Don’t Overlook Consumer ETF Returns

These pockets of the market offer a mix of interesting performance, asset growth and access. 

Reviewed by: Cinthia Murphy
Edited by: Cinthia Murphy

Much like the S&P 500’s own track record in this latest (ongoing) earnings cycle, roughly 82% of the consumer discretionary sector has thus far beaten earnings estimates in a pretty solid showing. That doesn’t mean investors are flocking to the sector.

The S&P 500 may be in record territory, but investor appetite for cyclical sectors such as consumer discretionary remains muted at best.

So far this year, U.S. consumer discretionary ETFs—as a segment—have attracted under $200 million in net creations.

The biggest fund, the $14 billion Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR (XLY), is actually a net asset loser year to date despite strong performance relative to the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY):



The relative aversion to consumer discretionary stocks isn’t all that surprising in a year when playing defense has been an overarching theme. Unlike staples, discretionary names are seen as riskier bets in a global economic slowdown.

That said, there are three interesting pockets within discretionary names that are standing out lately.

Homebuilder Stocks

A look at the top asset-gathering ETFs year to date shows that second only to the broader Vanguard Consumer Discretionary ETF (VCR)—a fund that competes with XLY, but offers a much deeper portfolio, with some 300 holdings, and cheaper, at 0.10% in expense ratio—homebuilder ETFs are right there at the top.


2019's Top Gainers ($, Millions)

TickerFundYTD 2019 Net Flows ($M)2019 AUM ($M)% of AUM
VCRVanguard Consumer Discretionary ETF167.073,014.585.54%
XHBSPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF80.38826.519.73%
ITBiShares U.S. Home Construction ETF75.331,296.775.81%
FDISFidelity MSCI Consumer Discretionary Index ETF43.83728.156.02%
IYCiShares U.S. Consumer Services ETF40.18984.464.08%
ESPOVanEck Vectors Video Gaming & eSports ETF31.9841.0177.99%
RCDInvesco S&P 500 Equal Weight Consumer Discretionary ETF15.1391.0216.62%
NERDRoundhill BITKRAFT Esports & Digital Entertainment ETF9.839.75100.78%
CHIQGlobal X MSCI China Consumer Discretionary ETF4.53156.482.89%
IEDIiShares Evolved U.S. Discretionary Spending ETF2.989.1132.76%


The housing market may not be going gangbusters this year, but homebuilders are one of the best-performing segments within consumer discretionary names due to expectations that low—and lowering—interest rates will foster an uptick in demand for housing.

Low unemployment rates and strong consumer confidence also feed into this outlook for a strong housing market going forward.

The SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (XHB) and the iShares U.S. Home Construction ETF (ITB) are the biggest ETFs in this segment. Check out these funds’ impressive performance this year:



XHB has rallied some 20 percentage points more than SPY, while ITB is shelling out 2x the gains of the S&P 500. The disparity in performance between the two homebuilder ETFs ties to their focus and portfolio construction.

ITB—the performance leader this year—is a more pure-play take on homebuilders, which represent about 63% of the portfolio, and where names like D.R. Horton and Lennar Corp lead portfolio allocation.

(Use our stock finder tool to find an ETF’s allocation to a certain stock.)

By contrast, XHB is a more broadly diversified take on the space, blending builders with furnishings, appliances and home improvement names. Homebuilders represent less than 30% of XHB’s portfolio, where top holdings include, instead, names like Mohawk Ind. and Home Depot.

Another key different between these two ETFs is that ITB is a market-cap-weighted portfolio, whereas XHB equal weights holdings. XHB is also cheaper than ITB, with a price tag of 0.35% compared with ITB's 0.42%.

Either way—be it purely a play on homebuilders or more broadly a play on the housing industry—this is a segment of the consumer discretionary sector that’s delivering strong gains and picking up assets.

Retail Stocks

You can’t think consumer discretionary this time of year without thinking retail as we head into the holidays. Retailers, as a segment, represent about a third of broader XLY, VCR and the like.

This is a segment that continues to see a battle between brick-and-mortar and online retail trends. It’s also a segment where single stocks can make or break a portfolio performance.

Consider the SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT) and the VanEck Vectors Retail ETF (RTH), the biggest U.S. retail names here. There’s been a huge performance difference between these two funds this year.



