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The rise in active ETFs come as Canadian securities regulators implement new rules to improve cost transparency in a country where mutual-fund fees are the world’s highest.rvlsoft/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Actively managed exchange-traded funds are surging in Canada, posing a challenge to a mutual-fund industry that has the highest management fees in the world.

Assets in actively traded ETFs jumped to about $9.2-billion as of May 31, up almost 50 per cent from a year ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The funds, which hire portfolio managers to pick stocks, have also outperformed their index-tracking ETF peers this year and now make up about 11 per cent of Canada's $86.6-billion ETF industry, the highest among developed markets, the data show.

"Actively managed ETFs have been the largest driver of asset growth for our business over the last three years," Steve Hawkins, co-chief executive officer of Horizons ETF Management Canada Inc., best known for its leveraged ETFs, said. More than half of Horizon's $4.65-billion assets under management are now actively traded funds, Mr. Hawkins said in an interview.

The rise in active ETFs come as Canadian securities regulators implement new rules to improve cost transparency in a country where mutual-fund fees are the world's highest, according to a Morningstar report.

Under Client Relationship Model Phase 2 amendments, firms will be required to provide more detailed account statements, and beginning in 2016, will have to submit annual reports to clients showing how much advisers were paid for products and services.

D-minus

"For investors who want to remain in active funds, Horizons will start to look a lot more attractive," John Gabriel, an analyst at Morningstar in Chicago, said. "With their ETFs, they're looking to take a chunk of the mutual-fund pie. People may see their products and start to migrate."

Canadian mutual funds received a grade of D-minus on fees, the worst out of 25 countries in a June Morningstar report. The United States, Australia and the Netherlands tied for the best scores in the gauge, which measures ratios across different categories. Canadian management-expense ratios average 0.61 per cent for ETFs and 1.86 per cent for active mutual funds, according to Morningstar. Active ETFs average 0.66 per cent, Bloomberg data show.

Horizons Active Canadian Dividend ETF has fees of 0.7 per cent and posted a total return of 63 per cent in the past five years, compared with 50 per cent for its benchmark, the Standard & Poor's/TSX Canadian Dividend Aristocrats index.

Actively managed ETFs in Canada climbed 4.1 per cent on average in the 12 months through June 29, compared with a 2.5-per-cent advance in passive ETFs, according to data adjusted for asset size compiled by Bloomberg. Active-equity ETFs have surged 6.9 per cent, ahead of a 2.8-per-cent advance for passive-equity ETFs, the data show.

While active ETFs are taking off in Canada, they account for only about 1 per cent of the $2.1-trillion (U.S.) American ETF market. The return of U.S. active ETFs has dropped 1 per cent in the past year, compared with a 2.6-per-cent increase for passive.

The funds have struggled to gain traction in the United States because Americans tend to put more emphasis on cost when choosing investment vehicles to save for retirement, Eric Balchunas, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst in Skillman, N.J., said.

ETF testbed

Mr. Hawkins took over in March as co-CEO of Horizons, a unit of Seoul-based Mirae Asset Global Investments Co. He primarily focuses on day-to-day operations of the firm's Canadian, U.S. and Colombian operations while co-CEO Taeyong Lee oversees the firm's global businesses.

Horizons faces growing competition in actively managed ETFs including from First Asset Investment Management Inc., which has rolled out several products since September, including the First Asset Active Canadian Dividend ETF.

Canada has been an investment testbed since it debuted the world's first ETF in 1990 with the Toronto 35 Index Participation Units. Horizons launched the world's first leveraged commodity ETF in 2008. Its more recent products have included an ETF based on trades of corporate insiders.

ETF assets under management climbed to a record $85.1-billion (Canadian) as of May 31, according to data from the Canadian ETF Association. Horizons has a 5.5 per cent market share while leader BlackRock Inc.'s iShares has 54 per cent, followed by Bank of Montreal and Vanguard Group Inc.

Most conservative

The industry remains small compared with the mutual-fund market, whose assets have advanced 8 per cent this year to a record $1.23-trillion as of May 31, according to data from the Investment Funds Institute of Canada.

"I don't think we're feeling any particular threat from ETFs," said Ian Bragg, senior manager of research and statistics at Investment Funds Institute of Canada. "We see mutual funds and ETFs as different products serving different needs and they can work together."

Still, some of Canada's biggest mutual-fund providers are investigating getting into ETFs, including Toronto-Dominion Bank and Mackenzie Investments, a unit of IGM Financial Inc., that manages about $75-billion.

Mackenzie Investments is "still in the exploration phase and have made no decisions at this time" on pursuing ETFs, Jeff Carney, CEO of Mackenzie, said in an e-mail.

Toronto-Dominion CEO Bharat Masrani told reporters in March the lender may resume offering ETFs in Canada after exiting the business in 2006. Meghan Thomas, spokeswoman at the lender, declined to comment.

Canadians are among the most conservative investors in the world and even with the incoming rule changes are unlikely to abandon investment advisers en masse for ETFs, Brian Gooding, head of distribution at Mackenzie, said.