HOLDRs Still Popular Like It's the Year 2000: Time for a Change?

by: Street One Financial

by Paul Weisbruch

The Merrill Lynch HOLDRs lineup of funds is well known in the ETF industry and has been around since 2000. They carry name recognition and many investors and portfolio managers, especially those in the institutional and hedge fund space. SMH and OIH, and at one time HHH, were familiar monikers on sell side trading desks as well as those of buy side managers. The HOLDRs suite of products still retains a respectable amount of assets as well, over $5 billion in total AUM, and stands as the number 11 ETF issuer overall in terms of assets under management according to the last "S1F ETF Monthly" published in early May. Here are the issues with the products as we see them, however.

When the HOLDRs were conceived, ETFs were still in their infancy, with only a handful of broad based index products available to the investor like SPY (S&P 500 SPDR). Their launch allowed the investor to make specific sector bets, whether it be Semiconductors, Oil Services Stocks, Internet Infrastructure, etc. and this was indeed a unique offering at the time. The problem as we see it is that these products were constructed a decade ago and serve as "fixed lists" in that the securities that make up the underlying portfolios of each HOLDR product are dated in many cases, and there is nothing that anyone can do about this.

Take BHH (B2B Internet HOLDR) for instance. It has 2, count them, 2 holdings as the underlying, ARBA and ICGE. No doubt, many of the holdings that existed in 2000 have vanished into obscurity as a great number of internet companies have gone to the wayside. BHH was a relevant fund at one time, but not in this era, as the market has changed, and industries of relevance have changed over the past ten years. The HOLDRs products cannot rebalance, and are limited to the way they were set up upon inception, so if their underlying stocks disappear, merge, or simply become irrelevant due to perpetual underperformance, the products themselves become irrelevant. That does not however stop portfolio managers from using them it seems.

SMH (Semiconductor HOLDR) is still seen as a proxy for the Semiconductor space, which many follow still as an indicator of the health of the PC market and technology sector in general. But does SMH really give the investor diversified exposure to the Semi industry? Judge for yourself, in that SMH is composed of 23% INTC, 19.5% TXN, 12% AMAT (more than half of the portfolio concentrated across 3 stocks). OIH (Oil Services HOLDR) is another good example, as we at Street One still find a fair amount of portfolio managers using this ETF for their "Oil" exposure. Do not let the name fool you, as OIH does not give the investor direct exposure to the price movements of a barrel of oil, but instead is invested in a pre-set list of Oil Services stocks (13.3% RIG, 13.1% SLB, 11.6% HAL, 8.5% BHI). It is at the mercy of the swings of the market as far as "re-balancing" the portfolio because there is no inherent re-balancing mechanism within these funds. (For more on OIH read a previous article that we posted here.)

Of all of the existing HOLDR products, there remain a handful of ETFs that track industries, if you can even call them that, that are effectively irrelevant in 2010, because times DO change. In addition to BHH, there exists a "Broadband" HOLDR, BDH, which is 53% made up of QCOM, a "Europe 2001" HOLDR, EKH, the "Internet" HOLDR (NYSE:HHH) which is dominated by AMZN (41% of weighting), 19% EBAY, 14% YHOO, and also contains some throwbacks from the 2000 Internet scene including AMTD, ELNK, MFE, PCLN, RNWK, and ETFC. Nostalgia anyone?
The HOLDRS family also peddles the "Internet Architecture" (NYSE:IAH) HOLDR which is dominated by 4 names, IBM 32%, AAPL 20.5%, HPQ 20.4%, CSCO 12%, the "Internet Infrastructure" (NYSE:IIH) HOLDR which is made up of 52% VRSN and 36% AKAM, and the "Market 2000+" (NYSEARCA:MKH) HOLDR which owns stocks that were relevant in, you guessed it, the year 2000. We at Street One make it a practice to comb through SEC filings in order to keep abreast of new ETFs that are in registration on the horizon, and we have yet to come across the "Market 2010" ETF because the industry has obviously gotten to a point where products are not simply spawned when a new year is rung up on the calendar.
So in short, the existing HOLDR funds are largely sector plays that may have been relevant a decade ago, but due to the limitations of the fund structures, they have quickly become dated. And as most investors can attest to, innovation in the ETF space is a good thing, as often the first products to market, are not always the best products as better "mousetraps" continue to roll out from a variety of ETF issuers.
Part of the reluctance to part with the HOLDRs from a manager's standpoint comes from misconceptions about trading volume and liquidity, where managers assume that because many of the HOLDRS trade a significant amount of volume on a daily basis and have tight bid/ask spreads, that they should remain the product of choice. Many of the newer alternatives to the HOLDRs may not trade the same level of daily volume but their true underlying liquidity are on par of that of the HOLDRs themselves. Not to mention, many of these newer ETFs simply give purer, more diversified exposure to their sectors instead of being narrowly overweighted in stocks that are not as relevant in the context of the overall market as they were a decade ago.
So what exactly are the alternatives if portfolio managers are currently using the existing HOLDRs or using them as proxies for certain benchmarks (i.e. SMH for Semis, OIH for Oil, BBH for Biotechs, etc.)?

