NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Actively managed mutual funds traditionally earned their fees by picking the most attractive stocks and bonds. But these days more portfolio managers are investing in ETFs.
According to Morningstar, hundreds of mutual funds have taken the plunge. More than 130 active mutual funds own SPDR S&P 500 SPY . Investors in the S&P 500 ETF include Columbia Dividend Income LBSAX , Hartford Growth Opportunities HGOAX and AllianceBernstein Dynamic All Market (ADAAX). More than 80 funds have invested in iShares MSCI EAFE EFA , including PIMCO Global Multi-Asset PGMAX , Sterling Capital Strategic Allocation Equity BCAAX and USAA Global Opportunities UGOFX .
Not so long ago, active mutual funds stayed clear of ETFs. After all, active managers were supposed to outdo benchmarks -- not load up on index funds. But gradually portfolio managers have discovered that ETFs can play useful roles. "ETFs can be convenient ways to gain market exposure quickly," says Cory Banks, managing editor of ETF Report.
Portfolio managers use ETFs in a variety of ways. While some managers take big positions in ETFs, many funds have only limited stakes. Vanguard Windsor VWNDX , an active large value fund, has 0.9% of its assets in Vanguard Value ETF VTV , and Vanguard Morgan Growth VMRGX has 0.8% in Vanguard Growth VUG .
For such active funds, ETFs can offer easy ways to manage cash. Say investors suddenly pour money into a fund, and the portfolio manager can't decide which stocks to buy. To avoid sitting in cash -- which could be a drag on returns -- the manager could hold an ETF as a temporary measure.
ETFs can also be used to manage taxes. Say a manager has a loss in a stock but doesn't want to give up on the holding. The fund can sell the shares, book the loss, and put the proceeds in cash. Under IRS rules, the manager must wait more than 30 days to buy back the shares. Instead of keeping cash, the fund may decide to hold an ETF for a few weeks and then repurchase the original stock.
ETFs have become popular with asset allocation funds. These attempt to outdo the benchmarks by shifting sector allocations. By using ETFs, portfolio managers can quickly target asset classes. AllianceBernstein Dynamic All Market uses a mix that includes futures and ETFs. The fund recently had 20% of assets in SPDR S&P 500 and 5% in Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets ETF VWO .
RiverFront Global Allocation RMGAX holds a mix of stocks and ETFs. The portfolio has 8.5% of assets in Vanguard Large-Cap ETF VV , 6.0% in iShares S&P SmallCap 600 Index IJR and 5.6% in SPDR Barclays Capital High Yield Bond JNK .
Many funds have turned to ETFs as a way to hold gold. A popular choice is SPDR Gold Shares GLD , which owns bullion. As an insurance policy, First Eagle Fund of America FEFAX has 3.4% of assets in the ETF. Midas Perpetual Portfolio MPERX , which aims to protect assets in all market conditions, typically keeps about 20% of assets in gold and 10% in silver. Along with mining stocks, the fund currently has 18.5% of assets in SPDR Gold Shares and 4.3% in iShares Silver SLV .
A growing number of mutual funds keep nearly all their stock assets in ETFs. Stadion Managed Portfolio ETFFX relies on a variety of momentum indicators to pick holdings. If technology stocks are climbing, the fund buys an ETF in that sector. With large stocks climbing last summer, the fund had 25% of assets in SPDR S&P 500, 20% in iShares S&P 100 Index OEF and 20% in SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average DIA .
Some retirement funds rely heavily on ETFs. Managed by Lincoln Financial Group, Presidential Protected Profile 2010 PZAAX is a cautious choice that emphasizes bond ETFs. The fund has 12% of assets in iShares Barclays TIPS Bond TIP and 24% in Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF BND .
Presidential Protected Profile 2050 PZEAX , a more aggressive choice for young people, has 25% of assets in Vanguard MSCI EAFE ETF and 5.7% in iShares Russell 2000 Index IWM .
By focusing on ETFs, the funds can hold down fees, an important consideration at a time when many retirees are keeping a close eye on costs.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
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