Utility ETFs Have Varying Voltage

Utility ETFs Have Varying Voltage

Don’t be fooled by a ‘boring’ sector: Your choice of investment could depend on some key differences.

Reviewed by: Heather Bell
Edited by: Heather Bell

[This article appears in our March 2020 issue of ETF Report.]

Utilities have always been viewed as a safe harbor type of investment, a boring and uneventful place to put your money. While the category trailed the S&P 500 during 2019 in terms of performance, it still did better than other sectors, like energy.

There are currently seven ETFs with more than $100 million in assets under management (AUM) each that cover utilities. While four of the funds have many similarities (plain vanilla and cap-weighted), the three remaining funds have significant differences due to their varied smart beta methodologies.

Cap-Weighted Choices
The largest fund in the space is the Utilities Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLU), with $11.7 billion in AUM, followed by the Vanguard Utilities ETF (VPU), with $4.7 billion. Interestingly, those two funds are the most narrow and broadest ETFs, respectively, in this survey. XLU has 29 holdings, while VPU has 69.


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The iShares U.S. Utilities ETF (IDU) and the Fidelity MSCI Utilities Index ETF (FUTY) are the other two cap-weighted ETFs in the space, with roughly $1 billion in AUM apiece. While FUTY has 65 holdings, IDU has 48.

The most expensive of the four vanilla ETFs is IDU, which charges a rather stunning 0.43%, while FUTY is the cheapest, at 0.08%. XLU, the largest of the ETFs, charges 0.13%. Meanwhile, VPU charges 0.10%.

There’s not a lot to distinguish these funds from each other. In fact, three of the four have the same holdings in their top 10 components, while one fund, VPU, has nine of its top 10 components in common with the other three ETFs.


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XLU has the deepest liquidity, with an average of $886 million in value traded daily, with the narrowest spread in the group, at 0.02%. However, the other three ETFs have spreads of 0.03%, and even the cap-weighted fund with the lowest volume trades an average of $6 million daily.

Smart Beta ETFs
The $1.3 billion First Trust Utilities AlphaDEX Fund (FXU) is the largest of the smart beta ETFs. Its underlying index relies on a quantitative factor-based model that selects utilities companies from the Russell 1000 Index. FXU has 34 components, and only three of its top 10 components are included in XLU’s top 10 holdings. It’s the most expensive fund in the group, at 0.63%.

The Invesco S&P 500 Equal Weight Utilities ETF (RYU) is basically just a differently weighted version of XLU. Four of the holdings in RYU’s top 10 are included in XLU’s top 10. With an expense ratio of 0.40%, it costs less than IDU. RYU has more than $400 million in assets.

Finally, the $156 million Invesco DWA Utilities Momentum ETF (PUI) is also on upper end of the price range, at 0.60%. The fund weights its stocks based on price momentum. It has the widest spread in the group, at 0.05%, and the lowest average daily volume, at roughly $2 million traded.


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XLU not only has the best trading stats in the group, it also pulled in more than any of the other funds over the 12-month period ended Jan. 31, gaining more than $970 million. The fund exhibits the best performance of all seven utilities ETFs in the comparison over the three-month, year-to-date, one-year and three-year periods, though it lags in the five- and 10-year periods.

FUTY, the cheapest fund in the group, exhibits solid performance, landing in the middle of the pack over all the major time periods.

None of the other funds really stands out in terms of performance, with most ETFs clustered in the same general range. However, FXU is a notable exception, coming in last for all the major time periods covered.

Making A Decision
Most of these funds offer very similar features, and making a decision comes down to how much you care about the different nuances. XLU, for example, has the deepest liquidity, by far. Its price is at the lower end of the range, and it’s eminently suitable for traders.

At the same time, FUTY is the cheapest fund in the group and does quite well over the longer time periods, making it very suitable for the longer-term investor.

FXU, as the most expensive fund in the entire category of seven ETFs, and with the worst performance, is probably an investment vehicle most would steer clear of. Investors looking for a smart beta twist on the utilities space would be better going with a lower-cost and better-performing fund like RYU.


Heather Bell is a former managing editor of etf.com. 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.