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An ETF Where Value and Investment Merit Meet

While its complexity should give investors pause, this ETF attempts to improve on the traditional passive approach to value investing.     

Alex Bryan, 07/05/2013

Unlike most value index funds, PowerShares Dynamic Large Cap Value PWV screens for stocks on investment merit in addition to traditional value characteristics. This approach more closely resembles an active strategy than a passive strategy, as do its fees (0.59% expense ratio). But despite its high expense ratio, this fund has outperformed most of its large-value peers since its inception in March 2005. PWV may be a suitable core holding for intrepid investors who wish to adopt a complex approach to value for a chance to outperform traditional value index funds.

While value stocks tend to outperform over the long run, they often represent companies with relatively high business risk and poor prospects for growth, and they may remain out-of-favor for years. PWV attempts to improve risk-adjusted returns by evaluating stocks that pass its initial value screens along the following five dimensions: price momentum, earnings momentum, quality (for example, return on equity, asset turnover, profit margins), management action (change in capital expenditures, share buybacks), and value.

While that approach has allowed the fund to generate higher returns with less volatility than most peers since its inception in 2005, it is difficult to predict whether this superior performance will continue. There is a danger that NYSE Euronext (which created the methodology for the fund's underlying index) overfitted historical data in selecting these additional investment merit metrics. In fact, in order to develop methodology for the Dynamic family of indexes, NYSE Euronext evaluated over 150 factors and found 47 that were statistically significant in identifying superior performing stocks. Yet some of these factors may not consistently work out of sample, a classic data-mining problem. This problem is less pronounced for the fund's momentum and value factors, as these investment styles have consistently outperformed in nearly every market studied over long time horizons. Academic research also suggests that quality metrics, including profitability, may improve risk-adjusted returns. But while many of the fund's factors may work well in isolation, it is less predictable how they will perform together. PWV's concentrated portfolio (which consists of only 50 holdings) can also lead to uneven performance. For instance, in 2009 and 2010 the fund lagged 65% and 90% of its large-value peers, respectively.

To its credit, PWV offers pure value exposure with few large-blend names in the mix. Over the past five years, the fund exhibited lower correlation (0.91) with its growth counterpart, PowerShares Dynamic Large Cap Growth Index PWB, than did most value and growth index pairs. Consequently, it may offer better diversification benefits.

Fundamental View
Since its inception in March 2005, PWV has established an impressive record. From March 2005 through June 2013, it generated an 8.8% annualized return with about the same level of volatility as the S&P 500 Index, which posted a 5.8% annualized return over that span. The corresponding figures for the United States open end and ETF large value category averages were 4.6% and 6.1%, respectively. During this time, PWV also exhibited less volatility than many broad U.S. large-value index funds, including iShares S&P 500 Value Index IVE. The fund's quality and momentum selection criteria should help it continue to give investors a smoother ride than most of its large-value peers, even if it does not continue to outperform.

Because it incorporates quality metrics into its portfolio construction process, the fund's holdings tend to have better profit margins, higher returns on equity, and higher returns on invested capital than many of its value peers. These selection criteria also reduce the fund's exposure to distressed companies, which value funds often overweight. This quality tilt may partially explain why the fund held up better than its peers in 2008. While quality companies typically command higher valuations, the fund's portfolio usually carries a slightly lower average earnings multiple than most of its peers.

Combining value with momentum may also help reduce volatility by reducing exposure to value traps--stocks that look cheap but have deteriorating fundamentals. Momentum is based on the premise that securities that have recently gone up in value will continue to go up in the short run, and those that have lost value will continue to underperform. While there are a few competing theories explaining why momentum exists, one of the most compelling is that investors tend to under-react to new information. But whatever the cause, there is substantial evidence that momentum is a pervasive force. The fund leverages both price and earnings momentum, such as earnings surprises and positive analyst earnings estimate revisions, which may help it identify attractively valued stocks with improving fundamentals.

Despite the fund's value tilt, it currently looks fairly valued based on Morningstar equity analysts' assessments of the fund's underlying holdings. While rising interest rates could create a headwind, as the Fed unwinds its bond-buying program, we remain optimistic about the long-term fundamentals of the U.S. economy. According to Morningstar's director of economic analysis, Robert Johnson, consumer debt as a percentage of income has declined from 140% to 112% between 2008 and 2013. Bank balance sheets have also significantly improved over the past few years. Manufacturing productivity and oil production have picked up, and inflation remains low, while the unemployment rate has continued its gradual decline. These are signs of a strengthening U.S. economy, which should continue to benefit the fund's holdings.

Alex Bryan is an ETF analyst with Morningstar.

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