Better ETF Performance From Funds Based on Proprietary Index Methodologies?

 |  Includes: IWF, IWO, JKE, JKK, PWB, PXSG, VBK, VUG
by: Andy Mayo

Growth stocks outperformed value in 2007. Did the ETFs based on newer, proprietary index methodologies produce better results for growth stock investors during the volatile, last half of the year than their traditional peers, Russell and MSCI Barra?

Two providers of the new proprietary index methodologies are PowerShares and Morningstar, sold through iShares. Did their growth funds produce better results? Looking at four large cap and four small cap growth funds in both index categories, the results are mixed.

I've compared fund performance based on three short time frames: July 2 to year-end (six months); October 9 (the market high) to year end; November 26 (the market low) to year-end.

The funds based on a proprietary index are, from PowerShares:

  • PowerShares Small Cap Growth (PWT)
  • PowerShares Large Cap Growth (NYSEARCA:PWB)

These funds are based on the Dynamic Intellidex index, which according to PowerShares applies "a rigorous 10-factor style-isolation process to objectively segregate companies into their appropriate investment style and size universe. Next, each company is thoroughly evaluated to determine its investment merit by analyzing numerous unique financial characteristics from four broad financial perspectives: fundamental, valuation, timeliness and risk." That sounds an awfully lot like an actively managed fund.

From iShares, based on Morningstar index methodology:

  • Morningstar Small Cap Growth (NYSEARCA:JKK)
  • Morningstar Large Cap Growth (NYSEARCA:JKE)

Morningstar is less descriptive. Their funds are managed by Barclays Global Fund Advisors ( and the fund literature simply states that stocks are selected based on "above-average 'growth' characteristics as determined by Morningstar's proprietary index methodology." Still, "above average" would seem to imply that some companies that might be included in an index based solely on market capitalization and broadly defined growth characteristics would be left out. And that should, theoretically, improve returns.

The traditional index ETFs based on indexes from established index providers are:

From Russell Investments, which has provided index methodologies for over 25 years:

  • Russell 2000 Growth (NYSEARCA:IWO) (small companies)
  • Russell 1000 Growth (NYSEARCA:IWF) (large companies - also sold through iShares)

From MSCI Barra, which calculates over 100,000 equity, REIT and hedge fund indexes daily:

  • Vanguard Small Cap Growth (NYSEARCA:VBK)
  • Vanguard Growth (NYSEARCA:VUG)

For the last six months of the year, the best performing of all these funds was the PowerShares large cap fund (PWB at +4.14%) followed by the Vanguard large growth fund (VUG at +3.08%). One is based on an active, proprietary index, the other on a traditional index.

Ironically, the worst performing of the funds, over the same time frame, was also a proprietary index fund -- the PowerShares small cap fund (PWT, -6.63%) while the best performing of the small cap growth funds was also proprietary -- Morningstar's JKK which came in at -0.94% for the last six months of the year.

The small cap growth funds based on the Russell and MSCI indexes had very similar performance to each other. IWO's return was -4.15% for the last six months, -7.68% from the high and +4.82% from the low and VBK's performance was -4.29%, -7.50% and +4.63% respectively.

For the last six months of the year, large growth outperformed small growth, but the spread among the fund families was quite wide:

PWB outperformed PWT by 10.77% VUG outperformed VBK by 7.37% IWF outperformed IWO by 5.64% JKE outperformed JKK by 3.39%

Although all the funds are in negative territory from the market high of October 9, all the large cap funds have continued to outperform their small cap brethren on a relative return basis. But since the market low on November 26, something different has happened.

PWB has outperformed PWT by only 1.68% VUG is dead even with VBK IWF has underperformed IWO by 1.36% JKE has underperformed JKK by 1.63%

Since large cap funds typically outperform at the end of a bull market, the six month returns aren't unexpected. But the short-term performance, since the market low on November 26, seems out of character. Could it possibly mean that the market has already discounted the coming recession, and that small growth companies are poised to move ahead? Or is it simply a sign of just how oversold the small caps were and how speculative market participants have become at this stage of the game?

One measure of speculative enthusiasm is the relative strength of the Nasdaq Composite index [COMPQ], covering more than 3,000 companies, compared to the Nasdaq 100 (NDX), the 100 largest companies in the composite. Looking at the two indexes over the same three short-term time periods we see similar results, indicating that from November 26 to year end, investors were willing to speculate:

NDX outperformed COMPQ by 5.93% over the last six months NDX outperformed COMPQ by 1.44% from the market high NDX was only 42 basis points ahead of COMPQ from the market low.

Return calculations courtesy of Returns are net of fees and exclude re-invested dividends.

Disclosure: none