can we see signs from the ETF market that let’s say a particular rare earth mining ETF has gone off the charts? Something that tells me that American consumers. They’re not going to be able to afford Tesla batteries for their solar, rooftop solar systems or whatever, because I know those have almost doubled in the last couple of years. Little pieces of this puzzle can throw everything off.

14:37 Jon Maier – Biden’s historic climate bill, I think, benefits two key areas. One is electric vehicles and one is solar. And that’s because some of the tax credits that the consumer will receive. Now this innovation was already started. I mean, there is obviously Tesla has 60% of the EV market. But there’s a lot of new players coming into the market. Rivian, as well as many of the other mainstream players, are all producing electric vehicles, and some of them are expensive. They’ve become cheaper with the tax. But there are less expensive’s and as the distance traveled on a battery charge increases, I think the usage will increase and the tax credits help. And I don’t think it’s too dissimilar on the solar side because there’s been this driving force towards clean energy for the past decade and some of the tax incentives will help going forward and energy prices are so.

15:36 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Jon Maier. He is the CIO, the Chief Investment Officer for Globalx ETFs. So Jon, at the outset you were putting the ETF, the Exchange traded fund market in, in context and giving us an idea about just how big it is, I think you said it’s over $10 trillion. Can you give us an idea of how the demographics have evolved in this space? I imagine it started off with a much younger group of investors, and now it’s become more mainstream, comparable to the way, let’s say, mutual funds evolved from the 70s to the late 90s.

16:15 Jon Maier – Well, I think I would. Look at it a little bit differently, Alex. So if you think about some of the original ETFs that came into the market, SPY. SPY tracks the S&P 500. It is the single most or the largest single security that exists on planet Earth, SPY. And it was created primarily for use by institutions to either monetize cash. To just park in an exposure while they’re looking for something else, do quick trades and it was a very efficient way to buy a basket of 500 securities. Out of SPY came others the something similar on the Dow Jones Industrial average, one on the Midcap index, one on the NASDAQ.

17:11 Alex Wise – So what year are we talking about here, Jon?

17:15 Jon Maier – 1993 was the first ETF and that was SPY. Since then, right now I don’t know the exact number off the top of my head. We have over 2000 deaths in the US. At first, they were fashioned after major indexes. And well-utilized into indexes and there is a large amount of institutional use. And over time, there became more and more ETF’s that tracked many different indexes, and indexes were created so that ETF could follow that index. And there was an education process to financial advisors to how to effectively use these ETFs. So one of the big things that I do is create portfolios at Global X. So what I do is I take many different ETFs and put them together based off of clients, risk tolerance and time. The reason I have these, these incredible tools, I call them like almost fintech instruments that I utilize, ETFs, Exchange traded funds because they’re very tax efficient, the fees are generally lower than a mutual fund, and they’re transparent. I know it’s inside of these.

18:32 Alex Wise – Right. So can you tailor one for the fossil free sector or the gun free sector like you said earlier?

18:40 Jon Maier – Well, I can tell her a portfolio and pick an ETF that best fits a particular client profile. Using these these pieces. These building blocks, these Lego pieces to build a broader portfolio as an investor. An investor wants a well-balanced portfolio. They may want stocks they want. They want commodities. They may want fixed income. All of that can be accomplished by buying an ETF.

19:05 Alex Wise – So the ESG space, the environment, social governance sector, which for a long time was called corporate social responsibility or just the green investing space, but now it’s known by this meant moniker ESG.  How do you have more capability or flexibility to be able to create ESG focused instruments for investors, Jon?

19:26 Jon Maier – Well, the ESG topic is brought and we could go on for weeks and weeks discussing it, but in terms of an exchange traded fund and then creating an exchange traded fund or using one. There’s two main ways to look at this space. One is looking at through an exclusionary screen. So there’s different providers, whether it be MSCI or S&P or Russell. That’ll screen companies for things like equality. Are they making things that are harmful to the environment? And they could take them out of those companies, out of an index. So say you have the S&P 500, but there could be 50 or 60 companies by your definition of what ESG is. It does vary. Those companies should not be included in this because they are not considered ESG. So that’s one way of creating an index excluding companies. Another way would be to start from the bottom up, including companies that meet certain values. You look at different stakeholders, you look at employees, suppliers, stockholders. And do some sort of survey to find out the companies that by your definition for this index should be included in that index. So you’re looking, it’s a deeper dive and a harder and more comprehensive way of including companies within an index. So those are two ways that you can create indexes and then use an ETF to replicate that index within the ESG space.

