Traders Play ‘Game of Clue’ With Record Haul by $218 Billion ETF

(Bloomberg) -- A record inflow into one of the biggest exchange-traded funds has all the drama of a murder-mystery game.

More than $6.8 billion poured into BlackRock Inc.’s $218 billion iShares Core S&P 500 ETF on Tuesday, the biggest one-day influx in the product’s 20-year history, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The fund, which trades under the ticker IVV, is the world’s second-largest ETF, yet despite a lot of buzz around this eye-popping event, analysts have very little idea of exactly who, or what, is jonesing for this investment.

“I liken it to a very frustrating game of Clue,” said Ben Johnson, an analyst at Morningstar Inc., referring to the whodunit board game that requires players to deduce the prime suspect in a hypothetical murder. “We know what weapon was used to do the dirty deed, but we can only speculate who did it, and in what dark corner of the Clue mansion it was done.”

Traders Play ‘Game of Clue’ With Record Haul by $218 Billion ETF

The uncertainty around where the money is coming from highlights the challenges tracking the behind-the-scenes players in the $4.6 trillion U.S. industry. While insiders can quickly establish that an asset spike like IVV’s is more than just a boom in client activity, putting their finger on other details is tough.

That’s because while ETFs report their shares outstanding every day -- allowing their change in assets to be calculated -- their users have no obligation to reveal themselves. The curious must undertake a veritable quest to identify possible participants, and may still fall short.

Flow Whodunit?

However, there are a few suspects. One candidate for IVV’s influx is a model portfolio. These investors pursue specific strategies via ETFs, and adjust their holdings as market moves throw off a portfolio’s allocations, or to reflect changing sentiment. Several portfolios run by BlackRock itself include IVV, while other large money managers -- including Bank of America Corp. -- also oversee big models.

Media representatives for BlackRock weren’t immediately available to comment.

Another option for the big flow: Reducing tax liabilities. ETFs overhaul their portfolios periodically using so-called heartbeat trades, which allow funds to decrease their tax obligations by distributing stocks, rather than cash. These trades are typified by a large inflow, and then a similar-sized outflow. But since these rebalances typically happen in December, that’s unlikely this time, according to Eric Balchunas, an ETF analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence.

And with this amount of money on the move, a big institution could also be responsible. Pension funds and insurance companies often use ETFs as placeholders as they await investment opportunities, or as a cash-like instrument to facilitate liquidity.

Long Wait

Despite the lack of clarity, what’s clear is that giant flows in funds tracking the S&P 500 Index have become a theme lately. Traders poured almost $5 billion into the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF on Friday, a record one-day inflow, just three days before more than $3.7 billion exited the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust.

Part of that flip-flop could be conflicting news headlines around the coronavirus, as some investors flee to safety while others take solace in gains by the S&P 500 that have pushed it back toward an all-time high.

But those that need to know who’s behind all this money will have to wait until mid-May. That’s when the U.S. regulator requires asset managers to report their stock holdings for the end of the first quarter. Of course, all the money could have reversed by then, leaving market participants none the wiser.

“Given the breadth and diversity of ETF users and ETF use cases, and the lack of information on who they are and what their motives might be, its difficult to decipher who’s behind these big flows and what bets they’re making,” Johnson said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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