These ETFs Generate The Most Revenue

These ETFs Generate The Most Revenue

The largest ETFs by assets aren't necessarily the most profitable for issuers.

Senior ETF Analyst
Reviewed by: Sumit Roy
Edited by: Sumit Roy

The cost of holding ETFs has fallen for years amid an intense “ETF fee war” among issuers.

It’s now commonplace to see single-digit expense ratios, and in some cases, those expense ratios are even considered relatively expensive, such as the 0.09% charged by the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), which is triple the amount charged by competitors.

All this is unequivocally great news for investors, but for ETF issuers, not so much. As expense ratios drop, so do revenues generated for issuers. In most cases, there's nothing they can do about it. Failure to lower fees can lead to hefty outflows, as increasingly cost-conscious investors, along with advisors adhering to fiduciary rules, gravitate to cheaper funds.

Case in point: The aforementioned SPY has had outflows of $4.7 billion over the past five years, compared with inflows of $113.2 billion for the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) and $95.3 billion for the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV), two cheaper funds targeting the same index.

Implied Revenue

Just as in any price war, even the victors are taking hits. Ultra-cheap ETFs may be raking in assets, but in most cases, that is being more than offset by the decline in fees.

In fact, on the list of the biggest ETF cash cows for issuers, there are only a handful of funds that can be considered ultra-cheap, while there are many more that are downright pricey by ETF standards.

The table below lists the 20 ETFs with the highest “implied revenue,” an approximation of how much cash an ETF is generating for its issuer. It's derived by multiplying an ETF's assets under management by its expense ratio.

As Dave Nadig, chief investment officer at ETF Database, points out, it's not an exact figure.

Implied revenue isn't "exactly how much each fund contributed to the P&L of the issuer. Funds have expenses to pay, and some funds have acquired expenses to contend with, which really explodes the bottom-line expense ratio. And of course, funds have inflows and outflows, and markets go up and down," Nadig said.

Furthermore, the expense ratio used in the calculation doesn't completely represent an investors' experience either.

"Some funds can 'earn back' a lot in securities lending, which would help investors and put money in issuers' pockets," he added.


20 Biggest ETF Cash Cows

TickerFundERAUM ($B)Implied Revenue ($)
QQQ Invesco QQQ Trust 0.20%210.6421,280,000
SPY SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust0.09%429.9386,940,600
GLD SPDR Gold Shares0.40%56.4225,401,200
EEM iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF0.70%29.6201,382,680
TQQQ ProShares UltraPro QQQ0.95%20.7196,669,000
EFA iShares MSCI EAFE ETF0.32%57.4183,624,960
IWF iShares Russell 1000 Growth ETF0.19%78.5149,169,000
ARKK ARK Innovation ETF0.75%17.8133,381,500
IWM iShares Russell 2000 ETF0.19%69.6132,260,900
IWD iShares Russell 1000 Value ETF0.19%58110,200,380
IVV iShares Core S&P 500 ETF0.03%330.799,207,000
HYGiShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF0.48%19.796,521,180
PFF iShares Preferred & Income Securities ETF0.46%20.393,184,960
VTI Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF0.03%294.288,257,000
FVD First Trust Value Line Dividend Index Fund0.70%12.587,567,200
IEMG iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF0.11%78.686,410,830
VOO Vanguard S&P 500 ETF0.03%279.983,981,400
VWO Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF0.10%80.480,421,700
EMB iShares JP Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF0.39%19.776,953,240
IVW iShares S&P 500 Growth ETF0.18%40.372,579,240


SPY Not At The Top

Even with all those caveats, implied revenue is still an interesting figure that can provide a sense of which ETFs are the most important to issuers' bottom lines.

As it turns out, the world's largest ETF, the $429.9 billion SPY, is only the second-biggest cash cow of all ETFs, with implied annual revenue of $386.9 million.

Unsurprisingly, cheaper competitors like IVV and VOO are even further down the list, at Nos. 11 and 17, respectively, with annual revenues of $99.2 million and $84 million.

‘QQQ’ The Big Money Maker

If it's not SPY, what is the world's biggest ETF cash cow? That title goes to the Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ), with implied annual revenues of $421.3 million. One of the oldest ETFs on the market, QQQ has been a hit in today’s tech-fueled market.

The fund's sizable asset base of $210.6 billion and its 0.20% expense ratio make for a lucrative combination.

Today, there are plenty of competing funds offering exposure to technology stocks in a more targeted way and for much lower cost, but that hasn’t stopped QQQ from being wildly popular. 

It's one of the few cases where a high expense ratio hasn't caused investors to shun a fund. Despite being relatively expensive, QQQ has seen inflows of $17.1 billion this year and inflows of $47.8 billion during the past five years.

Traders Less Price Conscious

Another product benefiting from the rabid interest in tech stocks is the ProShares UltraPro QQQ (TQQQ), a 3x-leveraged version of the aforementioned QQQ.

With $20.7 billion in assets and a 0.95% expense ratio, TQQQ generates $196.7 million in implied annual revenues.

Traders who use leveraged and inverse ETFs typically have shorter holding periods, so an annual expense ratio, no matter how high, simply doesn’t matter as much as it does to a longer-term investor.

First-Mover Advantage

Going through the list reveals more of the same―ETFs that aren't the cheapest names in their space but that are generating strong revenues for issuing firms. These funds often have the first-mover advantage.

Despite being expensive, the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) and the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) attracted billions in assets and hundreds of millions in revenues thanks to being the first ETFs to launch in their category.

Long-term investors in funds like those may be reluctant to shift to cheaper alternatives because they don't want to pay taxes on their gains. Inertia may also play a part.

At the same time, shorter-term traders may appreciate the deep and liquid options markets these older ETFs have. 

Paying Specialized ETFs

Of course, launching the first ETF in a space isn't something easily replicated. Fortunately for issuers, that's not the only path to creating an ETF that lays the golden egg.

Investors are more than willing to pay up for specialized funds with some sort of perceived “secret sauce.” A great example of this is the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK), which is a darling among retail investors.

The fund's assets under management increased dramatically last year even though it has an expense ratio of 0.75%—high by index ETF standards, but reasonable for an active product. With $17.8 billion in AUM, that translates into annual revenues of $133.4 million.

Follow Sumit Roy on Twitter @sumitroy2

Sumit Roy is the senior ETF analyst for, where he has worked for 13 years. He creates a variety of content for the platform, including news articles, analysis pieces, videos and podcasts.

Before joining, Sumit was the managing editor and commodities analyst for Hard Assets Investor. In those roles, he was responsible for most of the operations of HAI, a website dedicated to education about commodities investing.

Though he still closely follows the commodities beat, Sumit covers a much broader assortment of topics for, with a particular focus on stock and bond exchange-traded funds.

He is the host of’s Talk ETFs, a popular video series that features weekly interviews with thought leaders in the ETF industry. Sumit is also co-host of Exchange Traded Fridays,’s weekly podcast series.

He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he enjoys climbing the city’s steep hills, playing chess and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.