Low-volatility funds can still get bumpy

  @Money October 10, 2013: 4:14 PM ET

What to know about new mutual funds and ETFs that aim to deliver a smoother ride.

(Money Magazine)

There's at least one market that mutual funds know how to time. When anxiety is high, count on fund companies to wheel out products that play into those fears.

Despite the stock market's recovery since the financial crisis, retail investors are still queasy about stocks. Enter so-called low- or managed-volatility funds, whose numbers have more than doubled to 35 since the start of 2012. They target stocks with a low "beta"; if a stock tends to fall less when the market drops (or rise less when the market soars), it earns a low beta score.

In jittery times, what's not to like about more-predictable returns? Boosters of the low-vol approach also point to research showing that stocks that bounce up and down less may deliver better long-run performance.

Some caution is in order, however:

"Low" volatility is relative

If a low-volatility moniker reads to you as "low risk," think again.

These funds aim for low volatility for stock funds -- they can still lose plenty. In 2008, when the S&P 500 sank 37%, BlackRock Managed Volatility (EFAV) led the low-vol pack but still lost 27%.

"If the market has peaked, these funds won't save you," says Eric Weigel, director of research at the Leuthold Group.

Low-vol isn't cheap right now

After the financial crisis, investors gravitated to stocks with high dividends in defensive sectors such as utilities, health care, and consumer staples -- the same stuff low-volatility funds tend to buy.

Related: Save like Dave Ramsey... just don't invest like him

"As a result, low-volatility, high-dividend stocks are more expensive than they've been in a while," says Jason Hsu, chief investment officer at Research Affiliates.

The average stock in the SPDR Russell 1000 Low Volatility ETF, for instance, trades at nearly 18 times its earnings, vs. a ratio of 15 for the S&P 500. Bottom line: You can wait.

Focus on value

It certainly can make sense to add stability to your equity mix. You can get that with many value funds, which buy stocks with low prices relative to earnings. Right now, the average value fund holds stocks 31% cheaper than those in growth funds. That discount is wider than it was a year ago.

Are diamonds a good investment?

While not all value funds are low-beta, many are: American Century Equity Income (TWEIX) sports a three-year beta of 0.66, while American Funds American Mutual (AMRMX) , a MONEY 70 pick, is at 0.75. (A beta of 1 means a fund is as volatile as the market; look up a fund's beta at Morningstar.com). Compare that with 0.87 for Nuveen Symphony Low Volatility Equity (NOPAX), one of a few low-vol funds around for three years.

Ultimately, it's the strategy that counts, not the label. To top of page

Send a letter to the editor about this story to money_letters@moneymail.com.

Join the Conversation
Sponsored by
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,476.13 -25.52 -0.15%
Nasdaq 4,131.69 4.72 0.11%
S&P 500 1,874.96 -0.43 -0.02%
Treasuries 2.70 0.02 0.60%
Data as of 9:55am ET
Company Price Change % Change
Facebook Inc 62.22 0.86 1.40%
Bank of America Corp... 16.45 0.08 0.49%
Apple Inc 564.08 39.33 7.50%
Qualcomm Inc 77.17 -3.54 -4.39%
General Motors Co 34.96 0.57 1.66%
Data as of 9:40am ET
Overnight Avg Rate Latest Change Last Week
30 yr fixed4.28%4.41%
15 yr fixed3.30%3.33%
5/1 ARM3.30%3.34%
30 yr refi4.31%4.39%
15 yr refi3.35%3.31%
View rates in your area
Find personalized rates:
Rate data provided
by Bankrate.com
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.