Though it has been difficult to track just who has driven the record-breaking trading in exchange-traded funds over the past few years, the industry has long known that its investors are a mix of institutional and individual investors. What hasn't been as well reported is that many of those individual investors are purchasing ETFs on their own — whether they have an adviser or not.

Cogent Research said two-thirds of the 4,000 investors with at least $100,000 of investable assets it surveyed in October had bought ETFs.

ETFs — known for their low cost, transparency and high liquidity — have been touted as easy-to-use passive investing tools. That may be paying off for fund companies, as the number of investors who said they own ETFs is up 2% from a year earlier, a trend many are contributing to actively managed mutual funds' disappointing performance during the recent downturn.

For advisers, though, ETFs' simplicity may also be leading investors to think they can leave them out of the equation. In fact, nearly one in four current ETF holders and 26% of those who plan to soon buy ETFs actually have advisers — they're just not using them.

The Cogent report did not say why these investors are sidestepping their advisers, some in the industry are blaming advisers who have been slow to adapt to the shift in focus.

"It's obvious that ETFs are starting to dig into the mutual fund marketplace and market share. For savvy advisers that are up to speed not only on what's available in the market but what their clients are looking for, it's a huge opportunity," said Tom Lydon, the president of Global Trends Investments and ETF Trends and editor and proprietor of ETFTrends.com. "But those that haven't adapted to utilizing ETFs at all may get left in the dust. Clearly, the message is if you haven't addressed ETFs with your clients — whether you choose to use them or not — it needs to happen now."

Of those who do have an adviser, 23% are affiliated with a national wire house, 20% with an insurance company, followed by regional firms and banks (the percentages were not disclosed). The investors were not asked whether they used registered investment advisers.

"While some investors haven't been as excited about their mutual fund holdings, they're not very excited about their advisers these days either, and they're taking control of their portfolio and making their own decisions," Lydon said. "And based on the fact that people are voting with their feet, they seem to be very happy with ETFs. You can tell by the asset flow."

Those who are buying ETFs are generally younger and wealthier: 14% of Gen X invested in them, compared with only 11% of older baby boomers and 9% of younger boomers. Those who bought ETFs on their own were more aware of the different fund providers and even more likely to increase their use of the funds than those who went through an adviser.

That's largely in line with who is doing the research on these products. Nearly 90% of the visitors to Lydon's ETFTrends.com are self-directed investors, and only 12% are financial advisers, Lydon said. A third of the site's visitors have a graduate degree.

But that does not mean they are smart enough to make ETF purchases on their own, said Lou Stanasolovich, president and chief executive of Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh. "Investors are desperate for returns, and like anything else they're piling in now after a good year and they think they can do it on their own, which is a huge, huge mistake," he said. Investors "will take too much risk when it isn't warranted."

Muddying the waters even further, nearly 15% of the investors said they were invested in inverse or leveraged ETFs — high-risk products that could put investors in hot water. Fifty-four percent said they planned to buy inverse or leveraged ETFs this year.

Fifty-two percent of inverse and leveraged ETF owners in the study said they believed an appropriate holding period for these products is a month or more. Eighteen percent said they did not know the appropriate holding time. This illustrates these investors' weak understanding of the funds; regulators and providers alike have said repeatedly over the past year and a half that these funds are to be held for no longer than a day or two at a time.

This finding points to an opportunity for advisers to prove their value proposition by explaining to clients the dangers involved with trading ETFs on their own, Stanasolovich said. But first, advisers have to bone up. "Advisers need to become sophisticated in trading these funds," Stanasolovich said. "Ask about things like liquidity, about how to make big block trades through their custodians. They'll be in for an education."

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