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By The ETF Professor, Benzinga Staff Writer

Small ETFs, meaning those funds that labor below the much ballyhooed $100 million in assets under management watermark, are once again up to big things. At least some of them are.

Coming off a year in which some sub-$100 million funds were among the top performers in the ETF universe, select low-asset funds are again showing that ignoring an ETF on the basis of AUM can mean missing out on tidy returns.

Remember, an ETF's AUM total is not the only indicator of its potential profitability for the fund sponsor. The $100 million in AUM number also does not take into account an ETF manager's ability to make money through securities lending, licensing fees or other external costs related to ETF management.

With that in mind, here are some sub-$100 million ETFs that have been leaders to start the new year.

PowerShares NASDAQ Internet Portfolio (NASDAQ:PNQI)

As was recently noted, some investors may perceive PNQI as being "illiquid" because of an average daily volume number that is below 12,000 shares. The reality is the least heavily traded of PNQI's top-10 holdings is Equinix (NASDAQ:EQIX) at over 866,000 shares per day.

Housing heavily traded fares such as Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) ensures PNQI is sufficiently liquid. Being an ETF focused on Internet names rather the broader technology sector means the fund has not been dealt a blow by Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) woes. That means, including Friday's 1.4 percent gain, PNQI is up more than six percent year-to-date.

First Trust STOXX European Select Dividend Index Fund (NYSEARCA:FDD)

FDD has an interesting methodology as it starts by screening firms in the STOXX Europe 600 Index that have a positive five year dividend-per-share growth rate and a dividend to earnings-per-share ratio of 60 percent or less, according to First Trust.

Next, possible constituents are sorted by country and ranked in descending order according to their indicated annual net dividend yield, so the companies' weights in the index are determined by yield. Investors should note that FDD is not eurozone heavy as the U.K. and Switzerland combine for over 54 percent of the fund's weight.

Some investors may gloss over this fund when they see AUM of just over $20.3 million and average daily turnover of less than 19,000 shares. Others will likely get past those metrics and fall in love with a 30-day SEC yield of 6.36 percent. FDD has gained 2.6 percent year-to-date.

Market Vectors Gaming ETF (NYSEARCA:BJK)

More important than the fact that BJK has "just" $53.7 million in AUM is the fund's country allocations. That is to say this ETF is not solely a play on U.S. casinos. In fact, the U.S. represents just 27 percent of BJK's country weight.

China is next at 24 percent, meaning BJK is a viable option for investors looking to gain exposure to Macau without having to commit to a single stock. Exposure to Macau is probably a good idea. The Chinese territory long ago passed Las Vegas as the world's top gambling mecca.

The territory raked in $38 billion in gambling revenue last year and is expected to see revenue growth of five to 10 percent this year. As an indicator of its exposure to favorable non-U.S. gambling trends, seven of BJK's top-10 holdings are not U.S.-based companies. BJK is up four percent year-to-date and trading at its highest levels since the second quarter of 2008.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Disclaimer: Neither Benzinga nor its staff recommend that you buy, sell, or hold any security. We do not offer investment advice, personalized or otherwise. Benzinga recommends that you conduct your own due diligence and consult a certified financial professional for personalized advice about your financial situation.

Source: Small ETFs, Big Gains To Start 2013