Actively managed ETFs for bond investors

Expert management and low costs may be a winning combo in today's bond markets.

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Key takeaways

  • Active ETFs combine the benefits of active fund management with the relatively low costs and daily trading of ETFs.
  • Actively managed bond ETFs may increase opportunities for higher returns compared with passive ETFs in a rising-interest-rate environment.
  • Actively managed bond ETFs can take advantage of fundamental research, quantitative analysis, and expert trading, all of which may help them outperform passive approaches.

Low costs and easy trading have earned exchange-traded funds plenty of fans since the first ETF was launched nearly 30 years ago. While ETFs grew out of a passive, index-tracking approach to investing, more actively managed ETFs than passive ones were launched into the market in 2021, the first time that's ever happened. Actively managed ETFs are especially well-suited to bond investing because bond markets are relatively large and inefficient compared with stock markets. This creates opportunities for active managers while the ETF structure delivers lower costs.

Why be active?

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Bonds can add income and ballast against stock market volatility to your portfolio but having them in your mix of assets can be more complex than investing in stocks. For one thing, there are far more bonds that investors can purchase than there are stocks and they vary widely in terms of credit quality, maturity, interest payments, and more. Even a group of bonds issued by the same company or government can have meaningful differences that may affect their prices and whether you may to want to own them or not.

Unlike passively-managed ETFs that seek only to mirror the performance of an index, experienced active managers can analyze all of these factors to help choose which bonds to buy and which to sell in an effort to outperform the index. They can draw on expert researchers and traders to sort through the unique characteristics of bond markets and discover attractive investment opportunities that passive strategies miss. The market price of a bond may not reflect its intrinsic value and active managers can buy bonds they view as underpriced and sell those they deem overpriced. Meanwhile index managers must instead track index exposures with little regard to fundamentals.

Active bond fund managers can generally choose investments from a broader range of bonds than a passive index fund can, and they may employ investing strategies that may contribute to improved overall performance, even when interest rates are rising. Even though the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index contains more than 12,000 securities, it represents just a sliver of the $59 trillion bond market. That means an active manager could choose from among far more bonds than could a passive manager of a fund portfolio benchmarked against that index.

Over time, these advantages have enabled the majority of active bond managers to outperform fixed income benchmarks. Remember, though, that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Ready for rising rates

As the Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates, some investors may see higher rates as threats to the returns from their bond portfolios. Although bond prices typically change when interest rates do, active bond managers can take advantage of shifts in rates, or hedge against their potential adverse effects. Active managers also can benefit from trading opportunities to help generate returns and manage risks, even as rates rise.

Interest-rate changes can be very volatile at times, and often require substantial research and trading resources to help position a portfolio appropriately. However, the extent of this advantage depends on the quality of fundamental research and quantitative analysis that's available to the manager.

Why ETFs?

Bond investors who want active management for their portfolios can, of course, choose mutual funds as well as ETFs, depending on their individual preferences, so it's good to consider the differences. Both active and passive ETFs are priced throughout the day, unlike mutual funds. That means you can trade actively managed ETFs throughout the day.

Active ETFs typically have expenses that are lower than mutual funds that invest in similar assets but higher than those of most passive ETFs. The higher costs of active ETFs typically reflect the cost of building and maintaining the research and trading capabilities in seeking to deliver higher returns. But while passive ETFs may cost you less than active ETFs, they do still charge fees. When those fees are subtracted from a passive ETF's potentially lower returns compared with an active ETF, the difference in returns between active and passive ETFs may be even greater than the difference between the active ETF and the index.

Finding ideas

Maintaining a well-diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds may be as important as ever to help you reach your goals and choosing the right active bond ETF involves some research. You can run screens using the ETF Evaluator on Below are the results of some illustrative screens as of February 10, 2022. (These are not recommendations of Fidelity).

Fidelity active bond ETFs
Fidelity ® Total Bond ETF ( FBND )
Fidelity ® Corporate Bond ETF ( FCOR )
Fidelity ® Investment Grade Bond ETF ( FIGB )
Fidelity ® Investment Grade Securitized ETF ( FSEC )
Fidelity ® Limited Term Bond ETF ( FLTB )

Non-Fidelity active bond ETFs
BlackRock Short Maturity Bond ETF ( NEAR )
BlackRock Ultra Short-Term Bond ETF ( ICSH )
PIMCO Active Bond ETF ( BOND )
American Century Diversified Corporate Bond ETF ( KORP )

The Fidelity screeners are research tools provided to help self-directed investors evaluate these types of securities. The criteria and inputs entered are at the sole discretion of the user, and all screens or strategies with preselected criteria (including expert ones) are solely for the convenience of the user. Expert screeners are provided by independent companies not affiliated with Fidelity. Information supplied or obtained from these screeners is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice or guidance, an offer of or a solicitation of an offer to buy or sell securities, or a recommendation or endorsement by Fidelity of any security or investment strategy. Fidelity does not endorse or adopt any particular investment strategy or approach to screening or evaluating stocks, preferred securities, exchange-traded products, or closed-end funds. Fidelity makes no guarantees that information supplied is accurate, complete, or timely, and does not provide any warranties regarding results obtained from its use. Determine which securities are right for you based on your investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial situation, and other individual factors, and reevaluate them on a periodic basis.

Next steps to consider

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Discover Fidelity Fixed Income ETFs

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