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Wall Street Fund Giants Face Headache as Indexes Dump Russia

More asset managers are removing Russian equities from their widely tracked indexes, complicating outlooks for ETFs.

(Bloomberg) -- Major index providers are officially cutting Russian assets from their gauges, ratcheting up the pressure on an exchange-traded fund industry already facing an extraordinary stress test.

MSCI Inc. and FTSE Russell both said late Wednesday they’re removing Russian equities from some of their widely-tracked indexes a day after Stoxx Ltd. announced it will delete Russian companies from its benchmarks and close its country-specific gauge. Firms including S&P Dow Jones Indices and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are still consulting on the matter, with decisions expected soon.

Given the chaos surrounding “uninvestible” Russian securities, the moves aren’t a surprise. But they further complicate the outlook for ETFs already suffering after sanctions and the Moscow market shutdown made their underlying assets virtually impossible to buy or sell. 

U.S.-listed funds tracking Russian assets including the iShares MSCI Russia Capped ETF (ticker ERUS) and the VanEck Russia ETF (RSX) slumped on Thursday following the news, with several facing trading halts.

“What’s really being tested is market-place resiliency,” said Reggie Browne, co-global head of ETF trading and sales and a principal at GTS. “This is somewhat unique.”

russia etfs funds

The structure of ETFs mean they are still trading even with their assets stuck. As prices plunge and valuations go haywire, one Russia-focused ETF is already being shuttered. Most others -- including products from the likes of BlackRock Inc. and DWS Investment -- are blocking new cash from entering. 

Now, many passive vehicles can’t actually sell to comply with the index changes, handle investors exiting, or both. 

“For ETFs such as broad global ETFs or even broad EM ETFs where the Russia holding is limited, the ETF I guess will continue to hold the Russian assets, tracking a benchmark where these are removed,” said Matthew Brennan, head of investment management at AJ Bell. 

The idea is that the Russian securities would continue to be held even if valued at zero. This could cause tracking error -- when a fund’s actual performance diverges from that of the benchmark it follows -- but also has potential upside should the assets ever recover.

The positive news for the broader industry is that Russian securities generally make up only a small part of major developing-nation gauges. The country typically accounts for about 3% to 4% of emerging-market ETFs, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. For instance the iShares MSCI Emerging Market ETF (EEM) had a geographical weighting of 3.56% for Russia as of Dec. 31. About 2.8% of the $79 billion Vanguard FTSE Emerging Market ETF (VWO) is in Russia.

“Given the small weighting of Russia on most global funds, the impact will be minimal,” BI analyst Rebecca Sin said.

Excluding dedicated Russia trackers there are 33 US ETFs with at least 3% in Russia (mostly EM ETFs) equaling about $6.5b and they are all trading at a slight premium to their NAV with the exception of EM debt, those are trading at discount. Here's look at them via @tpsarofagis

— Eric Balchunas (@EricBalchunas) March 2, 2022

When it comes to purely Russia-focused ETFs like ERUS and RSX -- both of which have suspended the creation of new shares -- it’s less straight-forward.

The Direxion Daily Russia Bull 2X Shares ETF (RUSL), the only leveraged Russia ETF, has announced it will shut. Other Russia ETFs often directly hold securities from the nation -- rather than using options, like RUSL -- so might find it harder to close down. Nonetheless, that could be the endgame, according to Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA.

“If the market is deemed uninvestible to MSCI, offering an ETF tied to it seems harder” to justify, he said. “It is now increasing likely that ERUS/FLRU and perhaps RSX are shut down unless Russia agrees to end its military efforts.”

A spokesperson for BlackRock didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the fate of ERUS. The firm on Thursday said it was pressing index providers to remove Russian securities from broad-based benchmarks, and that it was working to help ensure clients could exit positions “whenever and wherever regulatory and market conditions allow.” 

A spokesperson for Franklin Templeton -- which runs the Franklin FTSE Russia ETF (FLRU) -- didn’t immediately comment beyond referring to its earlier press statement. A spokesperson at VanEck declined to comment.

A second possibility is that Russia-focused funds continue to trade in the secondary market, even though the market they track is shuttered. That’s a scenario the industry has faced before. 

Back in 2015, when the Greek stock exchange closed during the country’s government-debt crisis, the Global X MSCI Greece ETF (GREK) was still available to investors. Similarly during the Arab Spring in the early 2010s when the Egyptian stock market closed, the VanEck Egypt Index ETF (EGPT) continued to trade.

In these past events, gaps emerged between the prices of the ETFs and the value of the assets they held which didn’t close until after the stock exchanges reopened. The ETFs actually acted as a vehicle to help value the underlying securities while they couldn’t trade.

Whether history repeats and the ETFs keep trading is now up in the air, thanks to the index providers’ latest actions, reckons Ben Johnson, director of global ETF research at Morningstar.

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” he said. “Two major index providers have effectively just told Russia that it’s on its own and that it’s stocks are worthless.”

At Bespoke Investment Group, strategists have been urging investors who don’t have high risk tolerance to avoid any Russian equities, even through exposure via ETFs, saying those products are subject to liquidation or wind-downs due to the sanctions imposed on the country. Last week they said “bottom-fishing is still extremely risky.”

“It’s not clear that the actual securities those ETFs hold can be legally (or operationally) traded, even assuming they find a buyer,” said George Pearkes, a global macro strategist at the firm. Funds that liquidate may not be able to sell securities, given the current rules surrounding sanctions, he said. 

RUSL’s liquidation was announced Monday, before BlackRock suspended creations for ERUS, and the likes of DWS Investment, Franklin Templeton, HSBC and VanEck all halted new shares in some of their funds.

For now, the fact the ETF shares still trade on the secondary market highlights a key advantage of the structure over mutual funds, said Nate Geraci, president of The ETF Store, an advisory firm.

“ETFs do offer an exit ramp,” he said. “I think that’s important in an environment like this.”

--With assistance from Abhishek Vishnoi, Farah Elbahrawy, Jan-Patrick Barnert, Veronika Gulyas, Sagarika Jaisinghani and Vildana Hajric.

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