If you own BBH (Biotech HOLDR), consider IBB (iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology), XBI (SPDR S&P Biotech), PBE (PowerShares Dynamic Biotech and Genome), or FBT (First Trust NYSE Arca Biotech) for greater diversification and a more timely "basket" that gives you exposure that you are really looking for without the performance lag that may occur from being overweight a handful of names.
If you own B2B Internet (NYSE:BHH), Internet (HHH), Internet Architecture (IAH), Internet Infrastructure (IIH), FDN (First Trust Dow Jones Internet) and PNQI (PowerShares Nasdaq Internet), may be appealing alternatives.
In the Oil stocks space, instead of the Oil Services HOLDR (NYSEARCA:OIH), XLE (Energy Select SPDR), VDE (Vanguard Energy), IXC (iShares S&P Global Energy), IYE (iShares Dow Jones U.S. Energy), XOP (SPDR S&P Oil and Gas Exploration), IEO (iShares Dow Jones U.S. Oil and Gas Exploration), IEZ (iShares Dow Jones U.S. Oil Equipment), XES (SPDR S&P Oil and Gas Equipment and Services), PXJ (PowerShares Dynamic Oil and Gas), PXE (PowerShares Dynamic Energy Exploration and Production), FXN (First Trust Energy AlphaDEX), and RYE (Rydex S&P Equal Weight Energy) may make more sense to the investor.
In Pharmaceuticals (NYSEARCA:PPH), alternate options include IHE (iShares Dow Jones U.S. Pharmaceuticals), XPH (SPDR S&P Pharmaceuticals), and PJP (PowerShares Dynamic Pharmaceuticals).

For Regional Banks, RKH (Regional Bank HOLDR) owners may want to consider KRE (SPDR KBW Regional Banking), IAT (iShares Dow Jones U.S. Regional Banks), and PJB (PowerShares Dynamic Banking).

RTH (Retail HOLDR) owners who are tired of being overweighted to WMT (18.75% of the weighting) and HD (13.95%) may want to look at XRT (SPDR S&P Retail) and PMR (PowerShares Dynamic Retail).

Alternates to the ever popular SMH (Semiconductor HOLDR) include IGW (iShares S&P North American Tech - Semis), XSD (SPDR S&P Semiconductors), and PSI (PowerShares Dynamic Semiconductors).

In the Software (NYSE:SWH) space, potential alternatives are IGV (iShares S&P North America Tech - Software) and PSJ (PowerShares Dynamic Software).

The Telecom (NYSEARCA:TTH) space is simply not diversified well, with T and VZ taking up 54% and 26% respectively of the ETF. Because there is such a lack of diversification in the Telecom space, most ETF issuers meld the Telecom companies with other areas of Technology in order to create more diversified and competitive products, as opposed to launching their own Telecom specific ETFs.

In the high yielding Utilities (NYSEARCA:UTH) space, investors may want to look at XLU (SPDR S&P Utilities Select), VPU (Vanguard Utilities), IDU (iShares Dow Jones U.S. Utilities), PUI (PowerShares Dynamic Utilities), FXU (First Trust Utilities AlphaDEX), and RYU (Rydex S&P Equal Weight Utilities).

Finally, as with the Telecom sector, in what sounds like the dated "Wireless" space, Wireless HOLDR (NYSEARCA:WMH), there are no true alternatives that focus solely on Wireless companies. Instead, there are ETFs out there that invest in broad slices of the technology market so as not to be heavily concentrated across a handful of names that may have been very relevant ten years ago.

The HOLDRs products are simply older vehicles, and ones that do not change with the times. In 2010, as challenging and competitive as the markets are, and with managers of all ETF portfolios sprouting up coast to coast, investment managers should no longer be choosing ETF products based on comfort and familiarity of routine, but instead should dig deeper and isolate the best products that match their desired portfolio exposures.

Disclosure: No positions

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