Low Volatility ETFs (SPLV, USMV, TVIX)

David Fry:  Investors looking to lessen their risk in uncertain times have been flocking to low volatility ETFs, which seek to replicate the returns of low volatility indices. There are a number of low volatility indices to choose from including the S&P 500 Low Volatility Index, the MSCI USA Minimum Volatility Index, and the Russell-Axioma U.S. Large Cap Low Volatility Index, among others.

The largest low volatility ETF in terms of assets under management (AUM) is the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (NYSEArca:SPLV) which tracks the S&P 500 Low Volatility Index. Launched in May 2011, SPLV already has more than $1 billion under management. The index is composed of the 100 least volatile companies in the S&P 500, and eschews sexier tech stocks for more reliable sectors such as Utilities, Healthcare, and Consumer Staples, which tend to fluctuate a great deal less.

Although lower risk is typically associated with lower returns, Standard & Poor’s back testing from 1991 to present found that its Low Volatility Index’s annualized returns of 9.6% actually beat the S&P 500’s 7.6%.

Compare SPLV’s (red) lower volatility over the last year to SPY (blue), which tracks the S&P 500.

On the surface, this discrepancy between risk and return doesn’t seem to make much sense, but there are other factors at work. Money managers tend to overpay for riskier stocks because they attract more money to their funds and perform so well in bull markets. Of course, when a bear market inevitably arrives, those same stocks can get killed.

In contrast with tech stocks, which often trade at a premium during bull markets, the boring, plain vanilla, low volatility stocks that compose low volatility indices are frequently overlooked and can trade at discounts.

Somewhat paradoxically, the low risk approach of low volatility ETFs has its own risks. To start with, these ETFs are often very (some might say overly) concentrated in a few select sectors. 29% of the PowerShares ETF is invested in consumer staples such as Proctor and Gamble and Walmart, with another 31% in utilities like Consolidated Edison. A shock to one of these sectors could prove particularly damaging to such an ETF. Investors in low volatility ETFs also risk missing out on sudden large gains in the market, making much more modest returns. The flipside, of course, is that they are better protected if and when the market drops.

To be fair, PowerShares’ approach isn’t the only game in town. iShares has structured its MSCI USA Minimum Volatility Fund (NYSEArca:USMV) in a slightly different way, tracking the MSCI USA Minimum Volatility Index, but attempting to minimize the risk of overconcentration, never allowing a sector’s weighting to vary by more than 5% from the overall market. Contrast its 15% weighting in consumer staples with PowerShares’ 29%.

Related: VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX ST ETN (NYSEArca:TVIX).

Written By David Fry From ETF Digest

David is founder and publisher of ETF Digest and best selling book author of Create Your Own ETF Hedge Fund, A DIY Strategy for Private Wealth Management published by Wiley Finance in 2008.  In July of  2009, Fry was named in the ETF Hall of Fame as one of the Top 25  people who revolutionized the ETF industry and guided ETF investing  from its conception to widespread acceptance among all breeds of investors. Fry founded the ETF Digest in 2001 and was among the very  first to see the need for an online publication that provided  individual investors and financial professionals with trading tools,  market information and    actionable advice on ETF investing. ETF  Digest was recently ranked 9th in the Top 100 ETF websites from Alexa  on exchange traded funds. Dave Fry has devoted over 35 years to the business of trading and  portfolio   management. He is registered as an  arbitrator with the  Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)  and the National Futures Association (NFA).

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