Cruddy Information on

Exchange Traded Funds

Guide to Choosing Exchange Traded Funds
in Spite of Shifty Information



The modern investor faces a raft of challenges due to the confounding nature of the information available on exchange traded funds (ETFs). One of the stumpers stems from the profusion of new-fangled vehicles for investing in a particular market. Another hurdle lies in the occasional outcrop of blighted information which may be incorrect, outdated, and/or misleading.

In the age of the Internet, one of the most popular resources for the investing public lies in the online portal maintained by Yahoo Finance. Another fount of information for the financial community is a rating agency named Morningstar, which has served for decades  as a beacon on communal pools such as index funds. 

Sadly, though, the stalwarts of this breed are known to serve up faulty data at times. To begin with, the information provided by two different sources may be incompatible with each other. Worse yet, the figures displayed at a single Web site are at times internally inconsistent. 

For these reasons, the astute investor is obliged to mull over the data obtained before making any crucial decision. Due to the pitfalls in store, a sensible course of action is to compare a batch of figures against each other in order to assess their consistency. 

Another safeguard is to give preference to elementary items of data over derived statistics. Starting from basic nubs of information, the target figures can at times be calculated manually with relative ease.

An example in this vein is to figure out the average return on investment for a particular security based on the initial and final values of the price record. Another ploy is to check a selection of numerical data against a graphic display in order to confirm that the figures appear to be compatible.

The knotty issues of this sort can be explored in depth by way of a case study involving the energy sector. The application deals with the selection of exchange traded funds focused on the market for crude oil. The standard bearer for each type of vehicle is presented, along with a review of its performance in recent years. 

From a larger stance, the goal of the exercise is to uncover the problems posed by confounding data. A related task is to present a muster of guidelines for dealing with the stumbling blocks.

Dastardly Data


An investor in exchange traded funds faces a number of stumbling blocks posed by scrappy information. One hurdle lies in the profusion of index funds clamoring for attention. Another stumper springs from the occasional outcrop of bogus data on the Internet, a problem that can afflict even renowned and respected sources of information. 

One of the most popular portals for the investing public is found in Yahoo Finance (finance.yahoo.com). In addition, the financial media relies on to a rating agency named Morningstar Inc. (morningstar.com) as a guiding light on communal pools such as index funds. 

Unfortunately, the information provided by these and other stalwarts may be incompatible with each other. To make matters worse, the figures proffered by a single portal are at times  internally inconsistent. 

The scourge of flawed data is most likely to afflict the portions of a portal that display relatively novel functions. An example in this vein is a bunch of statistics on the volatility of exchange traded funds. Another sample concerns a tally of risk-adjusted returns for  communal pools. 

Due to the pitfalls in store, the prudent investor has to approach the data with a good deal of caution. One way to cut down the likelihood of a disastrous flub is to check the figures for consistency against each other. 

Another workaround is to rely on primitive items of data as the groundwork for figuring out the desired results through manual means. As an example, a virtual calculator may be used to compute the average annual return for a fund over the past decade based on the raw values of the price history. 

Another recourse is to review the numeric data against similar information in the form of a graphic plot. In this way, the investor can readily confirm a number of crucial features. 

For starters, the mindful investor can ensure that the numeric figures and plotted values appear to lie within the same ballpark. In addition, the chart can provide the investor with a visceral grasp of the texture and scope of volatility for the fund under consideration.

Case Study of Crude Oil


To dig deeper into these issues, we turn to a case study involving the energy sector. Within this domain, a number of index funds are designed to track the price of crude oil, while other pools are linked more loosely to the market. The standard bearer in each category is presented, along with a survey of its performance in recent years.

Another topic involves a review of acute problems and handy fixes relating to flaky data. In line with earlier remarks, one way to reduce the chance of a bungle is to cross-check a bunch of data obtained from multiple sources of information. Another remedy is to compare the numeric values against graphic charts to determine whether the data appear to be compatible.


1. Get the Vital Signs for the Main ETF 

    Tracking the Primary Market for Oil


When the folks in the financial media talk about the price of oil, they usually have in mind the price of the nearby contract in the futures market. In the U.S., for instance, the futures contract is grounded on a strain of petroleum known as West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude.

Given this backdrop, a simple way to structure an exchange traded fund is to track the price of the commodity by way of the futures market. This scheme is in fact the main approach taken by an ETF known as United States Oil. The security trades on the stock market under the ticker symbol of USO. 

The objective of the pool is to mirror the current value – also known as the spot price – of the light, sweet oil that serves as the standard product in the U.S. For this purpose, the stewards of the fund rely on futures contracts based on WTI as well as comparable goods like natural gas and liquid fuels. The index fund may also take up kindred assets such as forward contracts on crude oil, or options on futures contracts for the commodity. 

