How Good Is The Shelter From The Storm Provided By Low Volatility ETFs?

With the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite each down nearly 2.3 percent at time of writing, some investors may be wondering it low volatility exchange traded funds are worth turning amid the recent bout of equity market calamity.

The PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio SPLV and the iShares MSCI USA Minimum Volatility ETF USMV have developed devoted followings since each came to market in 2011 -- SPLV in May of that year and USMV in October 2011. SPLV and USMV are now home to $4.87 billion and $5.65 billion in assets under management, respectively.

Superlatives aside, what investors need to know is whether or not these ETFs are making good on the low volatility promise. These days, that means performing less badly than standard broad market equity funds.

The answer is yes.

30 Days

Over the past month, SPLV and USMV are off an average of 3.2 percent, but the S&P 500 is down nearly 7 percent in that span.

“While the S&P 500 Index is down 4.3% this year through August 21, August has been much worse with a 6.3% decline. However, pain has been even greater in the S&P 500 High Beta Index, which has fallen 8.3% in August and 13% year to date. In contrast, the S&P 500 Low Volatility index is down only 3.1% in August and is down only 2.5 for the year,” said S&P Capital IQ in a note out Monday.

The S&P 500 Low Volatility Index serves as the underlying benchmark for SPLV. The rival USMV tracks the MSCI USA Minimum Volatility (USD) Index. Focusing on USMV for a moment, the fund deserves some credit. Until recently, the ETF had managed to notch new highs even on days when broader U.S. equity indexes endured significant punishment. USMV is just days removed from its most recent high and trades 7.2 percent below that level, which is around $42.70.

That does not mean USMV is a free lunch. The ETF allocates a combined 34.5 percent of its weight to the healthcare and financial services sectors, making those the fund's largest and third-largest sector weights. Although USMV does not feature biotech exposure nor is the ETF heavy on glamorous tech stocks that would be vulnerable in the current environment, those are the stock weighing on those sectors and with 34.5 percent of its weight devoted to those groups, USMV could be vulnerable to an ongoing retrenchment in momentum names.

While the recent trend has been toward a low volatility approach, history suggests that it could soon reverse. According to Sam Stovall, U.S. equity strategist for S&P Capital IQ, "since December 1990 the S&P 500 High Beta Index has declined on average 1.1% in the fourth calendar quarter, after rising 8.6% in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 Low Volatility index was up on average 4.6% in the fourth quarter after a 2.0% increase in the third quarter."

SPLV's combined healthcare and tech exposure is just 14.9 percent. Interestingly, the ETF has also shed the perception that is a utilities fund in disguise as that sector is less than 4.8 percent of the fund's weight, making utilities SPLV fourth-smallest sector allocation.

Financial services and consumer staples combine for over 56 percent of SPLV's weight, but the fund's advantage as it pertains to the current state of affairs in the U.S. equity markets is what it lacks. That meaning SPLV does not hold any energy stocks and that is the worst-performing sector in the S&P 500 this year.

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