Minimum volatility ETFs

Concerned about the market? Min vol ETFs might be worth considering.

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Key takeaways

  • Minimum volatility ETFs (commonly referred to as "min vol" ETFs) attempt to reduce exposure to stock market volatility.
  • Min vol ETFs do not ensure against losses.
  • These funds have lagged the market during the pandemic’s recovery.

Global stock markets are trading near record highs: The S&P 500 surpassed 4,400 and the MSCI World Index climbed above 3,100 for the first time ever this August. Given the bullish momentum behind stocks, you might think that investing risks, generally speaking, are relatively low. Yet rising COVID cases and the potential for significant disruptions to business around the world, among other factors, are looming as a major threat to the gains that stocks have made since the March 2020 near-term bottom.

There are strategies that may help mitigate the level of portfolio volatility if volatility does strike. Beyond mitigating risk through appropriate diversification, if you wish to retain long-term exposure to equities and would like to reduce shorter-term volatility, one investment solution worth considering is a minimum volatility ETF.

Managing volatility

Diversification is a tried-and-true portfolio management technique. While neither diversification (within an asset class, such as stocks) nor asset allocation (diversification across asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, and other investments) ensures a profit or guarantees against a loss, both can be effective ways to manage long-term fluctuations in the market. If you are diversified, you might simply prefer to wait out market volatility.

Some active investors may want to consider more tactical approaches. During periods of expected heightened market volatility, you may be thinking about reducing your exposure to riskier positions. If volatility is subsequently expected to be lower, you can get back into positions you would invest in under normal market conditions that also align with your risk and return objectives. It can go without saying that this requires a commitment of time and a level of skill that most individual investors may not have.

One strategy that investors might consider to reduce exposure to volatility is an exchange-traded fund (ETF) known as minimum volatility, or min vol. You might also see these types of investments referred to as low volatility ETFs.

A min vol ETF (as well as other min vol investment vehicles) attempts to reduce exposure to volatility by tracking indexes that aim to provide lower-risk alternatives to other riskier investments. For example, a min vol ETF might exhibit less risk during market turbulence compared with a broadly diversified index such as the S&P 500.

There are other investment vehicles that attempt to mitigate exposure to volatility, including minimum volatility mutual funds and low volatility managed accounts. Many min vol investments are heterogeneous (i.e., they have different exposures and upside/downside profiles). Min vol strategies come in a variety of forms, including single asset class, multi-asset class, long-only, long/short, risk parity, and downside managed.

A min vol ETF does not eliminate risk exposure to volatility. Low volatility funds may underperform non-min vol funds with similar asset class exposures when the broad market is doing well, and they can experience declines during sharp corrections. However, the expectation for a min vol ETF investor is that any potential losses during a market decline might be smaller relative to other investments that may have more exposure to volatility. As a result, a less risky portfolio could recover more quickly than the broad market after a downturn when stocks recover.

Recent trends for min vol ETFs have not been all that favorable. According to Morningstar analysis, the post-pandemic performance for these ETFs has been relatively unimpressive, noting that they have appreciated in value, but failed to keep pace with the market.

Of course, min vol ETFs are not designed to beat the market. Yet Morningstar adds that, over the long run, low volatility strategies have been effective at reducing statistical measures of risk. "There is still a lot to like about low volatility strategies, so long as expectations are understood and they are used with a long-term perspective in mind," according to Morningstar.

Some characteristics that an investor might use to evaluate a min vol ETF include risk and return measures like R-squared, beta, standard deviation, upside/downside capture ratio, and historical performance. You can find these on when you select a particular ETF.

Additionally, min vol ETFs can be used to lower overall portfolio risk. For instance, if your portfolio consists largely of cyclical stocks, a min vol ETF might diversify away some risk exposure in the event that the market becomes volatile. If you want to reduce your exposure to volatility if, for example, you think there may be an increase in short-term volatility, and you like the benefits of ETFs, a min vol ETF could be right for you.

It should be noted that the nature of how low vol funds are constructed can mean investors who rely too heavily on them could end up with portfolios that are concentrated in large-cap defensive stocks and light on small-cap growth stocks.

Minimum volatility ETFs

Fidelity minimum volatility offerings

Fidelity offers 2 min vol ETFs: Fidelity® Low Volatility Factor ETF (FDLO) and Fidelity® US Low Volatility Equity Fund (FULVX).

Assuming you like to make tactical adjustments to your investments (and you are comfortable with the long-term risk/return characteristics of your asset mix), min vol investment choices may help you execute your strategy if you are concerned about a short-term market decline. If you want to explore min vol ETFs, here are the 10 largest by net assets:

  • iShares MSCI Min Vol USA ETF (USMV)
  • iShares MSCI Min Vol EAFE ETF (EFAV)
  • Invesco S&P 500® Low Volatility ETF (SPLV)
  • iShares MSCI Min Vol Global ETF (ACWV)
  • iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Min Vol Factor ETF (EEMV)
  • iShares MSCI USA Min Vol Factor ETF (USMV)
  • Invesco S&P Midcap Low Volatility ETF (XMLV)
  • Invesco S&P Smallcap Low Volatility ETF (XSLV)
  • iShares MSCI USA Smallcap Min Vol Factor ETF (SMMV)
  • Invesco S&P Intl Developed Low Volatility ETF (IDLV)

Other volatility strategies

There are several other ways that investors may be able to weather an increase in volatility. Bonds, for example, tend to be less volatile than stocks. When the stock market is expected to be more volatile, tactical investors may want to consider increasing their bond allocation. It is worth noting that the bond market is not immune to volatility.

High-yielding stocks are another opportunity that investors can explore. The income component of high-yielding stocks tends to make these investments less volatile than more cyclical stocks, which have lower or no dividend yield. Of course, the 2008 financial crisis highlights that even this strategy may not be immune to severe market stress.

You could also consider industry/sector-specific mutual funds that have historically exhibited lower volatility, relative to the broad market, as well as managed account solutions—particularly those with a defensive strategy.

Additionally, there are several options strategies, including straddles, strangles, and other spreads, which can be used to take advantage of expected market volatility.

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