Mutual fund giant Vanguard popularized low-cost passive investing through index funds. It is now is a leader in the rapidly-growing market for exchange-traded funds (ETFs). These are some of the most popular and cost-effective passive investment options available to investors.

Investors can purchase shares of these securities on stock exchanges just like shares in a corporation. ETFs are baskets of securities that track a corresponding benchmark index and are normally readjusted automatically. One of their best features is that they come with very low fees. The types of ETFs are endless, ranging from bond ETFs and market ETFs to inverse ETFs, foreign market ETFs, and alternative ETFs.

Vanguard's portfolio passed the $1 trillion mark in ETF assets under management (AUM). BlackRock (BLK), which sponsors the iShares family of ETFs, is the only other firm at that elite level. But they aren't the only ones active in the ETF market. Keep reading to learn more about the top five ETF issuers.

Key Takeaways

  • ETFs are among the most popular and affordable investment options available to investors.
  • BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street dominate the ETF market with the most offerings.
  • The five largest ETF issuers have more than $100 billion each in ETF assets under management.
  • The SEC is concerned that these leaders may stifle competition and prevent new entrants in the market.

The Big 5 ETF Issuers

There are five issuers with $100 billion or more in ETF assets under management:

  • BlackRock: $2.117 trillion
  • The Vanguard Group: $1.619 trillion
  • State Street Corp. (STT), the sponsor of SPDRs: $881 billion
  • Invesco Ltd. (IVZ): $308 billion
  • Charles Schwab (SCHW): $214 billion

The Biggest ETFs

All 50 of the biggest ETFs, which range from $23 billion to $329 billion in AUM, are offered by these five top issuers. The five largest funds are:

  • SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) from State Street: $329 billion
  • iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) from BlackRock: $249 billion
  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI): $213 billion
  • Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO): $194 billion
  • Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ): $152 billion

Among the 50 largest ETFs, BlackRock offers 21, Vanguard sponsors 19, State Street issues six, and Invesco has one.

As passive index-linked ETFs became an increasingly popular alternative to index mutual funds, they represented a logical brand extension for Vanguard, which created the index fund concept.

Factors Spurring ETF Growth

Passive Funds Outperform Active Funds

Persistent underperformance by active managers is spurring the growth of passive index funds and ETFs. A study of 4,600 U.S.-based equity, bond, and real estate funds with a collective $12.8 trillion in AUM revealed that only 24% beat passive alternatives during the 10 years ending Dec. 31, 2018, according to Morningstar.

The same study found that passively-managed large-cap equity mutual funds and ETFs surpassed active funds in AUM for the first time, as of the same date. In June 2019, only 23% of active funds were reported to beat passive funds.

ETFs Popular With Institutional Investors

While ETFs are mainly viewed as a low-cost vehicle for individual investors, they are also popular with institutional investors. Nearly 25% of institutional money managers' portfolios were in ETFs by late 2018, per research by Greenwich Associates. Professional investment managers are increasingly seeing ETFs as a cost-efficient tool for managing risk and making quick portfolio shifts.

Meanwhile, Vanguard patented a scheme to reduce capital gains taxes on its ETFs, as detailed by Bloomberg. This process offers a competitive advantage, but Vanguard chooses to keep quiet about it, fearing regulatory action to curtail it.

Regulatory Concerns

The dominant combined position of BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street is raising concerns among regulators, particularly the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), that they may be in a position to stifle competition. These three firms control roughly 80% out of about $4 trillion in total ETF assets, a very high concentration ratio that may spark antitrust action.

According to the SEC, consolidation and compression in the industry may be cause for concern for investors. But there is some disagreement in the industry, notably from the Investment Company Institute (ICI) which stated there is still room for smaller players to forge a place for themselves in the market.

2,288

The total number of ETFs available to investors as of December 2020, according to Morningstar.

The Landscape for New Entrants

According to Morningstar, investors can choose from 2,288 different ETFs. A total of 276 new ETFs launched in 2020, as of December 17 of that year. The report said this was the most active period of any when it comes to new launches since 2015. This is compared to 3,291 ETFs established since 1993. That means approximately 30% of all ETFs since 1993 were shuttered.

Although there may be room for new entrants in the market, they do face challenges. For instance, they may have trouble complying with regulations and marketing their products. Outside help can often cost anywhere between $270,000 to $370,000 annually, plus a percentage of assets.

The Bottom Line

Investing in ETFs is a great way to diversify your portfolio. These investments track a specific sector, index, industry, or asset, and come with low fees. You can purchase shares the same way you would those in a publicly traded company.

Vanguard, which created passive investing through index funds is one of the major players in the ETF industry. Investors can also choose from ETFs offered by BlackRock, which runs the iShares portfolio, Invesco, State Street, Charles Schwab, and other smaller players. But remember, before you invest your money, make sure you consult a qualified financial professional to see if ETFs are right for you.