Battered Energy ETFs Refueling?

After a wild ride last year, it looks like the most obvious choice is the best choice in energy.

Reviewed by: Heather Bell
Edited by: Heather Bell

Energy went on a wild ride in 2018, dragged along by a fluctuating oil price. Crude oil was actually at four-year highs for a time in 2018, but its price has since tanked from above $75 to $49.67, now on par with 2017 levels.

The price collapse in the last quarter of the year due to a number of contributing factors, including the global economic slowdown, increased production from the U.S. and increased production from OPEC and Russia in response to Iranian sanctions.



There are quite a few sizable energy ETFs that cover the traditional energy space in the U.S., all of them down significantly for the year. Here we look at products with at least one year of trading history:


 NAV TR (Annualized, as of 1/4/2019)
TickerFundAUM ($M)Exp RatioInception20183YR5YR10YR
XLEEnergy Select Sector SPDR Fund13,457.640.13%16/12/1998-18.21%1.23%-5.73%4.18%
VDEVanguard Energy ETF3,150.720.10%23/9/2004-19.96%0.27%-6.97%3.50%
IYEiShares U.S. Energy ETF755.200.43%12/6/2000-19.35%-0.17%-6.91%3.03%
FENYFidelity MSCI Energy Index ETF406.900.08%24/10/2013-19.98%-0.26%-7.18%-
FXNFirst Trust Energy AlphaDEX Fund207.860.63%8/5/2007-24.77%-4.85%-13.34%1.23%
RYEInvesco S&P 500 Equal Weight Energy ETF169.470.40%1/11/2006-24.67%-0.96%-10.07%4.20%
PXIInvesco DWA Energy Momentum ETF50.780.60%12/10/2006-27.56%-4.74%-11.70%5.61%
PSCEInvesco S&P SmallCap Energy ETF25.000.29%7/4/2010-42.98%-17.10%-28.22%-
JHMEJohn Hancock Multifactor Energy ETF19.280.50%28/3/2016-21.41%---


Sector Overview

The largest and most dominant is the $14 billion Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLE), which was among the first-ever U.S.-listed sector ETFs to launch (1998). It’s also among the cheapest, with an expense ratio of 0.13%.

The only two energy sector funds to charge less are the $449 million Fidelity MSCI Energy Index ETF (FENY) and the $3 billion Vanguard Energy ETF (VDE), which come with expense ratios of 0.08% and 0.10%, respectively.

The aforementioned funds represent the top three U.S. energy ETFs based on assets, as well as being the three cheapest funds in the asset class, suggesting that investors are paying attention to costs. In fact, FENY—the cheapest of the energy ETFs—is the only one of the top three funds and one of the very few energy ETFs overall to see positive inflows for 2018, gaining $21 million.

The First Trust Energy AlphaDEX Fund (FXN) actually pulled in more assets than the other funds in the asset class, at $85 million, while the biggest loser was XLE, hemorrhaging $1 billion.



Smart-Beta Choices

The U.S. energy ETF space includes several smart-beta strategies, with the largest and oldest being FXN, at $211 million. The idea is that smart-beta strategies should outperform cap-weighted over long time horizons. However, that has not really been the case for smart-beta ETFs in the energy space.

FXN, for example, has an annualized net asset value five-year total return of -13.34%, versus -5.73% for XLE. Over the 10-year annualized horizon ending Jan. 4, 2019, it trails XLE 1.23% to 4.18%.

FXN’s methodology uses a quantitative strategy with tiered weighting that excludes the largest-cap companies. Interestingly, the cap-weighted and small-cap-focused Invesco S&P SmallCap Energy ETF (PSCE) has had dramatically worse performance than its large-cap counterparts, which could help explain FXN’s underperformance.

Similarly, the Invesco S&P 500 Equal Weight Energy ETF (RYE), which assigns equal weights to the entire large-cap energy sector of the S&P 500, was down 10.07% annualized over the three years ended Jan., 4, 2019. However, it outperformed by a hair over that 10-year period, returning 4.2%.

While the Invesco DWA Energy Momentum ETF (PXI), which relies on Dorsey Wright’s relative strength methodology, was down 10.07% over the five-year period, it was up 5.61% during the 10-year period, outperforming XLE. That said, investors should keep in mind that PXI only adopted its current strategy in late 2013, and previously used a different smart-beta approach.



Final Thoughts

Given that the Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLE) is not only the largest and most liquid in its peer group but also one of the top performers over the long term, it’s a good choice if you’re looking for access to the energy market. It’s also low-cost, having the third-lowest price among its competitors.

That said, VDE, IYE and FENY are perfectly acceptable alternatives—the differences between them and XLE are relatively minor unless you’re going strictly by assets under management.

However, if you have a smart-beta approach you truly believe in, there are four other options, and if you think small-caps are the future for energy, there’s always PSCE.

Contact Heather Bell at [email protected]

Heather Bell is a former managing editor of She has also held editorial positions at Dow Jones Indexes and Lehman Brothers. Bell is a graduate of Dartmouth college and resides in the Denver area with her two dogs.