The active evolution of ETFs: Potential opportunities for investors
Eric Grey
Senior Vice President, Head of Financial Conglomerate and RIA Distribution

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For more information about Capital Group’s ETFs, call our RIA support line at (800) 421-5450 or contact your relationship manager or specialist directly. 

Advisors generally understand the most commonly cited benefits of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) — including their low costs, tax-efficient structure and transparency. But many advisors are looking beyond basic ETF knowledge and exploring active ETFs to gain an additional edge, ensure they are getting the most out of their investment toolkit and stay ahead of the latest industry trends. Although most ETF assets are in passive index-linked strategies today, actively managed ETFs are expected to see increased advisor adoption in the near future.


We examine why active ETFs have reached a tipping point and what advisors should be looking for when adding them to client portfolios, especially as core investments.

  • The idea that all exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are passive and follow indexes is outdated. The next phase of ETF evolution will be driven by actively managed ETFs for core portfolios designed to help manage downside risk, lower volatility and complement passive holdings.
  • After a slow start, the growth of active ETFs is gaining momentum due to regulatory changes, asset managers providing their clients with more choice and more advisors gaining comfort with the ETF structure for active investments.
  • Active ETFs can involve a bit more due diligence for advisors, but choosing the right active ETFs for client portfolios saves time overall for advisors by helping them manage niche exposures.

The surge of flows into ETFs in recent years was driven by increased advisor and investor awareness of their benefits, including low costs and tax efficiency. But at the same time, the growing popularity has perpetuated a misconception about the vehicle: that ETFs can only be used for passive strategies. As more well-known asset managers give advisors the choice to invest in their active strategies through ETFs, it is important to know what to look for and understand why not all active ETFs are the same.

Welcome to ETFs 2.0

ETFs have been around for almost 30 years, and it is finally time to break the myth that the term “ETF investing” means passively managed and market-capitalization-weighted indexing. This misconception is understandable, because ETFs were originally created as index funds that could be bought and sold on a stock exchange. In addition, most of the $7.2 trillion in U.S.-listed ETFs currently resides in passive ETFs, and the business is fairly top-heavy with the lion’s share of assets concentrated in a handful of providers.1

There are already over 2,800 exchange-traded products in the U.S.2 The pace of ETF innovation is high, but the concentration of assets in relatively few products and providers means there are lots of ideas, but not many are sticking. It also suggests that new ETFs may not be meeting the needs of advisors and investors.

There are signs, however, that ETFs are entering their next phase of evolution. The rise of actively managed ETFs is a key trend. Of course, RIAs may be skeptical of active ETFs because they have been touted as “the next big thing” for years, and active ETF assets are currently a relatively small slice of the overall pie. But recent flows in the U.S. signal that active ETFs may be reaching a tipping point:

  • Active ETFs gathered inflows of $87 billion in 2021, and the assets in active ETFs rose by 44% to $295 billion.3
  • When combined with open-end mutual funds, active ETFs represent only 2% of active funds, but ETFs represented 35% of active fund inflows in 2021.3 This indicates that advisors and investors are getting more comfortable using active strategies in the ETF structure.
  • Although just 4% of ETFs are actively managed, the category represented 10% of the record $902 billion of inflows that all ETFs saw in 2021.3
  • In 2021, 489 active ETFs were launched, which accounted for 65% of all new ETFs.4
  • In a poll of ETF sponsors, 70% said they are either currently developing or planning to develop active transparent ETFs.5

Active ETFs: Beyond star portfolio managers and niche strategies

Many well-known asset managers are giving RIAs and other clients the choice to invest in their active strategies through mutual funds or ETFs.

“Our investment process is the same if it’s a mutual fund, separately managed account (SMA), or ETF,” said Eric Grey, RIA national sales director at Capital Group. “If there is an investment vehicle that has client-friendly advantages and advisors see it as valuable, we certainly will explore it.”

Additionally, the ETF Rule adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2019 streamlines the process for launching new ETFs, and the expansion of “custom baskets” for all ETFs helps active managers from an operational perspective.6

The first active ETFs were launched in 2008, but the category is still fragmented. Active fixed income ETFs are the largest category, which is understandable because the benefits of active management are more widely acknowledged in bonds. Many investors also tend to equate active ETFs with high-profile portfolio managers who often swing for the fences or highly concentrated strategies used for satellite allocations.

Meanwhile, active ETFs designed as core portfolio holdings are quietly gaining traction. Aside from potentially generating alpha, active core ETFs may also help manage downside risk, lower overall volatility and diversify existing passive holdings.

