Low Vol Goes Small In PowerShares ETFs

Paul Britt
February 15, 2013

PowerShares looks to capitalize on the stunning success of low-volatility ETFs with small- and midcap spinoff ETFs.


The PowerShares S&P SmallCap Low Volatility Portfolio (NYSEArca: XSLV) and the PowerShares S&P MidCap Low Volatility Portfolio (NYSEArca: XMLV) launch Friday Feb. 15, as noted by my colleague Cinthia Murphy.

Creating a small-cap low-vol ETF may seem an odd choice at first. After all, small-caps typically appeal to those investors willing take on more risk in the hopes of higher returns and presumably wouldn’t attract the Nervous Nellies who reach for lower-risk funds.

However, the of the success iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Minimum Volatility Index Fund (NYSEArca: EEMV) refutes this idea. Emerging markets aren’t exactly defensive plays either, but EEMV has well over $1 billion in assets since its launch a short 16 months ago.

Indeed, EEMV’s success suggests that low-vol investors aren’t Nervous Nellies at all, but are instead true believers in the low-vol premise and are willing to apply it across the equities market.

But how well does this low-vol premise work?

PowerShares’ press release for XSLV and XMLV touts the strong risk-adjusted performance of its large-cap los-vol sibling, the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (NYSEArca: SPLV).

And why not? I compared SPLV’s performance since inception against the plain-vanilla, market-cap-weighted SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSEArca: SPY) and found higher returns, lower risk (measured by standard deviation and by beta) and risk-adjusted outperformance (alpha).


This impressive tally of statistics is doubtless influenced by the time period of the measurement, or more accurately, by the condition of the overall market during that period.

All else equal, a low-vol strategy will do better in falling markets and in choppy markets, but will lag in a steady upswing.

This regime sensitivity is plain to see when measured from market peak to trough. I borrowed the charts below from a low-vol discussion at InsideETFs earlier this week.

Here I’m using the total return indexes under SPLV and SPY, respectively, since SPLV itself does go back that far.

The pattern is plain to see: Low vol offered downside protection in a bear market but lagged when the bulls ran.


Massive inflows into U.S. equity funds on Monday, Dec. 22, propelled total ETF assets to a new record.

'SPY' raked in more than $12 billion Monday, Dec. 22, pacing State Street's issuer-leading inflows on the day, as total U.S.-listed ETF assets jumped to $2.005 trillion.


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