In return for looking after the pool, the custodians receive a maintenance fee. The net charge comes out to some 0.78% a year of the assets under management. Unlike many other funds, USO pays out no dividends to its shareholders.

According to Yahoo Finance, the value of USO at the end of February 2008 was $80.42 per share. On the other hand, the fund broke down later in the year and tumbled even lower the following spring. After hitting a trough, the pool reversed part of the losses and clambered back to $39.19 by the end of February 2011.  

Based on the initial and final prices, the ETF lost a total of 51.2% of its value over the course of three years. Put another way, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) came out to be negative 21.3%.

Any asset in the financial arena is apt to jump around rather than glide in a smooth way. Given the fickle behavior, a straightforward way to pin down the degree of flightiness is to examine the relative changes in value over time.

In this light, the boffins in the field of statistics cooked up long ago a universal scheme to measure the degree of dispersion within a set of numbers. The standard measure is called, sensibly enough, the standard deviation.

According to Yahoo Finance, the standard deviation for USO over the course of three years came out to 39.27%. 

By dividing the average return by the standard deviation, we can calculate the risk-adjusted return. The resulting quotient is also known as the Sharpe ratio

We recall that the mean return on investment for USO over the past three years was minus 21.3% per annum. Based on the ratio of the average return to the standard deviation, we find that the risk-adjusted gain over this period was negative 0.54 units. 


2. Gauge the Performance of the Vendors 

    in the Oil Industry


The companies in the oil industry span the rainbow from the producers of petroleum to the refiners and distributors of the fluid. Other players in the arena include the suppliers and collaborators of the primary vendors. 

When the price of oil rises, the companies in the industry tend to earn higher profits. By the same token, the outfits are apt to face hard times when the commodity slumps.

From the standpoint of the financial community, the main advantage of buying a stake in a company rather than the commodity itself springs from the implicit leverage on offer. In other words, the investor in the equity is wont to get a bigger bang for the buck over the long range. 

As an example, a rise of 10% in the price of oil might lead to a spurt of 30% in the earnings of a particular vendor. In that case, the equity in the company is apt to swell more or less in line with the surge in profits.

In this segment of the market, the stalwart among index funds lies in an exchange traded fund known as the Energy Select Sector SPDR (symbol XLE). The mission of the pool is to match the price and yield, before taking expenses into account, of the equities included in  – surprise, surprise – the Energy Select Sector Index. The latter benchmark deals with the producers of oil, gas and other fuels as well as the suppliers of equipment and services in the energy sector.

The companies covered by the benchmark run the gamut from Exxon and Chevron to ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum. The membership also includes a number of service providers as in the case of Schlumberger and Halliburton.

The net expense for XLE comes out to 0.20% per annum of the funds under management. On a positive note, though, the pool throws off a stream of dividends each year amounting to some 1.27% of the value of the portfolio.

According to Yahoo Finance, the adjusted price of XLE at the end of February 2008 was $72.89. Meanwhile the corresponding value three years onward was $78.54. 

Based on these figures, the stock enjoyed a modest gain of 7.75% over the course of three years. In that case, the average return was a mite over 2.5% per annum.

According to Morningstar, the standard deviation of returns was positive 27.33% over the span of three years. The latter figure matched the value provided by Yahoo Finance. 

Dividing the average return by the standard deviation results in a Sharpe ratio of some 0.09 units. Curiously, though, both Morningstar and Yahoo opined that the risk-adjusted gain was 0.22. 

The difference between the last couple of numbers is big enough to raise an eyebrow. Unhappily, the portals appear to be inconsistent in the data that they display.

On a positive note, though, the exact value of the Sharpe ratio plays only a secondary role in comparing the securities in this particular case. Whichever figure is chosen, the performance of XLE happens to trounce the turnout for USO.


3. Size up the Service Providers in the Industry


The producers in the oil industry rely on a host of partners in order to ply their trade. The actors in supporting roles include the band of service providers that assist the principals in seeking out fresh deposits of petroleum. Another type of sidekick is the crew of hardware agents that lease out the equipment needed to pump out the oil from the ground. 

In the context of exchange traded funds, the mainstay is a pool called Oil Services HOLDRs (OIH). The components of the fund include hulking firms such as Schlumberger and Halliburton as well as smaller players like Transocean and Baker Hughes. The fund throws off a dividend yield of around 1.10% a year. 

Based on the information from Yahoo Finance, the adjusted price of OIH was $166.32 at the end of February 2008, while the corresponding figure three years later was $164.27. In that case, the ETF lost  about 1.3% over the course of three years. Put another way, the takedown came out to roughly minus 0.41% a year on average.

