Lower-Risk ETFs With High Risk-Adjusted Returns

Charles Bolin profile picture
Charles Bolin


  • Risk, rank, return compared to peers, Ulcer Index, and Martin Ratio were used to select 25 funds in different Lipper categories.
  • Different measures of risk and risk-adjusted return are compared.
  • Three portfolios are compared in Portfolio Visualizer using these lower-risk, higher risk-adjusted return ETFs.

With any method for computing investment risk and performance, it is important to use data covering as long a time period as possible. In particular, the measurement period must include both bull and bear markets for the investments of interest.

- Peter G. Martin

How Do You Measure Risk in ETFs?

I discuss seven different measures of risk and three measures of risk-adjusted returns. A summary for portfolios from 1932 to 2017 is shown below for Maximum Drawdown, Standard Deviation, Sharpe Ratio and Martin Ratio. The table is from "How Bad Can It Get?" by Charles Boccadoro. It is a comparison of the Sharpe Ratio to the Martin Ratio for the past 85 years by stock-to-bond ratio. For interested readers, I described the Ulcer Index and Martin Ratio in The Great Owl Portfolio last October.

The table shows that the portfolio with the highest Martin Ratio consists of around 30% stocks, compared to 40% stocks for the Sharpe Ratio. I also like that the Martin Ratio shows a wider range of values, as I believe that it captures a better estimate of risk. For example, the Martin Ratio for a 70% stock/30% bond portfolio is 35% lower than a 30% stock/70% bond portfolio, while the Sharpe Ratio is only 4% lower. Also noteworthy is that the 70% stock/30% bond portfolio has twice the drawdown of the 30% stock/70% bond portfolio. Over a very long period of time, portfolios with higher allocations to stock outperform, but my investing time horizon is not 85 years.

(Source: MFO.)

High Risk-Adjusted Return ETFs

I selected 25 funds from 24 Lipper categories based on risk, risk-adjusted returns, and performance compared to peers using Mutual Fund Observer Premium Search. Many of these are appropriate for a late business cycle stage leading into a recession.

Symbol Name Lipper Category
GSY Invesco Ultra Short Duration Ultra-Short Obligations
BSCJ Invesco BulletShares 2019 Corporate Bond Short Invest Grade Debt
XMLV Invesco S&P MidCap Low Volatility Mid-Cap Core
USMV BlackRock iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol USA Multi-Cap Core
SPHD Invesco S&P 500 High Dividend Low Vol Equity Income
FVD First Trust Value Line Dividend Index Multi-Cap Value
SDY State Street SPDR S&P Dividend ETF Equity Income
MGV Vanguard Mega Cap Value Index ETF Large-Cap Value
XSLV Invesco S&P SmallCap Low Volatility ETF Small-Cap Core
DON WisdomTree US MidCap Dividend Mid-Cap Value
PZA Invesco National AMT-Free Municipal Bond Muni Gen & Insured Debt
BAB Invesco Taxable Municipal Bond ETF General Bond
FXU First Trust Utilities AlphaDEX Utility
FCOM Fidelity MSCI Communication Services Telecommunication
AOK BlackRock iShares Core Conserv Alloc Mixed-Asset Target Alloc Consv
GQRE FlexShares Global Qual Real Estate Index Global Real Estate
PSR Invesco Active US Real Estate Real Estate
AOM BlackRock iShares Core Moderate Alloc Mixed-Asset Target Alloc Moderate
AOR BlackRock iShares Core Growth Alloc Mixed-Asset Target Alloc Growth
TOK BlackRock iShares MSCI Kokusai ETF Global Large-Cap Core
IYLD BlackRock iShares Morningstar Mult-Asst Inc Alternative Global Macro
ACIM State Street SPDR MSCI ACWI IMI Global Multi-Cap Core
CGW Invesco S&P Global Water Index Global Natural Resources
DGT State Street SPDR Global Dow Global Large-Cap Value
DBEU Deutsche Xtrackers MSCI Europe Hdgd Eq European Region

The Measures of Risk and Risk-Adjusted Returns

One of the most common measure of risk-adjusted return is the Sharpe Ratio, which is the return above a risk-free treasury divided by the Standard Deviation (STDEV) that measures whether the price of a fund is rising, falling, or both. It is not a good measure of risk. The Sortino Ratio is the return above a risk-free investment divided by the downside deviation (DSDEV). The Martin Ratio is the return above a risk-free investment divided by the Ulcer Index, which measures the magnitude and duration of drawdowns.

The top section in the table below shows where the Sharpe, Sortino, and Martin ratios are in agreement. Over the past five years, these have been top funds on a risk-adjusted basis. GSY and BSCJ are both bond funds. The returns (APR) have been low, but the risk is even lower. XMLV and USMV are both low volatility funds. SPHD, FVD, and SDY are dividend funds.

Seven measures of risk and volatility are shown, including the minimum 1-year rolling return, Downside Capture and Price-to-Earnings Ratio. I use these more heavily in a late business cycle stage to reduce risk. I include P/E as a risk because investors have been purchasing low volatility funds, and as a result, valuations have risen. For more information, I refer readers to the article "Low Volatility Factor: High Valuation".

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Mutual Fund Observer)

The bottom section consists mostly of global and mixed asset funds, where the Sharpe, Sortino, and Martin ratios are in agreement that these funds have not had as high of a risk-adjusted return. I like the low P/E of global funds, and they may be suitable in a portfolio for diversification.

The middle section consists of value funds, small- and mid-cap ETFs, municipal bonds, and Utility and Sector ETFs, where the risk-adjusted return has not been as high.

Portfolio Visualizer

The Efficient Frontier from Portfolio Visualizer is shown below. I have roughly grouped them as they are in the table above.

