Robinhood army propels thematic ETFs to a record-setting year

The Robinhood generation of day traders has famously driven scores of sharp stock moves this year, from high-flyers like Tesla Inc. to beaten-down companies such as Hertz Global Holdings Inc. Now, retail investors are propelling growth in a hot corner of the exchange-traded fund universe: Thematics.

ETFs built around a theme — think telemedicine, gaming, even pet care — are on pace for their best year of inflows ever, attracting more than $20 billion to date, including $2.5 billion in November alone, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Trading platforms say that individual investors are starting to snap up these funds, which often reflect interests and everyday lives of young adults. At the same time, professional money managers appear to be mostly steering clear.

“They’re too new for institutional investors to have likely even done the due diligence on them,” said Todd Rosenbluth, director of ETF research for CFRA. He said that while the category is about 15 years old, thematics really first took off in 2014 with the ETFMG Prime Cyber Security ETF (HACK).

Retail investing has surged in popularity this year as the coronavirus has kept people at home. The thematic fund industry has cannily ridden both trends.

Of 15 thematic ETFs launched this year, several lean into stay-at-home trends, including Roundhill Sports Betting & iGaming ETF (BETZ) and Direxion’s Work From Home ETF (WFH). And many of these funds have seen big inflows, like the Global X Telemedicine & Digital Health ETF (EDOC) that’s accumulated more than $430 million since its debut in July.

Even as the world moves forward on promising Covid-19 vaccines that could fully reopen the economy, investors are still looking to take advantage of the growth in digital services. On November 11, Global X launched its EM Internet & E-Commerce ETF (EWEB).

Fresh Audience

Thematic funds’ gains are notable because the surging popularity of apps offering free trades, such as M1 and Robinhood, has been more of a boon to individual share trading than it has to ETFs. Nonetheless, catchy tickers, ease of trading and low fees are winning fans.

Sara Rosalia, a 19-year-old financial influencer known as Sara Finance to her more than 660,000 followers on social media, says that she often recommends ETFs, since “a lot of my followers are younger too, so they don’t want as much risk.” Her favorite is the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), the largest thematic fund with almost $11 billion in assets.

According to BlackRock’s Holly Framsted, one of the reasons thematic ETFs are becoming important building blocks is that they can add megatrends to portfolios. “These are themes that many investors intuitively want to play but don’t necessarily have the conviction to pick a particular stock,” said Framsted, head of U.S. product segments in the firm’s ETF and Index Investments Group.

For now, only five ETFs cracked the top 30 securities traded by Fidelity clients, and none of them are thematics.

Complicating matters is the fact that some issuers don’t use that label. BlackRock’s iShares thematic funds are deemed “megatrends,” while State Street calls theirs “new economy” ETFs.

Meanwhile, firms that slice the pie too thin might find few takers.

“Theme ETFs have long history of going one level too niche,” said Eric Balchunas, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence,

In fact, just this month Goldman Sachs merged five uniquely-thematic ETFs together into the Innovate Equity ETF (GINN).

Gripping Narratives

Observers say general interest in thematics is growing. According to Stash Capital, which has an investing app for beginners, about 88% of all investors in the Wedbush ETFMG Video Game Tech ETF (GAMR) are retail traders.

Retail investors are using thematic ETFs to both reap the benefits of fast-changing technologies and invest in narratives that they’ve been gripped by, according to Scott Helfstein, executive director of thematic investing at ProShares Advisors LLC.

“A simple story can be tremendously compelling,” he said, “whether we’re talking about work from home or getting groceries delivered or increases in online shopping.”

Although some money managers use thematic products, a fund’s short track record and small asset base might be deterrents, according to Nate Geraci, president of investment-advisory firm the ETF Store.

“Despite the massive growth potential of the space, a video game ETF doesn’t necessarily scream ‘sophistication’ to end clients,” he said.