A Regulatory Framework for Exchange-Traded Funds

104 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018 Last revised: 19 Oct 2018

See all articles by Henry T. C. Hu

Henry T. C. Hu

University of Texas at Austin - School of Law

John Morley

Yale Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Date Written: July 1, 2018


This is the first academic work to show the need for, or to offer, a regulatory framework for exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). The economic significance of this financial innovation is enormous. U.S.-listed ETFs now hold more than $3.2 trillion in assets and comprise seven of the country’s ten most actively traded securities. ETFs also possess an array of unique characteristics raising distinctive concerns. They offer what we here conceptualize as a nearly frictionless portal to a bewildering, continually expanding universe of plain vanilla and arcane asset classes, passive and active investment strategies, and long, short, and leveraged exposures. And we argue that ETFs are defined by a novel, model-driven device that we refer to as the “arbitrage mechanism,” a device that has sometimes failed catastrophically. These new products and the underlying innovation process create special risks for investors and the financial system.

Despite their economic significance and distinctive risks, ETFs remain a regulatory backwater. The United States has neither a dedicated system of ETF regulation nor even a workable, comprehensive conception of what an ETF is. A motley group of statutes divide similar ETFs into a plethora of different regulatory cubbyholes that were originally intended for very different vehicles such as mutual funds, commodity pools, and operating companies. Other regulatory constraints center on a process of discretionary review that generally allows the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to assess the merits of each proposed ETF on an ad hoc, individualized basis. This process of review is opaque and unfocused. It is also inconsistent over time, with the effect that older funds often operate under lighter regulation than newer ones. And because it has its roots in statutes originally designed for other kinds of vehicles, the regulation of ETFs fails to address the ETF’s distinctive characteristics. Rooted in a disclosure system largely designed for mutual funds, the SEC’s disclosure mandates for ETFs fail to comprehend the significance and complexities of the arbitrage mechanism and often require no public disclosure of major breakdowns in the mechanism’s workings.

Our proposal contemplates a single regulatory framework for all ETFs. The treatment of all ETFs would be unified. This systematic approach, rooted in the arbitrage mechanism common to all ETFs, would largely displace the hodge-podge of regulatory regimes that vary widely across both the different ETF regulatory cubbyholes in use today and different ETFs within each such cubbyhole. The functional elements of the framework would streamline and rationalize the creation, substantive operations, and disclosure of all ETFs. Such elements would include a shift away from ETF-by-ETF discretionary review and toward written rules of general applicability. In terms of the creation of ETFs, we would narrow the range of ETFs subject to close substantive scrutiny while retaining some discretion for the SEC to address concerns related to the arbitrage mechanism or related structural engineering issues, risky or complex ETFs not adequately addressed by suitability rules and investor education, and large negative externalities. In terms of disclosure, we contemplate quantitative and qualitative information addressing what we here call “trading price frictions,” such as those relating to the performance of the arbitrage mechanism and related engineering during the trading day, model-related complexities, and evolving understandings and conditions.

Keywords: arbitrage, authorized participant, bitcoin, complexity/riskiness, disclosure & substantive regulation, ETF, discounts/premiums, externalities, financial innovation, financial portal, liquidity, market microstructure & stress, mutual fund, model & systemic risk, SEC, stock exchange, suitability

JEL Classification: D47, D53, D82, G01, G11, G12, G14, G15, G20, G23, G24, G28, G38, K20, K22, K23, O30

Suggested Citation

Hu, Henry T. C. and Morley, John D., A Regulatory Framework for Exchange-Traded Funds (July 1, 2018). Southern California Law Review, Vol. 91: 839-941, 2018, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3137918

Henry T. C. Hu (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Austin - School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
512-232-1373 (Phone)
512-471-6988 (Fax)

John D. Morley

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
(203) 436-3527 (Phone)

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels
(203) 436-3527 (Phone)

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