(Source: Portfolio Visualizer)

The next three charts show the returns for the past 12 months for the same groupings as above. It can be clearly seen that the Highest Risk-Adjusted Returns are less volatile than the other two categories.

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Portfolio Visualizer)

Of the High Risk-Adjusted Returns, the First Trust Utilities AlphaDEX ETF (FXU) and the Invesco National AMT-Free Municipal Bond Portfolio ETF (PZA) have clearly been more stable investments.

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Portfolio Visualizer)

The Moderate Risk-Adjusted Funds have not fared well during the past 12 months.

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Portfolio Visualizer)


The Morningstar ratings are shown below. The risk ratings are low-to-average.

Symbol Fund Category Rating Risk Return

Return 3 Mon

GSY Ultrashort Bond 4 Below Average Above Average 0.9
BSCJ Short-Term Bond 5 Above Average High 0.6
XMLV Mid-Cap Value 5 Low High 2.8
USMV Large Blend 4 Low Above Average 2.4
SPHD Large Value 5 Below Average Above Average 2.4
FVD Large Value 5 Low Above Average 2.1
SDY Large Value 5 Below Average High 2.2
MGV Large Value 4 Average Above Average -0.4
XSLV Small Value 5 Low High 2.0
DON Mid-Cap Value 5 Average High 2.3
PZA Muni Nation Long 4 Above Average Above Average 2.8
BAB Long-Term Bond 4 Below Average Average 3.9
FXU Utilities 3 Average Average -0.5
FCOM Communications 4 Average Above Average 1.7
AOK Alloc - 30% to 50% Eq 2 Low Below Average 2.8
GQRE Global Real Estate 4 Average Above Average 5.5
PSR Real Estate 4 Below Average Above Average 4.5
AOM Alloc - 30% to 50% Eq 3 Below Average Average 2.6
AOR Alloc - 50% to 70% Eq 3 Below Average Average 2.6
TOK World Large Stock 4 Average Above Average 3.3
IYLD Alloc - 30% to 50% Eq 4 Above Average Above Average 4.5
ACIM World Large Stock 4 Average Above Average 2.5
CGW Misc. Sector Below Average 6.7
DGT World Large Stock 3 Average Average 2.7
DBEU Europe Stock 5 Low High 3.7

(Source: Morningstar)

My Favorite ETFs

I created three portfolios of the funds that I liked most, to maximize returns over the past 13 months for 4%, 6%, and 8% target standard deviations. While the returns are close for the three portfolios, my preference is towards less risk.

Portfolio Allocations
Name Ticker 4% Vol 6% Vol 8% Vol SPY
Invesco Ultra Short Duration GSY 30% 25% 30%
Invesco BulletShares 2019 Corp Bd BSCJ 25% 20% 5%
Invesco S&P 500 Hi Div Lo Vol SPHD 5% 10% 20%
First Trust Value Line Div FVD 17% 25% 25%
Invesco Nat. AMT-Free Muni Bd PZA 13% 10% 5%
iShares Core Cons Alloc AOK 5% 5% 5%
iShares MSCI Kokusai TOK 5% 5% 10%
Portfolio Metrics
Return 2.8% 3.1% 3.4% 5.5%
Max. Drawdown -2.1% -3.1% -4.6% -13.5%
Sharpe Ratio 0.22 0.24 0.23 0.29
Sortino Ratio 0.32 0.33 0.32 0.41
Portfolio Exposure
US Stocks 24% 36% 49%
Intl. Stocks 5% 6% 7%
US Bonds 41% 34% 24%
Intl. Bonds 9% 8% 6%
Cash 21% 17% 13%

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Portfolio Visualizer)

Here is how the portfolios and funds have performed over the past 13 months. Each of the three portfolios performed in a low volatile manner, with close returns in spite of the large difference in stock allocation.

(Source: Portfolio Visualizer)

Below is the fund performance over the past 12 months.

Name Ticker Avg Rtn Stdev Max. Drawdown Sharpe Sortino
Invesco Ultra Short Duration GSY 2.6% 0.3% 0.0% 2.2 6.1
Invesco BulletShares 2019 Corp Bd BSCJ 1.8% 0.7% -0.2% -0.2 -0.2
Invesco S&P 500 Hi Div Lo Vol SPHD 3.3% 13.9% -7.5% 0.2 0.2
First Trust Value Line Div FVD 5.6% 13.1% -7.6% 0.3 0.5
Invesco Nat AMT-Free Muni Bd PZA 1.0% 3.3% -2.5% -0.3 -0.4
iShares Core Cons Alloc AOK 0.8% 5.1% -4.1% -0.2 -0.3
iShares MSCI Kokusai TOK 2.5% 15.7% -13.5% 0.1 0.2

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Portfolio Visualizer)

The following table shows the correlations between the funds. The equity funds are most correlated to each other. PZA is the least correlated to other funds.

(Source: Created by the Author with Data from Portfolio Visualizer)


Each month, I evaluate whether I should make a small change to my portfolio in order to reduce risk and increase risk-adjusted returns. This month, I traded a volatile health care fund for a less volatile dividend and income fund following the concepts in this article.

This article was written by

Charles Bolin profile picture
I use Mutual Fund Observer MultiSearch as the primary tool to analyze and rank funds based on risk, momentum, quality, income, and consistency factors. I classify nearly 700 funds each month by investment buckets for risk and trends. I began contributing to the MFO monthly newsletter in 2019.I am an individual investor and engineer with an MBA nearing retirement.

Disclosure: I am/we are long FXU. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: I am an engineer with an MBA nearing retirement and not an economist nor an investment professional. The information provided is for educational purposes and should not be considered as advice. Investors should do their due diligence research and/or use an investment professional.

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