Over the past several years, you may have heard about “Smart Beta ETFs”. Today, we will look at this concept and share some very important caveats that investors should know before they purchase a Smart Beta ETF for their portfolio. While the name sounds like it would be a sure thing, it is important for investors to understand that there is no guarantee that Smart Beta products will be able to deliver on their promises.
The first ETFs were all index funds, tracking major indices like the S&P 500 or the Dow. As ETFs grew in popularity, investment companies quickly added products representing other indices, sectors, styles, and countries. ETF companies will continue to create hundreds of new products each year to raise new assets and be able to charge more fees. Once every traditional index was replicated in an ETF, companies had to find more creative offerings. Will every product work and be successful? No, but there is such a pronounced first-mover advantage in the industry that many companies are willing to take the risk of launching dozens of new funds hoping that some will be a success.
The knock on traditional index ETFs is that they are weighted by market capitalization. That simply means that each stock is represented according to its total market value. What’s wrong with that? If you went back to 1999, Cisco briefly became the largest stock in the world, trading at over 100 times earnings. At that time, it represented more than 3% of every index fund. And when the stock fell by 90% during the tech crash, every index fund had a large loss. The problem with traditional index funds is that they have too much of the overvalued stocks and too little of the undervalued companies.
Smart Beta ETFs seek to avoid this issue of overweighting the most expensive stocks by using alternative weighting or selection criteria. Like an Index, Smart Beta is a hands-off strategy that is quantitatively driven and passive. There are quite a few different approaches to Smart Beta, including weighting by:
– Dividends (stocks represented by the size of their dividend stream)
– Volatility (emphasizing the Lowest Volatility stocks or combination of stocks)
– Fundamentals (such as book value, sales, or earnings)
– or even, equal weighted, where each company receives the same weight in the fund.
Here are five points you should consider before selecting a Smart Beta ETF.
1) Traditional indexing works well.
While the concern of overweighting expensive stocks sounds legitimate, I’d like to point out that in spite of this supposed flaw, a vast majority of actively managed funds fail to beat their benchmark over five years. According to the S&P Index Versus Active report, as many as 80% of active managers fall short. If it was so easy to pick out the undervalued stocks from the overvalued stocks, wouldn’t more fund managers be able to beat the market cap weighted index?
Everyone is looking for a way to out perform the market, but this remains very difficult to do. It will be interesting in 10 years to see how many of today’s Smart Beta products will have delivered superior returns.
2) Back-tested strategies do not always work as well going forward.
Smart Beta ETFs are created based on academic research looking at factors which would have produced strong returns historically. This is generally done using back-tested data, which gives us another concern. If we looked at stocks from 2000-2015, it was a very unusual period. Will the factors which worked over the past 10 or 15 years continue to generate market beating returns over the next 10 or 15 years? No one knows the answer to that; the future could be quite different than the past and back-tested strategies may not perform as hoped.
3) Smart Beta may be out of favor for extended periods.
The back-tested results look promising, with Smart Beta strategies beating their benchmarks, had the ETFs existed. While the long-term hypothetical returns look good, there can be stretches when this strategy is out of favor. It may have outperformed over 10 years, but it may have lagged in four, five, or even six of those years, only to make it up by strong performance in a couple of years. If you buy a Smart Beta ETF today, will you hold on to it if it lags the market for two years in a row? Three years in a row?
Some Smart Beta strategies correlate strongly with Value and will lag when Growth is in favor. Other strategies are defensive and will trail the market during bull markets and only enhance performance in bear markets. This makes for a difficult decision as to whether or not the current market is the right environment for a particular approach or factor. This creates the potential for market timing errors if investors chase returns by switching from one ETF to another, trying to capture the most advantageous style for any given year.
4) Smart Beta ETFs may be less diversified.
Since Smart Beta funds emphasize certain characteristics such as dividends, the funds may have a high concentration in specific sectors such as utilities, financials, or energy. In the years where those sectors perform poorly, Smart Beta funds could be volatile and disappointing.
Lastly, it’s not certain that the benefits of all Smart Beta funds will accrue to investors once we factor in the expense ratio, trading costs, and taxes. Luckily, ETFs are becoming highly competitive in terms of expenses, so many funds launched in the last two years have extremely low expense ratios. While we know the expense ratio, we don’t know what trading costs are incurred when a Smart Beta strategy buys and sells stocks, which most do on a quarterly or annual basis.
I’ve listed these five concerns about Smart Beta ETFs because I want to dispel the notion that these funds are a sure bet. However, I do think they are interesting and show promise. Perhaps some will deliver results. And this is another conundrum for investors: there are so many flavors of Smart Beta strategies today that we run the risk of picking the wrong one, and we end up with the fund that under performs. So this is not the simple choice of just replacing all of your traditional ETFs with a Smart Beta version and being guaranteed better results.
We’ve spent a lot of time analyzing Smart Beta ETFs and have included several in our clients’ portfolios. If you are looking to hand off your portfolio management to a professional, we are here to help. And while we manage your funds, we also take the time to explain our process, philosophy, and why we own each position.