Each of the three largest providers of U.S.-listed exchange-traded funds has a product tracking the S&P 500 Index, and you would think they’re all the same, right? In terms of performance, the answer is essentially yes (though fees slightly influence the outcome). Regarding recent asset flows, the disconnect is so huge it’s hard to believe we’re talking about the same product category.

Through Tuesday’s market close, the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) from BlackRock led the industry in asset inflows for the past one-month period with $4.3 billion, followed by the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) with $2.6 billion, according to XTF.com. The granddaddy of all U.S. ETFs in terms of age and size, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) from State Street Global Advisors, had the largest one-month outflows of $12.4 billion.

It’s basically the same story quarter-to-date, with IVV and VOO leading the way in asset inflows with $6.7 billion and $3.3 billion, respectively. SPY was second in outflows at $4.8 billion (it had the most quarter-to-date outflows through Monday’s trading).

And on a year-to-date basis, VOO has the most inflows with $12.5 billion, while IVV is third with $8.1 billion. (The iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol USA ETF, with the ticker USMV, was second in year-to-date inflows.) SPY leads the industry in outflows this year with $20.6 billion.

At first blush, the huge discrepancy seems strange considering that SPY’s portfolio overlaps those of both IVV and VOO to the tune of 99%, whereas IVV and VOO have a 100% overlap, according to ETF Research Center. And SPY—far and away the biggest U.S.-listed ETF with assets of nearly $261 billion—is a commonly used ETF benchmark to gauge the health of U.S. equities. Considering all that, why are people jumping ship from this bellwether fund at such prodigious rates?

Fund fees play a role. VOO trades with a puny expense ratio of 0.03%, and IVV is right behind at 0.04%. SPY trades at a cheap 0.09%, yet that’s more than twice as pricey as IVV and three times the cost of VOO.

“Investors have been trading down in cost,” says Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA.

And that ties into the other part of the equation; namely, these three ETFs play to different audiences. “SPY, as the oldest, largest and most-frequently traded ETF, has more of an institutional investor following with a large usage tied to hedging,” Rosenbluth explains. “Whereas the wealth advisory-led portfolios increasingly are using IVV and VOO as core holdings for long-term investment purposes.”

And that’s fine by Matthew Bartolini, managing director at State Street Global Advisors and head of SPDR Americas Research.

“SPY is basically the market’s tool to express views in the market’s direction in a cost-efficient manner,” he says.

Bartolini notes that because SPY is a market barometer for U.S. equities, its asset base ebbs and flows with market sentiment and trading activity. “We’ve touched about $300 billion in assets and have gone down to about $250 billion,” he says. “We were hovering around $285 billion before the most recent sell-off.”

When markets are bullish, people go long on SPY. When volatility strikes, sophisticated investors—mainly larger institutional players—use the fund to de-risk their allocations via the use of leverage and options.

“During the recent sell-off we had three days with $3 billion, $5 billion and $3 billion in outflows,” Bartolini says. “Added together, we had more outflows than our competitors have had inflows all year."

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