How To Avoid the Worst Style ETFs 3Q15

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Question: Why are there so many ETFs?

Answer: ETF providers tend to make lots of money on each ETF so they create more products to sell.

The large number of ETFs has little to do with serving your best interests. Below are three red flags you can use to avoid the worst ETFs:

  1. Inadequate Liquidity

This issue is the easiest issue to avoid, and our advice is simple. Avoid all ETFs with less than $100 million in assets. Low levels of liquidity can lead to a discrepancy between the price of the ETF and the underlying value of the securities it holds. Plus, low asset levels tend to mean lower volume in the ETF and larger bid-ask spreads.

  1. High Fees

ETFs should be cheap, but not all of them are. The first step here is to know what is cheap and expensive.

To ensure you are paying at or below average fees, invest only in ETFs with total annual costs below 0.46%, which is the average total annual cost of the 281 U.S. equity style ETFs we cover.

Figure 1 shows the most and least expensive Style ETFs. QuantShares provides 2 of the most expensive ETFs while Schwab ETFs are among the cheapest.

Figure 1: 5 Least and Most Expensive Style ETFs


Sources: New Constructs, LLC and company filings

Investors need not pay high fees for quality holdings. iShares Enhanced US Large-Cap ETF (IELG) earns our Very Attractive rating and has low total annual costs of only 0.08%.

On the other hand, Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF (SCHA) holds poor stocks. No matter how cheap an ETF, if it holds bad stocks, its performance will be bad. The quality of an ETFs holdings matters more than its price.

  1. Poor Holdings

Avoiding poor holdings is by far the hardest part of avoiding bad ETFs, but it is also the most important because an ETFs performance is determined more by its holdings than its costs. Figure 2 shows the ETFs within each style with the worst holdings or portfolio management ratings. Note that there are no ETFs in the All Cap Growth and All Cap Value style under coverage.

Figure 2: Style ETFs with the Worst Holdings


Sources: New Constructs, LLC and company filings

Ark, iShares, and Guggenheim appear more often than any other providers in Figure 2, which means that they offer the most ETFs with the worst holdings.

Our overall ratings on ETFs are based primarily on our stock ratings of their holdings.

The Danger Within

Buying an ETF without analyzing its holdings is like buying a stock without analyzing its business and finances. Put another way, research on ETF holdings is necessary due diligence because an ETF’s performance is only as good as its holdings’ performance.


Disclosure: David Trainer and Max Lee receive no compensation to write about any specific stock, style, or theme.

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Photo Credit: MIT-Libraries (Flickr)

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