RIAs were early adopters of passive ETFs and smart-beta ETFs. As ETFs evolve, RIAs may again lead the way using active core ETFs in client portfolios. In fact, 78% of RIAs believe active and passive investments complement each other.7 Finally, RIAs are the heaviest users of ETFs by advisor segment, and they are also most likely to use ETFs for core positions.8

Why you shouldn’t judge an ETF by its cover

Most advisors understand the leading benefits of ETFs — including their low costs, tax efficiency and transparency. However, these benefits are just as relevant for active strategies as they are for passive. The ETF structure has several advantages, but it is important to remember that an ETF is only as good as its underlying strategy. That is true whether an ETF follows an index, takes a smart beta approach or is an actively managed portfolio.

“We wanted to make sure the ETF structure was truly durable and that there would be a need for active ETFs based on our investment process,” Grey said. “Investors can get access to the same risk management and security selection we provide, but in an ETF format. We want advisors to have confidence in our investment process and know that we’re very thoughtful about what we bring to market.”

Although ETFs can deliver active strategies in a lower cost and more tax-efficient vehicle, active ETFs have different levels of portfolio transparency. Active ETFs may be fully transparent, semi-transparent or non-transparent. Therefore, advisors should understand the advantages and disadvantages of each level of active ETF transparency.

Active ETF structures

The three main active ETF structures offer varying degrees of transparency and differ in the types of securities they can hold.


  • Fully transparent: Holdings are disclosed daily, which potentially allows for tighter bid/ask spreads compared with other active ETF structures
  • Ability to invest in fixed income securities
  • Ability to invest in non-U.S. securities (ADRs aren’t required by the structure)

  • Additional precautions may be needed to protect investors against the potential for front-running (attempting to anticipate the moves of a large buyer or seller and
    trading ahead of them to make a profit)


  • Helps shield the manager’s activities by disclosing holdings monthly or quarterly
    (and may also disclose a mix of actual and proxy portfolio holdings on a daily basis)

  • Offers less transparency than is typical for ETFs
  • Currently, no ability to invest in bonds or non-U.S. equities*

   Non-transparent (also known as ANTs)

  • Provides the most protection for the intellectual capital of the strategy by disclosing holdings on a quarterly basis
  • Offers less transparency than is typical for ETFs
  • Not widely accepted by the industry or wealth managers
  • Currently, no ability to invest in bonds or non-U.S. equities*

*To invest in non-U.S. equities, semi- and non-transparent ETFs must use American Depository Receipts (ADRs), which may have less liquidity or could be subject to greater price fluctuations than the non-U.S. security itself.

Advisors can also add value for clients with advanced due diligence on individual active ETFs.

Active ETFs can involve more due diligence than passive ETFs, but that time investment may be well worth it for advisors to have more confidence in their investment decisions. Active ETFs can also give client portfolios an additional layer of active management on top of advisors’ asset allocation decisions.

Therefore, advisors can differentiate themselves by understanding the investment approach of active ETFs and the quality of the portfolio manager.

Plan your foray into ETFs — and learn about ours

Capital Group has launched its initial suite of active transparent ETFs. Through this launch, we are bringing our time-tested capabilities to a vehicle that helps address investors’ needs today. Our debut suite of six active transparent ETFs are distinct strategies that are steeped in our 91-year history of pursuing superior outcomes via active management. Designed to bolster the core of portfolios, ETFs also give investors more choice and flexibility while pursuing their long-term financial goals.

To learn more about Capital Group’s ETFs, visit our site and keep an eye out for more updates and insights in the coming months. If you are interested in exploring implications of adding ETFs to your portfolios, consider scheduling a consultation with one of our portfolio specialists today.

1Source: Morningstar, “ETFs Cap Off Another Record Year of Flows with a Stellar December.” January 3, 2022.

2Source: ETFGI as of December 31, 2021.

3Source: Morningstar, “7 Charts on the Rapid Ascent of Active ETFs.” February 16, 2022.

4Source: Morningstar Direct as of December 31, 2021.

5Source: Cerulli U.S. Exchange-Traded Fund Markets 2021.

6Source: Securities and Exchange Commission, “SEC Adopts New Rule to Modernize Regulation of Exchange-Traded Funds.” September 26, 2019.

7Source: Cerulli U.S. RIA Marketplace 2021.

8Source: Broadridge ETF Outlook 2020.

Eric Grey is head of financial conglomerate and RIA distribution for the North American Client Group at Capital Group, home of American Funds. He has 29 years of investment industry experience and has been with Capital Group for 20 years.