Health care sector ETFs offer a port in the storm

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April 16, 2009 9:47am ETF BASIC NEWS NYSE:XLV

healthcare…Traditionally, health care has been viewed as a defensive sector, meaning that health care sector stocks have held up better than the overall stock market during major bear markets. The current bear market is no exception. Regardless of what the market is doing, people tend to maintain their health care spending, and profits in the sector hold. Because senior citizens account for a disproportionate share of health care expenses, Medicare guarantees a flow of revenue to the health care industry.

There are literally dozens of health care ETFs, and not all are created equal. The first group to be aware of is the broad U.S. health care sector ETFs: Health Care Sector SPDR (XLV) from State Street Global Advisors of Boston, iShares Dow Jones U.S. Healthcare Sector Index ETF (IYH) from Barclays Global Fund Advisors in San Francisco, a subsidiary of Barclays Global Investors of Jersey City, N.J., and the Vanguard Health Care ETF (VHT) from The Vanguard Group Inc. of Malvern, Pa.

The investment performance of these ETFs has been similar over the past three and five years, with the Health Care Sector SPDR just a bit weaker than the others. On the other hand, the Health Care SPDR is the most heavily traded of the three broad health care ETFs, so if you are looking to move more than 1,000 shares at a time, there is a potential advantage to using the Health Care Sector SPDR, especially if you are an active trader.

All three of these broad sector ETFs have the same principal holdings: large pharmaceutical and equipment companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Inc., Abbott Laboratories, Merck & Co. Inc. and Amgen Inc.

However, the Vanguard Health Care ETF does not hold the same portfolio as the well-regarded Vanguard Health Care Fund (VGHCX) which, unlike the ETF, has a minimum holding period of one year.

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