The spike in volatility that hit a climax on Monday has apparently passed with the swiftness of a summer thunderstorm. Of course, as I explained more than six years ago in "What My Dog Can Tell Us About Volatility," things are never really quite the same after the storm passes, which is why we often encounter a phenomenon I call echo volatility.
Most investors -- and I know I am the exception here -- do not like volatility and actively seek out strategies that minimize the volatility of their portfolios. This low-volatility approach has a great deal of merit and a fair amount of academic studies to support the rationale behind low- volatility investing. For those who might not be interested in wading through the academic literature, the chart below shows how SPLV has significantly outperformed SPY since its launch, with substantially less volatility along the way.
Since the exchange-traded revolution began, investors have been blessed with a variety of low volatility sector ETPs, such as utilities (XLU) and consumer staples (XLP) as well as a strong selection of value-oriented ETPs (e.g., IWD and VTV) and dividend-focused ETPs (e.g., VIG, DVY and SDY), but it was not until May 2011 that there was an exchange-traded product that specifically targeted low-volatility holdings. Enter the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio ETN (SPLV), which immediately began attracting a following and now has $3.4 billion of assets. SPLV had the benefit of being first to market, but its success has prompted the launch of many similar products, of which the most successful has probably been the iShares MSCI USA Minimum Volatility ETF (USMV). Since then, PowerShares and iShares have expanded their product line of low volatility ETPs to cover international stocks (EFAV, ACWV, and IDLV) and emerging markets (EEMV and EELV).
The newest battleground in the low-volatility race is a U.S. market cap focus, with the launch by PowerShares of the PowerShares S&P Mid Cap Low Volatility Portfolio (XMLV) ETN and the PowerShares S&P Small Cap Low Volatility Portfolio (XSLV) ETN earlier this month. I mention these two new entrants because the distinction between these two and SPLV is much more than the market cap. Indeed, the differences in sector weighting are at least as substantial as the differences in market cap. Starting with SPLV as a benchmark, here the current sector weightings are 31% utilities, 24% consumer staples, and 15% financials. In contrast, XMLV is weighted with 51% financials, 24% utilities, and no other sector representing more than 8% of the portfolio. Not too dissimilar is XSLV, which is weighted 50% in financials and 16% in utilities. The bottom line is that these two new products are not just smaller-cap versions of SPLV, but portfolios with a strong financial component, very little exposure to consumer staples, and more exposure to sectors such as information technology and industrials, so the redundancy between SPLV and either XMLV or XSLV is smaller than one might expect.
Aggressive and conservative investors alike should make an effort to have a portion of their portfolio dedicated to lower-volatility instruments. While more traditional sector, value, and dividend approaches still make some sense, the expanding menu of targeted low volatility products certainly deserve a long look as well -- preferably before the next big volatility storm.