How To Avoid The Worst Style ETFs Q3'17

by: David Trainer

The large number of ETFs has little to do with serving your best interests.

Below are three red flags you can use to avoid the worst ETFs.

The following presents the least and most expensive style ETFs as well as the worst overall style ETFs per our Q3'17 style ratings.

Question: Why are there so many ETFs?

Answer: ETF providers tend to make lots of money on each ETF so they create more products to sell.

The large number of ETFs has little to do with serving your best interests. Below are three red flags you can use to avoid the worst ETFs:

Inadequate Liquidity

This issue is the easiest issue to avoid, and our advice is simple. Avoid all ETFs with less than $100 million in assets. Low levels of liquidity can lead to a discrepancy between the price of the ETF and the underlying value of the securities it holds. Plus, low asset levels tend to mean lower volume in the ETF and larger bid-ask spreads.

High Fees

ETFs should be cheap, but not all of them are. The first step here is to know what is cheap and expensive.

To ensure you are paying at or below average fees, invest only in ETFs with total annual costs below 0.45%, which is the average total annual cost of the 273 U.S. equity Style ETFs we cover. The weighted average is lower at 0.15%, which highlights how investors tend to put their money in ETFs with low fees.

Figure 1 shows the AlphaClone Alternative Alpha ETF (ALFA) is the most expensive style ETF and the Schwab U.S. Large Cap ETF (SCHX) is the least expensive. No single ETF sponsor recurs among the most expensive ETFs while Schwab (SCHX) (SCHB) and iShares (ITOT) (IVV) ETFs are among the cheapest.

Figure 1: 5 Least and Most Expensive Style ETFs

Sources: New Constructs, LLC and company filings

Investors need not pay high fees for quality holdings. The Schwab U.S Dividend Equity ETF (SCHD) earns our Very Attractive rating and has low total annual costs of only 0.08%.

On the other hand, the Schwab U.S. Small Cap ETF (SCHA) holds poor stocks and earns our Unattractive rating, yet has low total annual costs of 0.06%. No matter how cheap an ETF, if it holds bad stocks, its performance will be bad. The quality of an ETFs holdings matters more than its price.

Poor Holdings

Avoiding poor holdings is by far the hardest part of avoid bad ETFs, but it is also the most important because an ETFs performance is determined more by its holdings than its costs. Figure 2 shows the ETFs within each style with the worst holdings or portfolio management ratings.

Figure 2: Style ETFs with the Worst Holdings

Sources: New Constructs, LLC and company filings

Vanguard (VONV) (VOT) (VTWV) and iShares (JKE) (IWS) (JKK) appear more often than any other providers in Figure 2, which means that they offer the most ETFs with the worst holdings.

The ProShares Ultra Oil & Gas ETF (DIG) is the worst rated ETF in Figure 2. The First Trust Equity Opportunities ETF (FPX), iShares Morningstar Small Cap Growth ETF (JKK), Guggenheim Raymond James SB-1 Equity ETF (RYJ), Vanguard Russell 2000 Value ETF (VTWV), and PowerShares Russell 2000 Equal Weight Portfolio (EQWS) also earn an Unattractive predictive overall rating, which means not only do they hold poor stocks, they charge high total annual costs.

Our overall ratings on ETFs are based primarily on our stock ratings of their holdings.

The Danger Within

Buying an ETF without analyzing its holdings is like buying a stock without analyzing its business and finances. Put another way, research on ETF holdings is necessary due diligence because an ETF’s performance is only as good as its holdings’ performance. Don’t just take our word for it, see what Barron’s says on this matter.


Analyzing each holding within funds is no small task. Our Robo-Analyst technology enables us to perform this diligence with scale and provide the research needed to fulfill the fiduciary duty of care. More of the biggest names in the financial industry (see At BlackRock, Machines Are Rising Over Managers to Pick Stocks) are now embracing technology to leverage machines in the investment research process. Technology may be the only solution to the dual mandate for research: cut costs and fulfill the fiduciary duty of care. Investors, clients, advisors and analysts deserve the latest in technology to get the diligence required to make prudent investment decisions.

This article originally published on August 3, 2017.

Disclosure: David Trainer, Kyle Guske II, and Kenneth James receive no compensation to write about any specific stock, style, or theme.

Disclosure: I/we 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.