Slicing & Dicing Sectors Into Themes

September 11, 2009

A new type of ETF is becoming popular, offering alternatives to traditional sector funds in targeting different types of companies.

(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an article in the Exchange-Traded Funds Report in July. Subscribers to ETFR can read the complete piece here.)

Specialty-sector exchange-traded funds — also called “thematic” ETFs — have emerged as a major force in the ETF industry.

These ETFs run the gamut of investment possibilities, but have one thing in common: They look at past traditional size and sector designations to carve out new investment areas, often driven by a single investment thesis.

Some of them include clean energy, infrastructure, and nuclear power — by our count, there are now more than 40 of these unique ETFs on the market, with more than $10 billion in assets under management.

Investment manager Van Eck Global has been one of the most successful companies in carving out a foothold among specialty ETFs. Its Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSE Arca: GDX) is the largest specialty ETF of all, with almost $5 billion in assets.

“We’re looking for compelling investment themes that we believe in for the long term, where the ETF basket approach can be a great tool for market participants,” said Adam Phillips, managing director of Market Vectors, “whether that be for the buy-and-hold investors or the trading community.”

Of course, some investors see things differently.

Rick Ferri, founder of the advisory firm Portfolio Solutions and author of “The ETF Book,” calls thematic ETFs “gimmicky.”

“We don’t use any thematic funds in our management here,” said Ferri. Ferri, a former broker himself, believes thematic ETFs are less popular with independent advisers than they are with brokers for a simple reason: story. He says they are an easy sale to clients who can relate to specific areas like clean water or other environmentally-motivated ETFs.

“They come out when they happen to be popular in the news,” Ferri said. He believes they do well as brokers buy them up (sometimes driving the actual price of the ETF up), but that they tend to fall off six to 18 months later.

Roger Nusbaum, portfolio manager and chief investment officer for financial planner Your Source Financial, disagrees.

“In terms of long-term investing and the context of diversified portfolios, I absolutely think there’s utility [in them],” he said. Nusbaum uses them, as well as individual stocks, in his sector-based approach to portfolio construction. He has used the PowerShares Water Resources Portfolio (NYSE Arca: PHO) in client accounts since its launch, for instance, saying he tends to incorporate it as part of the allocation to industrials.

With regard to price run-ups, Nusbaum says some specialty sectors can be “faddish” in their behavior. If a fund covering solar energy jumps by 50 percent, and you know the industry is not going to fully develop for years to come, he suggests it might be time to reduce your exposure until the price becomes more reasonable.

Slicing & Dicing Themes

One of the most common questions asked by investors is, “Which ETF covers this?” Indeed, it’s often hard to even know what specialty-sector ETFs are available, as by definition they fall into narrow categories unlikely to be highlighted as an “asset class” in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. With so many fund launches, it can be a challenge to simply keep up with what products are on the market.

With that in mind, we have compiled an overview.

Alternative Energy

Last year’s run-up in energy prices and rising concerns about peak oil have combined to dramatically increase investor interest in energy alternatives. From relatively diversified funds to those targeting just solar or wind, investors can now use ETFs to access energy alternatives in practically any flavor they like.

Largest ETF: The PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy Portfolio (NYSE Arca: PBW) was the first and is still the largest of these ETFs, with $743 million in assets under management. Some consider its exclusive focus on U.S.-listed names limiting, as much of the alternative energy industry is focused abroad. But the fund gains some exposure to these markets via ADRs.


Coal is the cheapest source of BTUs on the planet, easily beating oil, gas, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. In addition, both China and the U.S. have huge domestic supplies of coal, and spiking oil prices are encouraging further development of the resource.

Largest ETF: The largest coal ETF by far is the Market Vectors Coal ETF (NYSE Arca: KOL), with $277 million in assets under management. The ETF holds a global portfolio of coal companies, primarily focused on the mid-cap miner space. It is 49 percent exposed to U.S. companies, with other significant positions in China (23 percent) and Indonesia (15 percent).


The long-term case for nuclear energy is clear and clean: The underlying fuel is so plentiful that we will never run out of it, and, when operating safely, nuclear power plants produce zero emissions. Once built, nuclear power is also the cheapest kind of energy on the planet.

Largest ETF: Three ETF companies offer nuclear energy ETFs. The largest is the Market Vectors Nuclear Energy ETF (NYSE Arca: NLR), with $166 million in assets. The fund has a large position in uranium miners (40 percent of the portfolio), with other concentrations in power generators and plant construction companies.


The commodities boom raised the profile of “stuff” as an investment, and ETFs have made the area more accessible. Specialty-sector funds often focus on companies that produce commodities, like water or steel, that do not have liquid futures contracts.

Largest ETF: The largest hard assets ETF is the Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF (MOO), with nearly $1.5 billion in assets under management. Close behind is the PowerShares Water Resources ETF (NYSE Arca: PHO), with $1.2 billion in assets. Other areas of the market include steel, timber and broad-based commodity stocks.


The term infrastructure is nearly as sweeping as commodities; it covers everything from companies involved in the construction and repair of roads and bridges to those that build and maintain power grids, telecommunications networks, and sewage systems. There’s no denying that infrastructure is a big deal these days: Developed countries desperately need to restore aging systems, and emerging markets need to actually build theirs. As with alternative energy, government stimulus funds can only add to the attraction of this sector.

Largest ETF: The iShares S&P Global Infrastructure Index Fund (NYSE Arca: IGF) is the largest infrastructure ETF available today, with $267 million in assets. See Murray Coleman’s feature on page 6 of this issue for a complete review of the infrastructure ETFs.


If oil is the lifeblood of the industrialized world, transportation is the circulatory system. It’s no accident that the world’s (arguably) first stock index was the Dow Jones Transportation Average. And it’s also no surprise that there are a few ETFs focused on transportation.

Largest ETF: The Claymore/Delta Global Shipping ETF (NYSE Arca: SEA) is the largest transportation ETF, with more than $70 million in assets. SEA is sometimes seen as a leading indicator both of economic activity and commodities demand, since rising rates for ships mean incipient increases in industrial production on the receiving end of those shipments.


Not only are there clean energy ETFs, but there are also ETFs that take environmentally friendly approaches in other ways. Two funds and an ETN—the only one in this survey—focus on ecological innovation, such as combating global warming.

Largest ETF: The largest ETF of the bunch is the PowerShares Cleantech Portfolio (NYSE Arca: PZD), which invests in a variety of companies whose products help improve productivity while minimizing the consumption of natural resources. PZD has $123 million in assets.


And finally, there’s the “miscellaneous” catch-all category. The funds falling into this category include the only available gaming ETF, a fund covering luxury items and another tracking the Chinese real estate market.

Largest ETF: The largest ETF of the bunch is the Market Vectors Gaming ETF (NYSE Arca: BJK), which invests in gaming (read: gambling) companies around the world. It has roughly $108 million in assets.


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