Synthetic ETFs

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Written By
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Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

Synthetic ETFs are different from standard ETFs in that they don’t own the actual assets they track.

Instead, they use derivatives like swaps to replicate the performance of a particular index, like the S&P 500.

Think of them as a mirror reflecting the movements of an index, rather than a basket directly holding all its components.


Key Takeaways – Synthetic ETFs

  • Enhanced Tax Efficiency
    • Synthetic ETFs often avoid dividend withholding taxes.
    • Can improve the net returns for traders.
  • Reduced Tracking Error
    • These ETFs typically demonstrate tighter tracking to their respective indices due to the use of derivatives like swaps.
    • Makes them an attractive option for traders seeking precision.
  • Counterparty Risk Consideration
    • While offering benefits, synthetic ETFs introduce counterparty risk due to their reliance on swap agreements with financial institutions.


Traditional ETFs vs. Synthetic ETFs

Let’s see how this stacks up against traditional ETFs.

Traditional ETFs

Traditional, or physical ETFs, do exactly what their name suggests – they buy and hold the underlying assets.

It’s straightforward, but it can come with drawbacks, like higher costs due to trading fees and the potential for dividend withholding taxes.

Synthetic ETFs

Synthetic ETFs, on the other hand, can dodge these dividend taxes and often come with lower expense ratios.

But they’re not without risks.

Their performance relies on the swap counterparty’s ability to fulfill their end of the bargain.

While this is uncommon, if the counterparty defaults, it could spell trouble.

The choice between them boils down to your individual needs and risk tolerance.


Mechanics of Synthetic ETFs

Instead of directly buying and holding the assets, they use financial engineering to mirror the performance of an index.

Here’s the breakdown:

Swap Agreement

The ETF provider enters into a swap agreement with a counterparty, usually a large financial institution.


The ETF provider doesn’t just take the counterparty’s word for it.

They require collateral, typically in the form of a basket of securities.

This acts as a safety net in case the counterparty defaults on the swap.

Creation and Redemption

Authorized Participants (APs) are used in this process.

They create new ETF shares by delivering the collateral basket to the ETF provider, who then issues them new shares.

Conversely, APs can redeem ETF shares by returning them to the provider and receiving the collateral basket in return.

Swaps and Derivatives

The swap agreement at the heart of a synthetic ETF is a type of derivative.

It derives its value from the performance of the underlying index.

Other derivatives, like futures contracts or options, can also be used in synthetic ETF structures.


This all sounds complex, but it boils down to this: Synthetic ETFs use financial instruments to replicate the performance of an index without actually owning the underlying assets.

It’s a clever workaround that can offer advantages like lower costs and potential tax benefits.

But it also comes with risks, primarily tied to the creditworthiness of the swap counterparty.


Advantages of Synthetic ETFs

Tax Efficiency

Tax efficiency is the main key advantage, especially for international equities.

Synthetic ETFs often avoid dividend withholding taxes that can eat into the returns of physical ETFs.

This can lead to a noticeable performance boost over time.

Cost Efficiency

Synthetic ETFs don’t incur the costs associated with purchasing and holding the actual underlying assets.

This can reduce transaction fees and other operational costs can lead to savings.

Tracking Error

They use derivatives like swaps, which can more precisely replicate the performance of an index without the need to physically rebalance holdings.

This can help minimize tracking error and enhancing performance relative to the index.


For instance, a synthetic S&P 500 ETF could outperform its physical counterpart by avoiding dividend withholding taxes and achieving tighter tracking.

This may seem small, but over time, these advantages can add up to a substantial difference in your returns.


Risks and Considerations

Counterparty Risk

The most significant risk associated with synthetic ETFs is counterparty risk.

If the counterparty – usually a big bank or financial institution – defaults on their obligation, it could spell trouble for the ETF and its traders/investors.

In a worst-case scenario, you could lose some or even all of your investment.

ETF providers are well aware of this risk and take measures to mitigate it. They often work with multiple counterparties, spreading the risk around.

They also require collateral, usually in the form of a basket of securities, to cover potential losses. This acts as a buffer, reducing your exposure to the counterparty’s financial health.

Tracking Error

Another risk to consider is tracking error. While synthetic ETFs often have tighter tracking than physical ETFs, it’s not always guaranteed.

Deviations can occur due to factors like the swap’s pricing, the collateral’s performance, or other changes.


Transparency can also be a concern.

The structure of synthetic ETFs can make it harder to understand exactly what you’re trading.

It’s important to read the prospectus carefully and understand the specific risks involved.

So, are synthetic ETFs riskier than physical ETFs?

Not necessarily. But they do carry a different set of risks that you need to be aware of.

It’s important to understand these risks and choose reputable providers with strong risk management practices.


Regulatory Environment

Synthetic ETFs operate under a strict regulatory framework designed to protect investors and ensure market stability.

Understanding the key regulations can shed light on how these ETFs function and the safeguards in place.


In Europe, synthetic ETFs primarily fall under the UCITS (Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities) regulations.

This framework sets rules for everything from investment strategies to risk management. It tries to create a level playing field for all UCITS funds, including ETFs.

UCITS focuses on diversification and risk mitigation.

Synthetic ETFs must spread their counterparty risk by working with multiple counterparties, and they can’t invest more than 10% of their assets with any single counterparty.

This helps to protect traders in case one of the counterparties defaults.

Transparency is another element. Synthetic ETFs must disclose their swap agreements, collateral holdings, and counterparty information to investors. This allows those participating in the ETF to assess the risks involved and make informed decisions.


In the US, the regulatory landscape is a bit different. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been more cautious about synthetic ETFs, primarily due to concerns about counterparty risk.

They also require detailed disclosures about the nature of the underlying derivatives and the identities of counterparties.


Performance Analysis

When it comes to performance, the difference between synthetic and physical ETFs isn’t always clear-cut.

It depends on various factors, including the specific ETF, the underlying assets, market conditions, where you’re located, and the relevant tax arbitrage effects at play.

On otherwise equivalent ETFs – e.g., CSPX vs. VOO or CSPX vs. SPY – expense ratios and dividend withholding taxes can impact long-run returns.

In some cases, physical ETFs might outperform synthetic ones, especially in markets where dividend withholding taxes are not a significant concern.

For other jurisdictions, the tax savings from the swap-based structure may be better.

For more active traders, the more popular physical ETF may be better because of the greater liquidity.

Ultimately, the best way to compare performance is to look at the long-term track records of specific ETFs.

Compare their returns against their benchmark index and consider factors like expense ratios and tax implications.


FAQs – Synthetic ETFs

What are the potential advantages of using synthetic ETFs over physical ETFs?

Synthetic ETFs have this main advantage over their physical counterparts:

  • Tax Efficiency – They can often avoid dividend withholding taxes, especially for international equities, leading to potentially higher returns.

What are the tax implications of investing in synthetic ETFs?

The tax implications of synthetic ETFs can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific ETF structure.

However, one potential advantage is the ability to avoid dividend withholding taxes in certain cases, which can result in higher after-tax returns.

It’s recommended to consult with a tax advisor to understand the specific tax implications for your situation.

What are some examples of asset classes where synthetic ETFs might be more suitable than physical ETFs?

Synthetic ETFs might be more suitable for asset classes like:

  • Commodities – Physical replication can be complex and costly for commodities, making synthetic ETFs a more efficient option.
  • International Equities – Synthetic ETFs can avoid dividend withholding taxes in certain markets, making them attractive for international exposure.
  • Fixed Income – Synthetic replication can be used to efficiently track complex bond indices or gain exposure to specific segments of the fixed income market.