Saturday, 3 December 2011

ETF Securities up for sale - does it matter?

The Financial Times reports that ETF Securities is up for sale. This is the firm which runs and and administers my physical gold ETF shares for a 0.39% annual management charge. The possibility of something like a sale happening at the firm soon was discussed on this blog last month - (Could ETF Securities IPO soon?) - odd things seemed to be going on at the firm back then.

Admittedly the speculation was based almost entirely on a reluctance of its press office to answer any questions about anything at all.

I had asked for historical spreads for it's three physical gold ETFs: PHAU, PHGP and GBS. I wanted to see how differently they behaved in times of stress (based on this Index Universe article and other chat it sounded like PHGP might not be a good deal) and to compare this with Black Rock Gold and General unit trust.

BlackRock provided its fund's spreads for several years within an hour of being asked. ETF Securities told me they would get their research team to take a look - but nothing happened for weeks. Then the head of their press office left, then I asked if the firm was about to IPO... and I haven't heard back from them since.

The question is whether the firm's silence back in November was just the norm or a result of the sale. And could it mean there will be complete silence about anything going on in the firm from now on?

Back in 2008 investors who owned ETF Securities' ETFs narrowly missed disaster when several of its AIG-backed ETFs were forced to stop trading as market makers waited to find out if AIG would be bailed out by the US government.

Several safeguards have been put in place since then and the physical gold products are hopefully not vulnerable to similar problems that require intervention by the provider. But with markets as they are it seems more likely than ever that any flaws in investment products will be tested. This is not a good time for low levels of communication.

But if there are any problems that could effect investors are they less likely to hear about it while an attempt is being made to sell the firm and it is being scrutinised by potential buyers?

The FT's report said: "Goldman Sachs recently sent out information to potential bidders, which include asset managers and private equity groups." This appears to mean that Graham Tuckwell, who owns most of the firm, has given up on the idea of ETF Securities becoming a public company.

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