Equity: U.S. Biotech
None of the seven US Biotech ETFs provides comprehensive, unbiased access to the space. Instead, each captures a piece of it—and of related industries like pharmaceuticals and medical
“In light of the drastic differences in exposure that each fund offers, costs and liquidity are secondary issues” technology. Tread carefully here as each fund defines biotech differently and the differences have material impacts on performance: in some years the difference between the best-performing and the worst-performing biotech ETF exceeds 15 percent. The good news is that most of these biotech ETFs are relatively efficient and liquid.
IBB, the most popular of the bunch, selects only the biotech stocks listed on the NASDAQ. Fortunately, most biotech stocks are NASDAQ-listed and IBB has the largest holdings base of all the biotech ETFs. IBB’s breadth and plain vanilla portfolio construction earns it the coveted Analyst Pick designation. The downside to IBB is that it misses out on current and future biotech companies listed on NYSE.
FBT equal-weights a narrow portfolio of only the 20 largest biotech-related companies. This process produces a concentrated portfolio of huge biotech-related companies. XBI creates a broader portfolio of nearly 80 companies but also equal-weights its portfolio. XBI’s broad holdings base coupled with its equal-weighting scheme produces the smallest portfolio in the segment as measured by weighted average market cap. Of all biotech ETFs, XBI has the largest allocation to pure “biotech” companies whereas other funds make heavier allocations to pharmaceuticals and medical equipment companies.
PBE is a realtively expensive fund and does the most to try to rearrange its portfolio in a strategic manner. It uses a combination of fundamental and technical factors to select the companies included in its portfolio then equal-weights those companies within tiers. This approach appears to have had middling success over recent time periods as the fund outperformed some of its peers but underperformed others.
Relatively new funds from Bioshares, BBC and BBP, focus on whether a firm's drugs are currently in the trial stage or already in production. Each resulting portfolio diverts widely from our benchmark in terms of average market cap and numbers of constiuents.
In a segment with such diversity of fund construction methodologies, Fit largely determines performance differences. Pay attention to how your prospective ETF constructs its portfolio. In light of the drastic differences in exposure that each fund offers, costs and liquidity are secondary issues here: Generally speaking, most of the funds in this segment are efficient and reasonably liquid.
One last note: Investors may also consider the Biotech HOLDRS (BBH), which can be found in the global biotech segment but primarily provides exposure to US biotech companies. (Insight updated 02/27/17)
All Funds (8)
IBB $8.18 B 8177434275 NASDAQ-listed firms only
FBT $867.96 M 867964399.532 Equal-weighted
XBI $2.8 B 2798858338.5 Equal-weighted
PBE $236.32 M 236320000 Quant-driven
BBC $20.56 M 20561082.244 Expensive
SBIO $101.78 M 101776905 Cheaper fund focusing on clinical trials
BBP $36.74 M 36736146.944 Product Stage Firms Only
CNCR $26.86 M 26856000 Niche Coverage
ETF.com Grade as 02/23/17
Equity: U.S. Biotech
ETF.com Efficiency Insight
Investors are fortunate to have a suite of highly efficient biotech ETFs to choose from. The two standouts here are XBI and IBB which charge the two lowest expense ratios in the segment and
“a suite of highly efficient biotech ETFs to choose from” track their indices tightly.
In contrast, FBT and PBE charge expense ratios a few notches higher and trail their indices by even more than their expense ratio would otherwise suggest.
All of these established funds in the segment have preserved their tax efficiency in recent years by avoiding capital gains payouts and all of the funds have attracted asset bases in excess of $300M which makes it extremely unlikely that any will be shuttered soon.
Those four aside, there are three newcomers in the segment that have had varying levels of sucess. SBIO, from ALPS, has taken off somewhat, gathering enough assets to ward off fund closure. On the other end are the two funds from Bioshares, BBC and BBP. Both have struggled mightily to get investor attention. (Insight updated 02/27/17)
ETF.com Tradability Insight
All of the established biotech ETFs are readily tradable for large and small investors alike.
IBB takes the proverbial liquidity cake as it trades more than $500M most days and
“All of the biotech ETFs are readily tradable” trades at the tightest spreads in the segment. A tier lower, XBI and FBT also trade significant volume most days and trade at reasonable spreads. Even the least liquid fund in the segment, PBE, sees more than $2M in volume most days and trades at workable average bid/ask spreads.
The two newcomers, BBP and BBC from Bioshares, have struggled so far in their daily trading volume.
Each of the funds in the segment holds relatively liquid US securities which makes it easy for liquidity providers to hedge positions and, in turn, means they can offer efficient block trading services. If you’re thinking about trading 50,000 shares or more, reach out to a liquidity provider of the ETF issuer’s capital markets desk to find efficient execution. (Insight updated 02/27/17)
ETF.com Fit Insight
The US Biotech ETFs are widely varying and very different from our benchmark for the segment. That said, our segment benchmark defines biotech quite narrowly, only including Biotech &
“exposure differences in the segment are significant ” Medical Research companies. In contrast, the seven funds in the US Biotech segment define the space much more broadly due to diversification requirements and contrasting methodologies.
IBB is the most diverse and far-reaching ETF in the segment, with roughly 150 holdings and nearly 70% exposure to pharmaceuticals like Mylan Labs. As one of only two cap-weighted funds (the other being relative newcomer SBIO), IBB is the best choice for investors seeking broad representative exposure to the US Biotech space. IBB’s downside is that it only includes NASDAQ-listed funds, so investors will miss out on any current or future biotech companies listed NYSE. IBB’s breadth causes it to tilt large relative to our benchmark, and its weighted average market cap casts a shadow over the equally-weighted XBI and FBT, as well as the tiered portfolio of PBE, which give smaller firms larger weights.
XBI also hosts a broad portfolio of nearly 80 companies. However, its equal-weighting scheme creates the smallest portfolio in the segment: Its weighted average market cap is less than a quarter of IBB’s. Still, XBI provides the purest exposure to “biotech” companies: Over 70 percent of its portfolio is allocated to companies that meet our strict definition of biotech in comparison to less than 50 percent for competing funds.
The other two notable funds in the segment, PBE and FBT, offer exposure to much narrower and more concentrated portfolios. FBT selects the 20 largest biotech-related companies and equal-weights them. PBE uses a combination of fundamental and technical factors to select roughly 30 holdings then weighted them equally within tiers. PBE provides the largest exposure to medical equipment companies.
Ultimately, the exposure differences in the segment are significant so prospective investors should pay close attention to how each fund constructs its portfolio to find the methodology that aligns best with their view of the biotech sector. There are plenty of valid and viable choices here. (Insight updated 02/27/17)