A turning point for fixed income ETFs

iShares Dec 3, 2020 Fixed Income

How volatility in 2020 accelerated institutional adoption of fixed income ETFs

The largest and most heavily traded bond exchange traded funds (ETFs) performed a critical role during the extreme financial asset volatility experienced in the first half of 2020. Amid the market turbulence, fixed income ETFs demonstrated that they are integral to efficient fixed income markets.

In their biggest test to date, flagship fixed income ETFs provided deep liquidity, continuous price transparency and lower transaction costs than were available in individual bonds. The ability to buy and sell portfolios of bonds on exchange with ETFs helped investors navigate extreme price dislocations and sidestep a legacy marketplace that remains fragmented and comparatively difficult to access even for institutional investors. In many cases, institutional investors chose to use fixed income ETFs rather than fixed income derivatives.

As a result, asset owners — including pension funds and insurance companies — and asset managers immediately ramped up adoption. Since the 2020 volatility, these large investors have increased their use of fixed income ETFs at scale, regularly with positions sized in the billions of dollars, as substitutes for individual bonds and other fixed income instruments.

There is significant room for fixed income ETF asset growth as adoption by institutional investors accelerates. Global fixed income ETF assets accounted for $1.3 trillion at the end of June 2020 — growth of 30% in just one year; still, ETFs represent only about 1% of the $100 trillion global fixed income securities market.1

Bolstered by recent adoption patterns, BlackRock believes that institutional investors will help propel global fixed income ETF assets to $2 trillion by 2024.2

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During the extreme market volatility of 2020, fixed income ETFs passed their greatest test yet.


Investors use bond ETFs in their portfolio to diversify away from equities, to preserve capital, and to generate income.


Investors turn to ETFs in times of uncertainty because ETFs provide an extra layer of liquidity relative to the underlying bond market; that means that they trade on exchange and when the exchange is open, fixed income ETFs are trading. In some cases, tens of thousands of times in a day, relative to the underlying bond market where bonds may not trade at all or trade maybe 30-40 times in a day.


There are four main reasons why fixed income ETFs are growing so rapidly. First: the use of fixed income ETFs in portfolio construction. Second: the rapid adoption from institutions globally. Third: the modernization of the bond markets and ETFs driving this modernization. And fourth: constant innovation.


The bottom line is investors turn to fixed income ETFs during this most recent market turmoil and fixed income ETFs were easy access vehicles to the fixed income markets in a very efficient way.