After announcing plans to shutter 10 of its exchange-traded funds last month, WisdomTree Investments Inc.’s top executives said the company remains focused on adding products, though it isn’t immune to a possible takeover.
Jonathan Steinberg, the New York-based company’s chief executive officer, said during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call Tuesday that following BlackRock’s [BLK] acquisition of Barclays Global Investors it is clear that “anything could be for sale at the right price.”
“We remain focused on building WisdomTree into a thriving standalone business, but we are aware of the scarcity of ETF sponsors and that makes people think that we are a target,” he said. “It is an enviable place to be. We will continue to do what is right for our shareholders.”
WisdomTree, which launched its first ETF in 2006, is known for its fundamental index funds. The company has $6.7 billion in assets under management, including $6 billion in ETF assets, up 22% from Sept. 30 and 88% from a year earlier, as it attracted $911 million of net inflows in the fourth quarter.
Analysts speculated that WisdomTree might be preparing itself for a sale after it announced in January it planned to close 10 ETFs - seven sector funds, one European fund, one large-cap value fund, and one short term government fund – that collectively held 3% of the company’s assets under management.
Luciano Siracusano, WisdomTree’s chief investment strategist, said during the conference call that it has no plans to close any more funds.
“This is a one-and-done decision to streamline,” he said. The funds were closed to “free up bandwidth” and allow WisdomTreet “ to focus on funds that have been better received by the marketplace.”
Amit Muni, the company’s chief financial officer, said the company realized $700,000 to $800,000 in annual cash savings by closing the 10 funds.
By closing the funds, Steinberg said that WisdomTree has created “capacity to invest in areas of greater client interest.” Bruce Levine, the company’s president and chief operating officer, said it is “very focused” on developing “unique” products. In December, it launched the WisdomTree International Hedged Equity Fund and filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch two others, the WisdomTree Rising Dollar Fund and The WisdomTree Commodity Currency Fund.
The company is interested in diversifying its mix of products and specifically would like to add more emerging market and fixed income funds, Levine said. “We are very focused on continuing to roll out and innovate because that has been a source of great growth,” he said.
The ETF industry has ballooned to over $1 trillion and competition has intensified. According to the Investment Company Institute, there are about 780 ETFs available nationally.
In recent months, the industry has seen the beginning of an ETF “pricing war,” Steinberg said. In November, Charles Schwab & Co. [SCHW] launched a family of ETFs that could be traded commission-free. Earlier this month, Fidelity Investments followed suit when it announced it would eliminate fees for online trades of 26 exchange-traded funds, including one proprietary Fidelity fund and 25 iShares funds that are offered by BlackRock.
Steinberg said this price war has been ongoing and “is positive for investors.” He said WisdomTree will keep “a close eye on these developments.” He said WisdomTree will look to increase distribution and “look for more opportunities.”
“We are currently at a tipping point as ETFs become main stream,” Steinberg said. “The financial crisis has only made advisors and investors more interested in ETFs. … Investors are starting to seriously take notice.”
Bill Doyle, an analyst at Forrester Research, said he expects the pricing war will continue to intensify and commissions will continue to drop across the industry.
Despite closing 10 funds, WisdomTree made “substantial progress” in the fourth quarter, Steinberg said. Total revenues for the fourth quarter increased 33.6% to $7.6 million from a year earlier.
The company reported a net loss of $5 million in the fourth quarter after a flat third quarter. Steinberg attributed the loss to “seasonal slowness” for ETF sales. For the full year, the company reported a net loss of $21.2 million compared to a net loss of $27.0 million in 2008. Proforma operating net loss for the full year was $11.3 million, a 39.8% improvement from proforma operating net loss of $18.7 million a year earlier.
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