Popular ETFs designed to track low-volatility stocks are crushing the market this year thanks to the outperformance of defensive sectors such as consumer staples and utilities.

“This shows that assuming higher risks by buying higher volatility has not paid off this year, at least up to this point,” writes Michael Harris at the Price Action Lab blog. “Conservative investors are the winners because they have provided the fuel for this market rally.”

For example, the $4.9 billion PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (NYSEArca: SPLV) has posted a total return of 16.1% so far in 2013, versus a 10.2% gain for the S&P 500, according to Morningstar. [Low-Volatility ETFs Still Thriving as Market Wobbles]

On a sector basis, SPLV has 24.3% of its portfolio in consumer staples and 31.3% in utilities.

Investing in the lower-volatility stocks of the S&P 500 has paid 50% more than the index itself “contrary to what financial economics predict,” Harris notes. [Low-Volatility ETFs Enjoy Their Time in the Sun]

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