(Bloomberg) -- BlackRock is looking to capitalize on Argentina's improving fortunes, but it may be too late.
The world's largest asset manager unveiled the iShares MSCI Argentina Global Exposure ETF on Feb. 2, four months before MSCI will decide whether the country qualifies for inclusion in its emerging-market index. An upgrade from its current designation as a frontier market may prompt investors to pour $1 billion into Argentine stocks, says JPMorgan Chase.
But BlackRock — whose more than 800 ETFs make it the world's largest provider of such funds — will be playing catch-up as it seeks to capitalize on a stock market boom fueled by President Mauricio Macri's dismantling of capital controls. That's because it will have to contend with the Global X MSCI Argentina ETF — the only other U.S.-listed ETF covering Argentine equities. The fund, which has about $100 million in assets, has already staked its claim since starting in 2011. That means even mighty BlackRock may struggle to lure buyers, said Sebastian Mercado, a strategist for ETFs at Deutsche Bank.
"There's always a level of loyalty for the first to market," he said. "It's very difficult to get a first-to-market out of the market, even if you have BlackRock. The reason for that is that first-to-market tends to encompass liquidity as well."
BlackRock need only look to its experience in Colombia to realize the importance of being first on the scene.
The company's Colombia equity ETF, known as ICOL, had initially charged a lower fee than Global X's GXG index for the same country, which was unveiled four years earlier in 2009, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Global X boosted a fee waiver in July 2014 that it had first added in June 2013, moves that put GXG's overall expense in line with that of BlackRock's ICOL. With $100 million in assets, the GXG fund dwarfs the less than $18 million accumulated by ICOL.
"Brand power is important to a certain extent," said Edward Lopez, head of ETF Product Management at VanEck Associates. "But even if a higher-cost product has already dominated in terms of assets and trading volume, nothing else will really matter."
ARGT charges 74 basis points per fund share. BlackRock hasn't disclosed its management fee for its Argentina ETF.
BlackRock — whose ETF will track an index that includes 25 companies categorized by MSCI as being Argentine — is seeking to tap into soaring investor optimism in the country since Macri took office in December 2015. The nation's benchmark index has gained 65% in dollar terms over the past 12 months.
"ARGT saw $58 million in inflows since President Macri's election in November 2015, reflecting renewed investor interest in the country," said Jay Jacobs, vice president and director of research at Global X.
In January, Macri jettisoned a rule that required investments remain in Argentina for at least 120 days, stoking speculation that the country is poised for an upgrade. The implementation of capital controls led MSCI to downgrade the country's stocks to frontier market in 2009, relegating it to a universe that includes the likes of Kazakhstan and Morocco. Last year, the index provider said it would evaluate the country's classification and will announce its decision in June.
Investors with $1.6 trillion in assets follow MSCI's emerging-market index, versus an estimated $26 billion for the frontier gauge.
"Although Argentina is still in the early stages of regaining access to the global market place and beginning what could be a multi-year fiscal adjustment process, the current administration has committed to structural reforms intended to help Argentina achieve more sustainable growth in the future," said Paul Young, a spokesman for BlackRock.
For buyers who are seeking exposure to Argentina but still wary of the local stock market's low liquidity — only an average of $20 million trades every day — an ETF makes a lot of sense.
"We don't have boots on the ground in Argentina to know those trading markets and we manage separate accounts where our clients felt more comfortable owning dollar denominated assets versus ARS denominated assets," said Andy Wester, a money manager at Proficio Capital Partners who owns Global X's ARGT ETF.
The fund allows for liquid access to an otherwise obscure market and to the industries he thinks are more representative of the Argentine economy, like energy, he said. Almost 20% of the fund is made up of steel-pipe maker Tenaris, while 8% consists of state-controlled oil company YPF.
Still, Wester suggests there may be a potential opening for BlackRock, saying it would just come down to fees.
"With all else being equal, we would move into a new ETF with a lower fee," Wester said. "Assuming ARGT wouldn't slash their fees to be competitive, that is."