Low Volatility Funds May Not Be As Low Risk As You Think

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David Evanson and Oliver Pursche

Forbes.com, Spring, 2012

I feel like I’m living the movie Groundhog Day. In case you didn’t see the movie, it’s where a loutish Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again until he gets it right with a fetching Andie MacDowell. For investors, the second quarter is starting to look a lot like the second quarter of last year: a steepening volatility curve, weaker economic data and increased concerns over Europe.

But unlike Murray’s hapless character, investors can get a little relief from so-called low volatility ETFs, and avoid reliving some the first quarter’s more difficult moments.

First a word of explanation: the idea behind low volatility ETFs is to own baskets of stocks or indexes that that exhibit low volatility. Right now, ETF sponsors are rushing to launch new low volatility ETFs. The largest low volatility fund is the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (SPLV). Launched in May 2011, it has nearly $1.7 billion in assets.

Other low volatility offerings include: Russell 2000 Low Volatility ETF (SLVY), Russell 1000 Low Volatility ETF (LVOL), Russell Developed ex-U.S. Low Volatility ETF (XLVO), PowerShares S&P Emerging Markets Low Volatility Portfolio (EELV), PowerShares S&P International Developed Low Volatility Portfolio (IDLV) and iShares MSCI USA Minimum Volatility (USMV).

Although stock or index selection is generally based on volatility characteristics and the size of specific equities, low volatility ETFs, de facto have sector concentrations investors should keep in mind when they are making their selections.

For instance, in the LVOL, the top sector exposure is consumer staples at 22%, health care at 17% and utilities at 16%. By contrast with the SPLV, top sector exposures are more concentrated with consumer staples at 30%, utilities at 29% and health care at 13%.

The USMV has 18% of its assets in “consumer defensive” and 17% in health care exposure. But it also has 13% of its assets in the industrial sector and 9% in the technology sector, both of which have a greater level of volatility than the broader market.

Thus the words “low volatility” means lower in some cases than others. Don’t get fooled by the name. Do your homework to make sure what you are buying is well diversified with top sector exposure in defensive categories and that the top holdings are fairly evenly weighted.

While no one should be a market timer, remember that timing is important. If the market is in a bear cycle, try dollar cost averaging (especially for larger portfolios), but keep the time frame relatively short, no more than three months, preferably in two week intervals between buys. In bull markets, don’t be afraid to commit your capital. My experience has been that investors lose more in terms of opportunity costs than actual losses because they become convinced a market pullback is around the bend.

Also, consider putting together a portfolio in which the various ETFs or instrument complement each other. For instance, you might want to marry a low volatility ETF such as the LVOL with a high dividend paying ETF such as the SPDR S&P Dividend (SDY). Since most lower volatility stocks tend to be good dividend payers you will be able to reduce risk, and get a bump in income. In spite of low interest rates, don’t ignore bonds, they can really help lower portfolio volatility.

In a time of rising volatility, understanding the makeup of your portfolio is critical. Also, no matter what, nothing has a lower correlation to markets than cash, so as my Dad always said, keep some on hand.