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.
  • These funds track indexes that aim to provide lower-risk alternatives.
  • However, min vol ETFs do not ensure against losses.
 

Even though markets have been relatively calm, as measured by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), risk factors like global trade disputes, geopolitical friction, and other economic developments have the potential to move markets in either direction. If volatility strikes, you should know that there are volatility strategies that may help protect your portfolio. In addition to diversification, one investment choice that might be worth considering is a minimum volatility fund.

How to manage volatility

Diversification is a tried-and-true portfolio management technique. While neither diversification nor asset allocation ensures a profit or guarantees against a loss, both can be effective ways to manage long-term fluctuations in the market. Other investors may simply prefer to wait out market volatility—a buy-and-hold approach.

More active investors may want to consider other approaches. One such strategy is to implement tactical rebalancing. This is a dynamic asset allocation strategy that involves adjusting portfolio allocations to more or less risky investments, depending on how the market is performing and the expectations for volatility.

During periods of expected heightened market volatility, you may want to consider reducing exposure to riskier investments. Alternatively, when volatility is expected to be lower, the portfolio may be adjusted to include riskier investments that also align with your risk and return objectives.

Min vol

Another strategy that investors might consider 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 attempts to reduce exposure to volatility by tracking indices that aim to provide lower-risk alternatives. 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. Some min vol ETFs accomplish this objective by purchasing securities that exhibit relatively low volatility and concentration risk.* Of course, some min vol ETFs may not have lower concentration risk than broadly diversified market indexes.

Of course, a min vol ETF does not eliminate risk exposure to volatility, and may not prevent a loss in the event of a downturn. Low volatility funds may underperform 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 in the event of a downturn when stocks recover. 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.

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. Many min vol investments are heterogeneous, with different exposures and upside/downside profiles.

Moreover, these types of funds might not only be considered in advance of a potential weak market. Many min vol ETFs tend to be skewed toward more defensive sectors, such as consumer staples and health care, and so they might perform well when those segments of the market are expected to do well—within the framework of the business cycle. Of course, 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

If you are concerned about a US stock market decline, you may want to consider researching min vol ETFs, the largest of which by net assets are iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol USA ETF (USMV), Invesco S&P 500® Low Volatility ETF (SPLV), and Invesco S&P 500® High Dividend Low Volatility ETF (SPHD). Fidelity offers purchases of USMV commission-free online.

If you have global investments and are concerned about some of the volatility risks that have emerged out of China, Europe, and other parts of the world, there are also non-US min vol ETFs. The largest non-US min vol ETFs by net assets are iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol EAFE (EFAV), iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol Emerging Markets ETF (EEMV), and iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol Global ETF (ACWV). Fidelity offers purchases of EFAV, EEMV, and ACWV commission-free online.

Other volatility management possibilities

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, 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 select 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.

Investing implications

Whether you take a more passive approach to managing your investments, or want to actively implement strategies that seek to reduce your exposure to market volatility, there are a number of ways to position your portfolio. Even though stocks recently set the record for the longest running bull market rally ever, it is never a bad time to consider positioning your portfolio for protection against volatility.

Next steps to consider

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