Sorry!! The article you are trying to read is not available now.
Thank you very much;
you're only a step away from
downloading your reports.

Decoding the Rally: These ETFs Dispute 'Risk-On' Theory


A closer examination of sector ETFs says this has been a risk-off rally and that it has been that way for years.

Editor's Note: This content was originally published on by The ETF Professor, Benzinga Staff Writer.

It seems like whenever the rally in the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) is discussed, at least when it is talked about in positive terms, it is associated with favorite Wall Street vernacular such as "risk on" and "animal spirits."

With the SPDR S&P 500 (NYSEARCA:SPY) up almost 41 percent in the past three years, including dividends paid, it is not illogical to think risk on has ruled the roost over that time.

A closer examination of sector ETFs paints a different picture. As was highlighted on Monday, the Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLY) has been the standout of the nine sector SPDRs funds over the past three years. Thing about XLY is the ETF has a beta of one against the S&P 500 and annualized volatility of 16.88 percent.

Said another way, XLY is not the most volatile, nor is it the riskiest ETF out there. Simply put, this has been a risk off rally and it has been that way for three years. Returns accrued by sector ETFs prove as much.

High Beta Disappoints...Sort Of

Here is a trivia question: Excluding XLY, which is the only sector SPDR that is perceived as a high-beta play to outpace SPY over the past three years? Answer: The Energy Select Sector (NYSEARCA:XLE). XLE has topped SPY by 350 basis points over that time while being 660 basis points more volatile.

The 23.1 percent gain for the Materials Select Sector SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLB) only look good in comparison to the 19.4 percent gain for the Financial Select Sector SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLF). Those ETFs have betas of 1.22 and 1.23, respectively, against the S&P 500.

Then there is the case of the Technology Select Sector SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLK), an ETF perhaps best known for having one of the largest weights to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). XLK has a beta of 1.08 and annualized volatility of 16.16 percent, according to State Street data. Alright, so those number do not make XLK the most volatile ETF out there and it is up 36.1 percent in the past three years.

However, the SPDR options that have outperformed XLK, and XLB, XLE and XLF for that matter, might surprise those that are convinced this has been a risk on rally.

Low Beta Dominates

Furthering the notion that investors have preferred sectors they perceive as less risky are the returns to the relevant SPDR ETFs over the past three years. Since March 23, 2010, the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLP) has surged 52.3 percent. The Health Care Select Sector SPDR is up 46 percent while the Utilities Select Sector SPDR is up 44.1 percent.

Here is an interesting and accurate way of looking at this rally: XLU has outperformed XLK by 800 basis points over the past three years while being 550 basis points less volatile. Moreover, investors have been paying up for the privilege of getting their hands on XLP's 0.63 and XLU's 0.47 betas. Both ETFs, XLU in particular, are richly valued on a historical basis.

Those that prefer riskier fare might be apt to say "Three years is a long time. Maybe the higher beta sectors have outperformed over narrower time horizons." Well, over the past two years, SPY is up 25.1 percent. Of the four riskier sector SPDRs highlighted here, only XLK is reasonably close to that performance with a gain of 23.1 percent.

XLU tops SPY's two-year run by nearly 700 basis points. Owning just XLP and XLV would have worked out even better. The average two-year returns to those ETFs is nearly 43.3 percent. Said another way, two ETFs that hold stocks such as Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and Merck (NYSE:MRK) have, when averaged together, nearly doubled the performance of XLK. XLK is home to Apple, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and sexier fare than P&G and Pfizer.

Things have not gotten any better for the risk on crowd in the past 12 months. Over that time, only XLF of the high beta ETFs highlighted here, has posted a double-digit gain. XLF has delivered returns of 16.8 percent with 16.6 percent volatility. XLV, home to Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Pfizer and Merck, has outperformed XLF in the past 12 months by 800 basis points while being 550 basis points less volatile.

Surely, Apple and Google sound more exciting than P&G and PepsiCo, right? Well, there is little exciting about XLK's 1.9 percent return over the past year. The 20.3 percent offered by the far less volatile XLP is far more attractive.

Over the past six months, only XLF has topped XLP, XLU and XLV, but over the past 90 days XLF only tops XLU while lagging XLP and XLV. Risk on rally? Yeah, right.

Below, find some more great ETF and market content from Benzinga:

Did Hulu Meet With Amazon and Yahoo About a Potential Sale?

The Supreme Court is About to Stick it to Big Pharma

Four Other Stocks to Ride the Housing Recovery

Twitter: @Benzinga

Benzinga Pro covers this and all market news in real time. Get your free trial here.
< Previous
  • 1
Next >
No positions in stocks mentioned.

The information on this website solely reflects the analysis of or opinion about the performance of securities and financial markets by the writers whose articles appear on the site. The views expressed by the writers are not necessarily the views of Minyanville Media, Inc. or members of its management. Nothing contained on the website is intended to constitute a recommendation or advice addressed to an individual investor or category of investors to purchase, sell or hold any security, or to take any action with respect to the prospective movement of the securities markets or to solicit the purchase or sale of any security. Any investment decisions must be made by the reader either individually or in consultation with his or her investment professional. Minyanville writers and staff may trade or hold positions in securities that are discussed in articles appearing on the website. Writers of articles are required to disclose whether they have a position in any stock or fund discussed in an article, but are not permitted to disclose the size or direction of the position. Nothing on this website is intended to solicit business of any kind for a writer's business or fund. Minyanville management and staff as well as contributing writers will not respond to emails or other communications requesting investment advice.

Copyright 2011 Minyanville Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Featured Videos