By David Sterman
In the expanding universe of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), it's sink or swim.
Any ETFs that fail to gain a big enough investor following eventually are shut down. It simply costs too much to operate a fund that only has a few million dollars and trades only a few thousand shares every day.
Yet for every ETF that disappears from the market, a new one is launched. Of course, some of these ETFs are simply "me too" products that merely replicate the composition and performance of the most popular funds. At this point, do investors really need yet another ETF that mimics the S&P 500 Index?
That's why ETF sponsors are trying to come up with new angles, launching funds that capitalize on key investing themes that haven't been covered by other ETFs. In the past few months, we've seen several solid new ETFs that you should know more about. They may take time to build up assets, but they hold a great deal of long-term promise.
1. ProShares Launches S&P 500 Aristocrats ETF (NASDAQ: NOBL)
We're big fans of companies that have built a long-term track record of dividend payments. And that's what you'll get with this ETF, which owns stocks in companies that have boosted their dividends for at least 25 years in a row. The track record is undeniably impressive: An index developed by S&P that underpins this ETF has gained 14% a year, on average, over the past five years, handily beating the S&P 500's 10% annualized gain.
I wrote about these "aristocrats" earlier this year, noting that these stocks also tend to deliver above-average dividend yields, not just solid dividend growth. That's a great reason to own this ETF. But investors shouldn't necessarily anticipate continued outperformance with this approach. As I wrote back in February, rising interest rates will eventually lead more investors to buy bonds and CDs, "which will draw some attention away from dividend-paying stocks."
2. WisdomTree Emerging Markets Con (NASDAQ: EMCG)
This ETF resolves a long-standing conundrum. Many emerging-market stocks are actually much more closely tied to Europe and the U.S. than local economies. The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (NYSE: EEM), for example, counts companies such as Samsung (SSNLF.PK), Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) and Hyundai Motors (HYMLF.PK) among its top 10 holdings. It's a challenge I noted in a previous article, linked above:
"An investment in emerging markets is really an indirect proxy for developed markets. Even large emerging-market companies that have greater local exposure are often still tied to global pricing trends. I'm talking about the commodity producers, major banks and basic materials firms."
That's why this new ETF is so appealing. It focuses on companies selling into the fast-rising emerging-markets middle class. The fund's assets have a 31% weighting in consumer discretionary stocks, 27% in consumer staple stocks, 18% in banks and insurers, and 10% in utilities. China, Brazil and South Africa account for roughly 40% of the portfolio, while Mexico, India, Indonesia and Turkey make up another 33%.
3. Forensic Accounting ETF (NASDAQ: FLAG)
This fund aims to own stocks in companies that maintain conservative accounting policies. Aggressive revenue recognition, expense undercounting or erratic accounts receivables trends are just some of the ways that a company can be booted out of this ETF, which is rebalanced twice a year. The companies that are included in the fund are given a grade, with those firms receiving an A constituting fully 40% of the portfolio.
This ETF has risen roughly 15% since its launch in early 2013, beating the S&P 500 by roughly 5 percentage points. But the 0.85% expense ratio is a bit stiff when you consider that most ETFs have an expense ratio below 0.60%.
4. iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor (NASDAQ: QUAL)
This ETF is likely to fare comparatively well in bear markets, as it focuses on companies with low levels of debt, consistent profit levels in any economic climate, and high returns on equity. As an added kicker, it carries a rock-bottom expense ratio of just 0.15%.
You can already see its defensive posture in the three months it has been trading. The S&P 500 has shed 2% of its value in that time, while this ETF has traded flat. The fact that nearly 40% of the portfolio is tied up in tech stocks such as Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) highlights the fact that tech companies still hold considerable amounts of cash.
Risks to Consider: New ETFs sometimes have wide bid/ask spreads while trading volumes remain low. If they are successful, those trading volumes will rise, and the bid/ask spreads will narrow.
All four of these ETFs hold solid long-term promise, and deployed as a basket, represent a fairly conservative to key current investing themes.