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ETF News And Commentary

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Actively managed ETFs are gaining in popularity as of late with several new product launches in the category. The recent entry of more AdvisorShares funds, the entrant of State Street into the mix, and yet another PIMCO launch have underscored the growth potential of these ETFs (Read: PIMCO Files For Three More Active Bond ETFs).

Although actively managed ETFs account for about just a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion plus U.S. ETF market, a big chunk of these are allocated to the fixed-income and currency groups (Read: Ten Biggest U.S. Equity Market ETFs). This corner of the ETF market is in the initial stage of development and often overlooked by many investors due to its less liquid nature and higher cost when compared to passive funds.

Active funds are arguably expensive because of the research cost associated with the manager’s due diligence beyond the expense ratio. They also face more in expenses thanks to low trading volumes which add to the bid ask spread.

Most fund managers often fail to match the return of the indexes with that of funds and hence might underperform their passive counterparts. The other drawback of active funds is that they require daily portfolio disclosures, which could hinder the competitive portfolio composition (See more ETFs in the Zacks ETF Center).

While this is true in most cases, a few active funds have managed to hold up quite nicely. There have been a couple of winners so far this year, leading to outperformance when compared to a well-known benchmark (Read: Three Outperforming Active ETFs).

Although part of the interest has undoubtedly been due to a variety of new strategies that have been introduced in the space, investors continue to choose well-known products targeting popular market segments. These funds might be an intriguing option for some investors looking for lower expense ratio, low risk, higher returns, tax efficiency and transparency.

Below, we take a closer look at some little-known actively-managed ETFs that have beaten out their index-tracking counterparts in terms of year-to-date returns even when adjusting for expenses:

Russell Equity ETF (ONEF)

Investors looking for long-term capital appreciation along with the global exposure amid uncertain economic conditions might consider ONEF in their portfolio. The product has gained more than 3% so far this year and yielded a descent dividend of 2.45% per annum. (Read: Five Great Global ETFs For Complete Equity Exposure)

Since it is a fund-of-funds, the product provides excellent exposure to all asset classes across developed and emerging equity markets. It employs an asset allocation strategy, holding 10 securities in total. Launched in May 2010, the fund has so far managed assets of about $4 million. Large cap firms account for about 72% while mid and small cap take the remaining portion in the basket.

The product is heavily concentrated on one fund — iShares Russell 1000 Index Fund (IWB) —which make up for 47% share. IWB seeks to deliver the returns of the large cap U.S. stocks and has returned about 6% year-to-date, thereby making ONEF an attractive play.

The other fund Vanguard MSCI EAFE ETF (VEA) that provides exposure to the large cap stocks in Europe and the Pacific region, the United Kingdom and Japan in particular, constitutes the second position in the basket (Read: Play Europe with This ETF Pair Trade). This fund has also performed well in the market but the recent deepening of the Euro zone crisis has led to a slight underperformance year-to-date, with negative returns of 0.5%.  

ONEF provides broad exposure in the U.S. (62%) followed by Japan, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Hong Kong and China. The fund is trades in paltry volumes say about 2,000 shares per day on average basis. This nature of the fund compels investors to pay more than the expense ratio of 0.51%. Nevertheless, the product recoups this cost by providing healthy returns.    

PowerShares Active Mega Cap ETF (PMA)

The inclusion of mega-cap securities in the fund’s asset has led it to outperform the broad market so far this year. The product has returned more than 4% year-to-date with a good dividend yield of 1.63%. This robust return will more than offset the fund’s relatively high expense ratio of 75 basis points.

Stocks in the fund are the securities of the Russell Top 200 Index and the other mega-cap stock that meet certain liquidity requirements as per Invesco Institutional's proprietary stock model. This model is based on four pillars — earnings momentum, price trend, management action and relative value — to select securities in the basket (Read: Try Value Investing With These Large Cap ETFs).                                                                                 

This technique results in a portfolio of about 50 securities with heavy weightings towards information technology and health care (Read: Why SSDD Is The Top Tech ETF). In terms of top individual holdings, three technology companies — Apple Inc. (AAPL), Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) and Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) — take the top three spots in the basket and the remaining top ten consists of energy and healthcare firms.                                                                                                                                

Trading in small volumes, the product was launched in April 2008 and has total assets of $5.5 million under management (Read: Guide to the 25 Most Liquid ETFs).

AdvisorShares TrimTabs Float Shrink ETF (TTFS)

This fund has shown outstanding performance so far in 2012, as it generally invests in stocks that are liquid and have superior long-term performances on historical basis. The ETF has gained about 6% year-to-date, which is more than enough to offset the annual fee of 99 bps charged by fund manager on a yearly basis (Read: Guide to the 25 Cheapest ETFs).

This is a relatively new fund, initiated in October 2011, with a novel concept. The main aim of the fund is to deliver the long-term returns in excess of the total return of the Russell 3000 Index, with less volatility than the Index. The stocks in the fund are selected on extensive historical research from TrimTabs, which focuses on stock prices rather than value.

According to TrimTabs methodology, the stock is expected to perform best when the number of outstanding shares decline over the last 120 days. This is true especially when the same amount of money chases a smaller number of shares, thereby leading to a rise in share price.

This unique technique creates the portfolio of 101 stocks after screening through various aspects — float shrink, free cash flow growth, and equity ratios — from the largest 3,000 U.S. based companies.

With AUM of $8 million, the fund is well diversified across individual securities, each having around 1% share in top 10 companies. News Corp. (NWSA), United Therapeutics Corporation (UTHR) and GT Advanced Technologies Inc. (GTAT) represent the key elements in the fund’s basket. The product is more inclined toward mid cap stocks, accounting for 44% of the share while large and small caps make for 19% and 37% share, respectively.

From the sector look, TTFs is tilted towards the consumer discretionary and information technology sectors (Read: Play A Consumer Recovery With These Discretionary ETFs). The product often trades in very small volumes, about 1,700 shares per day, and yields a paltry dividend of 0.04% per annum.

Active ETFs At A Glance

We believe these three ETFs could be solid picks for some investors seeking surety of income in a sluggish economic scenario. Despite the lesser number of trades, these have provided robust returns due to the unique features embedded in the funds and could be worth a closer look by investors seeking more active management strategies in their portfolios. 

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