Hits & Misses Of 7 Alpha Seeking ETFs

August 04, 2015

The stock market hasn't found much traction so far this year. After surging in the previous six years, the S&P 500 has barely budged in 2015, weighed down by a number of scares related to Greece, China, interest rates and commodities.

In their search for positive returns, many investors have crept into alternative strategies. Those include so-called smart beta strategies, which aim to outperform traditional market-cap-weighted indexes.

Others have gone a step further into bolder investments. While some of these strategies could technically fit under the "smart beta" umbrella, they are better described as alpha-seeking strategies that deviate significantly from the traditional index investing approach.

A number of exchange-traded funds have popped up to give investors easy access to these varied strategies. Here we list some of the more interesting of these ETFs out there.

Year-To-Date Returns

1. PowerShares Buyback Achievers (PKW | B-97)

Corporate buybacks are running at a breakneck pace this year after surging 16.3 percent in 2014. According to data from Compustat and Goldman Sachs, buybacks are anticipated to surpass last year's total of $553.3 billion, which itself was the highest level since 2007.

By reducing the number of shares outstanding, companies aim to boost earnings per share, and in turn, stock prices. Proponents of buybacks describe them as a way to return cash to shareholders without the tax consequences of a dividend.

The PowerShares Buyback Achievers ETF (PKW) aims to deliver outperformance by holding companies that have bought back at least 5 percent of their outstanding shares in the past 12 months. The fund has seen inflows of $115 million this year, and now has an impressive $2.9 billion in total assets.

One argument in support of PKW is that companies that are buying back their shares have a lot of cash, and are thus doing well.

On the other hand, detractors say there's no guarantee that buybacks will lift stock prices, and that large buybacks may be a sign of a lack of investment and growth opportunities in a company's core business.

So far in 2015, PKW has underperformed the S&P 500 with a 1 percent total return versus 2.6 percent for the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY | A-98). However, over the past five years, its 142 percent return has handily beaten SPY's 106 percent return.

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