ETF investors have a plethora of ways to access international exposure in their portfolios that range from single country sector funds to broad-based global indices. From a flexibility standpoint, there has never been a better time to be an ETF investor with a global and liquid market at your fingertips.
However, with so many options at your disposal, narrowing down the field to attractive options can be daunting. To that end, a client recently asked me whether or not I felt single country ETFs were an appropriate investment for their portfolio. My answer coincided with weighing the pros and cons that make these ETFs unique in their own right.
The first thing you have to understand is that like an individual stock, a single country ETF will be susceptible to its own whims. These are typically driven by currency fluctuations, underlying company fundamentals, political environment, economic data, investor fund flows, and other criteria. Often times these variables coalesce to generate returns that are non-correlated to domestic markets, which can be good or bad depending on the prevailing environment.
Single country ETFs offer investors the ability to own a basket of stocks that are domiciled or perform the majority of their business in a specific nation. There are now hundreds of ways you can slice and dice developed, emerging, and frontier nations to hone in on a niche market or economy. In addition, the rise of currency-hedged products now offer the ability to eliminate currency risk from a variety of country-specific offerings as well.
The largest single country ETF is the iShares MSCI Japan ETF (EWJ), which has $15 billion in assets spread amongst 310 companies domiciled in Japan. This country has been in the news often over the last several years as its central bank continues to pump up the economy through quantitative easing efforts that distort its currency, equity, and fixed-income markets. This has led to profitable results for funds such as the WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity Fund (DXJ), which combines long stock positions with short currency plays.
The dispersion between varying indexes in the same country along with the hit or miss style of politically challenged economies such as the VanEck Vectors Russia ETF (RSX) are one of the pitfalls of single country investing. Sometimes you select a winner with excellent growth characteristics and other times you are susceptible to large losses as a result of unintended hardships.