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Contrarian Rebalancing Gives This Earnings-Focused ETF an Edge

WisdomTree MidCap Earnings' rebalancing approach should keep its valuation in check.

Adam McCullough, CFA, 04/07/2017

WisdomTree MidCap Earnings ETF EZM is one of the few passive mid-cap equity strategies focused on its holdings' earnings. This exchange-traded fund effectively diversifies risk and rebalances into stocks as they become cheaper relative to their earnings, which should give it an edge over its peers in the long run. It offers a cost advantage compared with actively managed peers, but there are cheaper index-tracking peers available. It earns a Morningstar Analyst Rating of Bronze.

The fund offers broad exposure to profitable U.S. mid-cap stocks and weights them by the value of earnings that each stock has generated over the prior year. This approach injects a contrarian rebalancing discipline, causing the fund to increase its exposure to stocks that have become cheaper relative to their earnings to restore its target weightings and trim those that have become more expensive. Not surprisingly, this fund's rebalancing process inserts a value and profitability tilt, but its exposure to low valuation and highly profitable stocks isn't consistent because it doesn't explicitly target them. While stocks with larger absolute earnings tend to have larger market capitalizations, the fund has persistently exhibited a smaller market-cap orientation than most of its peers. Over the trailing 10 years through March 2017, the fund's average market capitalization measured about half of the mid-cap blend Morningstar Category average's.

So far, this fund's approach has paid off. Over the trailing 10 years through March 2017, it bested the mid-cap blend category average and S&P MidCap 400 Index by 2.6 and 0.6 percentage points annually. Compared with the index, most of the fund's performance advantage came from underweighting financial stocks during the financial crisis and adding exposure back after the crisis. The fund largely benefited from the timing of its rebalancing, which shouldn't be expected to persist. Over the trailing three- and five-year periods through March 2017, this fund still handily topped the category average but lagged the index. 

Fundamental View
A stock's price is the primary input into market-cap-weighted indexes, so they may overweight expensive stocks and underweight cheap stocks. Proponents of fundamental indexing dub stocks' random straying prices as the "noisy market hypothesis," an alternative theory to the efficient-market hypothesis. Fundamental indexing seeks to break the link between market prices and portfolio weightings. Instead it weights its holdings by economic metrics such as earnings, sales, or dividends to reduce exposure to expensive stocks.

Morningstar's Paul Kaplan published a paper titled "Why Fundamental Indexation Might--or Might Not--Work" and highlights that fundamental indexing implicitly assumes that all companies should trade at the same valuation multiples. Efficient-market advocates counter that stocks should, and empirically do, trade at different multiples based on their risk and growth profiles. Kaplan also asserts that without knowing a stock's fair value or fair valuation multiple beforehand, it is impossible to conclude in advance that a stock's current market price is too high or low, and whether stocks that command high valuations are overpriced.

Fundamental-indexing proponents point out that fundamental weightings simply serve to sever the link between price and portfolio weightings and allow the strategy to rebalance into stocks as they become cheaper relative to their fundamentals. They argue that this is a more efficient form of value investing. This strategy is more broadly diversified and representative than traditional targeted value-oriented funds because unlike traditional value funds, it holds growth stocks, but at smaller levels than market-cap-weighted funds.

This fund breaks the link between stock prices and its portfolio weightings, which can increase turnover and transaction costs. However, the absolute earnings metric it uses to weight its holdings is positively correlated with market capitalization, which should help keep turnover down. Even with this alternative weighting technique, the portfolio's average five-year turnover is 39%, less than half of the category average's but still higher than pure market-cap-weighted peers', whose holdings naturally move with the ebbs and flows of the market.

The strategy uses the prior four quarters' S&P core earnings as its fundamental metric. S&P core earnings adjust for nonoperational business activities such as hedging, pension, and acquisition gains or losses. This earnings measure is more stable than GAAP earnings because it better represents earnings from a company's ongoing business operations. But relying on a backward-looking metric may cause the fund to hold stocks with deteriorating fundamentals, whereas a stock's price incorporates a forward view of a company's outlook. Also, because accounting practices differ across sectors, those sectors with more-aggressive revenue and expense recognition could be over-represented in the portfolio. To reduce concentration risks, this fund caps single-stock and sector weightings. Despite the caps, this fund is consistently overweight the industrials and utilities sectors and underweight the healthcare and information technology sectors compared with the category average sector weightings.

Adam McCullough, CFA, is an analyst on Morningstar’s manager research team, covering passive strategies.

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