21:02 Alex Wise – He’s the chief investment officer of Globalx ETFs, Jon Maier. Jon, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

21:09 Jon Maier – Thanks Alex, it was a lot of fun.

21:26 Alex Wise –  I’m joined on Sea Change Radio by Raj Thamotheram. He is one of the pioneers of the Responsible Investment field in the UK. He’s a board director and senior advisor to several nonprofits in the space. Raj, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

21:41 Raj T. – Thank you so much, Alex. I’m very pleased to be back.

21:45 Alex Wise – As I mentioned, you’re one of the earliest experts in the responsible investing field, it’s changed names many times. Why don’t you first summarize the arc? And the evolution of the space briefly if you can?

22:00 Raj T. – Well, that’s a great, great starter question. So in most countries, it started off as ethical or personal values or personal morals based thing. And so for example, in the USA, I think most people first heard about it in relation to apartheid South Africa and not investing in, in that that can also be extended to dealing with tobacco or any other sector or company that individuals don’t like. And from there, it morphed a bit as you as you were saying into something which was more institutional or retail as a product and then it became known as socially responsible investing where people start investment professionals start to look for good companies. Best in classes, the technical jargon, companies that are doing better, even if they’re in a dirty sector. So for example, without naming names, you can look for fossil fuel companies, which are trying to support the Paris agreement. And invest in those and disinvest or divest from companies who haven’t, that’s probably the most extreme example of of the challenge in terms of finding best in class. And then most recently, we’ve had a range of other players come into the sector who are looking for alpha for outperformance. So, people are trying to integrate non financial or extra financial data into their traditional investment performance processes defined a competitive advantage.

24:21 Alex Wise – And you’ve been a senior advisor at organizations like the university’s superannuation scheme, which is a large UK-based pension fund. But that was a while ago. Get us up to date with how larger behemoths of of the investment world whether they be pension funds or hedge funds private equity, how are they adopting ESG into their vocabulary Raj?

24:25 Raj T. – Great question. When I joined the Responsible Investment field I was one of a relative relatively small number a handful of professionals in larger organization’s mind was a big pension fund called the university superannuation scheme. It’s the UK equivalent to Tia cref in the States. And from there, I went to be the head of ESG, or responsible investment at AXA, which is a very big global insurance based fund manager. Since that time, we’ve had organizations like BlackRock and State Street and private equity firms like KKR, all signing up to being members of an organization called the principles of responsible investment. So depending on how you classify between one in three, or even wanting to investment dollars, is now signed up to those principles. On paper, how in practice that gets executed is a very big question. There’s a there’s a lot of concern about greenwashing.

25:46 Alex Wise – Yes, I can’t help but think a lot of times when I hear the stats being bandied about that the ESG sector has gone from 150 billion to $2 trillion in the last how many years? I can’t help but think that that’s just that they’re moving the goalposts a lot, in many cases that these companies aren’t necessarily completely changing the way they do business. But the way we analyze, green investing has changed. Is that overly harsh?

26:21 Raj T. – 44  So I’m gonna say yes or no, the concern is absolutely right. I have been talking about it for over 10 years, it’s one reason why I went independent and set up my own Think Tank, it’s much easier to see what you think when you’re when you’re not wearing an organizational hat. So where you’re absolutely right out, is that it’s very easy to slap a label of ESG on a fund, which isn’t very different from the funds that didn’t used to be called ESG. So you do a tiny bit of divestment. You take out tobacco here, you overweight companies, which have a good carbon footprint and suddenly, wham, bam, you’ve got a ESG fund. Well, actually, the real world value of that is pretty minimal with anything. So that’s one problem. The other problem is a lot of very big fund managers are doing what they do best, which is to push products. So on top of their normal business, they’ve added a new set of products called ESG. Products. Well, that’s a bit like, I don’t know having some extra salad, but at the same time stuffing yourself with high carb, fizzy drinks and unhealthy food doesn’t change the real impact of those organizations. And so I have some big questions about the greenwashing that’s allowed in the sector at the moment.

27:58 Alex Wise – Raj Thamotheram, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 Raj T. – Thank you so much.

 28:16 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Meters and Theo Katzman. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.