While RTH has outperformed SPY year to date, XRT has significantly lagged, due to portfolio construction.

XRT is equal-weighted. In this portfolio, a company like Target, that’s up 65% year to date, and Walmart, which is up 30%, each snag roughly the same allocation as Macy’s, which is down 50% this year, and Kroger, down 8.5%.

In a retail segment that has been plagued with massive divergence in performance between retailers, equal weighting has not worked well this year.

By comparison, RTH is a market-cap-weighted ETF led by companies that have had a stellar year.

Big names like Walmart, Amazon (up 18% year to date) and Home Depot (up 40% this year) are much bigger players in this portfolio. In fact, 40% of RTH is in these three stocks, all of them winners this year.

In the retail segment, you can also ditch the brick-and-mortar space of big winners and big losers and focus instead on online retailers, but that too has been a segment delivering mixed gains.

The two biggest ETFs here, the Amplify Online Retail ETF (IBUY) and the ProShares Online Retail ETF (ONLN) are both global in scope, so you’d get companies like Alibaba and Ebay in both portfolios. But their returns have been very different this year. Both have underperformed SPY.



As with everything else, looking under the hood is crucial to picking the right ETF for your allocation. In this case, the big difference between IBUY and ONLN is that IBUY equal-weights holdings in two geographic buckets, while ONLN has a tiered market-cap-weighted portfolio.

In the online retail space, that means ONLN is led by companies like Amazon and Alibaba (up 29% year to date), which alone represent almost 40% of the portfolio. By design, ONLN is a more concentrated play, with only 25 holdings, 40% of the portfolio tied to two stocks.

IBUY tilts smaller with companies like, PetMeds and Expedia among top holdings. The weighted average market cap of IBUY’s portfolio is only $54 billion versus $264 billion for ONLN. IBUY also has more holdings, 41 in all.

(Use our stock finder tool to find an ETF’s allocation to a certain stock.)

In the global online retail space this year, the broader diversification offered by IBUY’s methodology has done better.

Gaming Stocks

Gaming ETFs are few and small in assets. This is a segment of consumer discretionary stocks that’s often overlooked. But it’s a space that has some big names—companies like Nintendo and GameStop—and one that’s been quietly gathering some assets lately.

The one-year-old VanEck Vectors Video Gaming and eSports ETF (ESPO) has seen its total assets grow about 4% in the past week alone. The fund is still small, with only $41 million in AUM, but it’s already the second-largest gaming ETF and one of the most popular consumer discretionary ETFs in the past week, and year to date, has seen its asset base grow about 78%.

ESPO focuses on a specific trend within video games—namely eSports—looking for companies in which most of the revenue is tied to gaming and streaming. The ETF owns a mix of names, from Chinese conglomerate Tencent to chipmaker Nvidia to U.S. game developer Activision Blizzard.

While ESPO is one of the most in-demand consumer discretionary ETFs this year, it’s not the only gaming ETF. Its main competition comes from the ETFMG Video Game Tech ETF (GAMR), the biggest gaming ETF, with $81 million in AUM, and the veteran in the space.

GAMR is a very different fund. It holds three times as many companies as ESPO—its portfolio contains 86 stocks, compared with ESPO's 26—and looks at the space differently.

GAMR organizes its portfolio in buckets, separating them on the criteria of just how “pure play” a company is in the gaming industry, and equal-weights each bucket. In the end, GAMR offers broader access to global companies that create, support or use video games.

There’s no question that this year, it seems e-Sports—a still burgeoning industry—is where a lot of the action has been in terms of performance. ESPO has delivered almost 3x the returns of GAMR:

Charts courtesy of

As the holiday shopping season kicks into gear, the consumer discretionary sector—and its many segments within—could come into the spotlight, attracting renewed investor attention to the 40 ETFs offering all sorts of access to these cyclical names.

Contact Cinthia Murphy at [email protected]

























Cinthia Murphy is head of digital experience, advocating for the user in all that does. She previously served as managing editor and writer for, specializing in ETF content and multimedia. Cinthia’s experience includes time at Dow Jones and former BridgeNews, covering commodity futures markets in Chicago and Brazil equities in Sao Paulo. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.