Finally, let’s look at up and down capture ratios. I like these measures as they show upside or downside returns on a more frequent basis (monthly, in this case), rather than a max drawdown figure or point-to-point return figure.

As shown below, for down periods (as measured by down capture), smart beta initially struggled in the 2005-2006 time frame, but it promptly improved during the financial crisis. The aggregate down capture ratio of smart beta ETFs has improved ever since, in large part due to the prevalence of volatility-reducing and quality-factor ETFs, or the inclusion of these factors in a multifactor ETF.

On the upside, the 2008 financial crisis proved to be a low point for capturing upside returns. In some sense, this isn’t surprising. There were four months of positive returns in 2008, which turned out to be a series of dead-cat bounces as the market led to the nadir in early 2009. It’s unlikely that ETFs were geared to outperform the market during these rebounds, and investors at the time probably would have appreciated the added downside cushion. More recently, we’ve seen the upside capture improve; although, it has dropped somewhat lately, likely due to value-factor underperformance.

Source: Morningstar. Cumulative average up and down capture ratio is measured as rolling 12-month capture ratio versus the applicable Morningstar category index, averaged through time from January 1, 2005, to January 31, 2019. Included are equity smart beta ETFs from the following Morningstar (U.S. Fund) categories: Diversified Emerging Mkts, Foreign Large Blend, Foreign Large Growth, Foreign Large Value, Foreign Small/Mid Blend, Foreign Small/Mid Value, Large Blend, Large Growth, Large Value, Mid-Cap Blend, Mid-Cap Growth, Mid-Cap Value, Small Blend, Small Growth, Small Value, World Large Stock. Closed ETFs are included.

Again, this is nowhere near a perfect study of smart beta ETFs, and there are multitudes of other ways to approach this. Prevailing thinking says that historical back tests don’t translate into real world returns, and there is definitely some truth to that. However, I believe there is evidence that smart beta ETFs are providing benefits to investors who use them properly and do their due diligence. There is no doubt that various ETFs will come and go, as fads do, but smart beta and the underlying factors that power these products are now in. In certain times, their apparent efficacy will fade, but when used properly, these products are key pieces of client portfolios.

This information is prepared for general information only. Information contained herein is derived from sources we believe to be reliable, however, we do not represent that this information is complete or accurate and it should not be relied upon as such. All opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. The graphs and charts contained in this work are for informational purposes only. No graph or chart should be regarded as a guide to investing.

Grant Engelbart is Director of Research/Senior Portfolio Manager at CLS Investments, a participant in the ETF Strategist Channel. 

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