Russell Investments announced on August 17 the mass closure of 25 ETFs with combined assets exceeding $300 million. The only survivor will be Russell Equity ETF (ONEF), which also happens to be the only actively-managed ETF on the menu. The decision looks to us like a strategic move to refocus the firm’s ETF business and reduce conflicts with its indexing customers.

Some analysts quickly attributed the closures to insufficient assets. This may be true in some cases. Several family members had net assets below the $5 million mark as of mid-year, according to the ETF Field Guide. Yet the closures also include the $70 million Russell 1000 Low Volatility (LVOL) and the $50 million Russell Equity Income (EQIN). These and a few others escaped ETF Deathwatch and could probably stand on their own. Russell decided to close them anyway. Why? The firm’s artfully-phrased press release offers a good clue.

“Recognizing the role that ETFs can play in an investment portfolio, Russell will continue to focus on offering solutions in the actively-managed, asset allocated ETF space as part of its core capability in investment strategy implementation as well as in the passive ETF space through its index licensing business. Russell remains the underlying index provider for many ETFs around the world, which have more than $80 billion in assets under management, and will continue its strong partnership with all of its ETF sponsor clients.”

In the context of Russell’s much larger index-provider business, even $300 million is a sideline endeavor at best. The Russell name was already attached to dozens of ETFs from other sponsors, such as iShares. By offering its own ETF suite, Russell put itself in competition with its own customers. The smaller fee percentage it makes as index provider is likely offset by the much bigger asset base.

Russell apparently intends to redesign its ETF offerings away from indexing and toward active management, where the conflict of interest is somewhat less problematic. More evidence: SEC filings to offer new ETFs similar to ONEF, including Russell Global Opportunity (ONEO), Russell Bond (ONEB), and Russell Real Return (ONER). When (or if) these will launch is not yet known.

We actually liked Russell’s indexed ETFs and thought they offered some unique features. (See Russell Launches Suite of Investment Discipline Index ETFs, Second Wave of Russell ETFs Comes Ashore, and Russell Takes Factor ETFs International.) As noted above, at least some of the Russell offerings attracted a decent asset base, but apparently not enough to outweigh other business considerations.

The complete list of ETFs to be closed is below. They will be closed to new investment on October 9, 2012, delisted on October 16, 2012, and fully liquidated no later than October 24, 2012. Shareholders are advised to heed the Five Steps To Avoid Disaster When Your ETF Closes.

  • Russell 1000 High Beta (HBTA)
  • Russell 1000 Low Beta (LBTA)
  • Russell 1000 High Volatility (HVOL)
  • Russell 1000 Low Volatility (LVOL)
  • Russell 1000 High Momentum ( HMTM)
  • Russell 2000 High Beta (SHBT)
  • Russell 2000 Low Beta (SLBT)
  • Russell 2000 High Volatility (SHVY)
  • Russell 2000 Low Volatility (SLVY)
  • Russell 2000 High Momentum (SHMO)
  • Russell Developed ex-U.S. Low Beta (XLBT)
  • Russell Developed ex-U.S. Low Volatility (XLVO)
  • Russell Developed ex-U.S. High Momentum (XHMO)
  • Russell Aggressive Growth (AGRG)
  • Russell Consistent Growth (CONG)
  • Russell Contrarian (CNTR)
  • Russell Equity Income (EQIN)
  • Russell Growth at a Reasonable Price (GRPC)
  • Russell Low P/E (LWPE)
  • Russell Small Cap Aggressive Growth (SGGG)
  • Russell Small Cap Consistent Growth (SCOG)
  • Russell Small Cap Contrarian (SCTR)
  • Russell Small Cap Low P/E (SCLP)
  • Russell High Dividend Yield (HDIV)
  • Russell Small Cap High Dividend Yield (DIVS)

Disclosure covering writer, editor, and publisher: No positions in any of the securities mentioned. No positions in any of the companies or ETF sponsors mentioned. No income, revenue, or other compensation (either directly or indirectly) received from, or on behalf of, any of the companies or ETF sponsors mentioned.