According to Morningstar, the standard deviation of returns was 39.40%. Based on the last pair of figures, the Sharpe ratio amounted to some negative 0.01 units. 


4.  Compare the Risk and Return


Among the trio of stalwarts in the energy sector, the index fund dealing with the service providers turned in the best showing. For starters, XLE outpaced its rivals in terms of the total payoff over the course of three years. 

The runner-up was the index fund focused on the troupe of supporting players in the energy sector. More precisely, OIH lagged the winner by a modest amount in terms of the average gain. On the other hand, the performance adjusted for risk was more crummy.

By contrast, the tracking fund for crude oil turned in a solidly lousy performance. Since USO lost a hefty chunk of its value over the 3-year span, there is scarcely any point in comparing its risk-adjusted returns against its better rivals.

Tips on Exchange Traded Funds


An index fund represents a dandy way to invest in the energy sector or just about any other domain. Within this category, the exchange traded fund is an efficient and convenient vehicle for investment. The merits of an ETF, along with a battery of related topics, are discussed in an article titled, “How to Beat the Investment Funds” (Kim, 2011).

In sizing up the performance of an ETF, a baseline for comparison is an index fund that tracks the stock market as a whole. To this end, the most popular benchmark used by professional investors is the Standard and Poor’s Index of 500 giants listed on the U.S. bourse. 

For this benchmark, the ETF of choice has the ticker symbol of SPY. According to Yahoo Finance, the Sharpe ratio for SPY over the span of three years ending in early 2011 was 0.19 units. The latter figure lay somewhere in the middle range of values we obtained earlier for XLE, OIH and USO. Put another way, the popular vehicles for the oil market straddled the level of risk-adjusted returns for the stock market as a whole.

As a rule, the risk-adjusted gain is apt to be somewhat less fickle than the return on investment. In other words, the value of the Sharpe ratio for a given asset tends to vary less than the average return. This tendency was reflected in the information published in early March 2011 by the two main portals featured in this article. 

On one hand, the mean return over three years reported by Yahoo Finance differed by a hefty amount from the value that we calculated above for USO. The same was true of the corresponding figure provided by Morningstar. In addition, the numbers supplied by Yahoo and Morningstar differed from each other. 

Even so, the values of the Sharpe ratio provided by the latter two sources were similar to each other. If the displays for the risk-adjusted return were erroneous or outdated, they happened to be awry by a like amount.

A chart of the price action provides an intuitive grasp of the behavior of any asset. The exhibit below, courtesy of Google Finance, shows the relative performance of USO, XLE and OIH over the course of three years starting from the end of February 2008. 





For the sake of confirmation, a similar plot from Yahoo Finance is displayed herewith.




Based on either of the foregoing charts,  we can verify that XLE was less volatile than its rivals during the upswing in 2008. The same was true amid the downleg in the following year. 

Another obvious outcome was the divergence of the cumulative changes in price. Clearly, XLE was the winning vehicle over this rocky stretch.

In a nutshell, either of the graphic displays highlights the superior performance of XLE in terms of lower volatility as well as higher returns. 

On occasion, a qualitative review of this sort is enough to pick out the winner from a bunch of prospective assets for investment. In that case, any analysis of the numeric data would simply serve as a way to confirm the results of the visual scan.

Caveats on Information Sources


The wily investor keeps in mind that the data supplied by any source can be incorrect, inconsistent, and/or misleading. A case in point is an outdated value for the return on investment, which can vary greatly over time. 

A specific example lies the information provided by Morningstar Inc.  According to the figures displayed by the outfit in the early weeks of March 2011, the USO fund turned in an average return of negative 14.74 percent a year over the course of three years ending in February 2011. However, this result differed by a sizable amount from the value of minus 21.3% that we calculated above. 

To add to the muddle, Yahoo Finance claimed that the average return over the same  stretch of time was negative 1.32% a year: a value that was thoroughly implausible based on the graphic plots. Apparently, the figures displayed by both portals were way out of date.

In the cant of the financial jocks, the difference in performance between a particular asset and a target benchmark is known as the Alpha factor. Data of this stripe is provided by Yahoo Finance for a given security under a section labeled “Risk”.  

The corresponding page for USO claimed that the average level of annual performance compared to a standard index – that is, the Alpha level – was minus 14.62%. In talking about the “standard index”, the portal was referring to the S&P 500 benchmark (Yahoo, 2009). In addition, the mean return was listed as negative 1.32% per year. 

Apparently, Yahoo Finance obtains some of the information on exchange traded funds from Morningstar. As an example, Yahoo reported in March 2011 that the exchange traded fund named SPY had an Alpha level of minus 0.03% compared to the standard index, where the latter referred to the S&P benchmark. In informal terms, SPY lagged slightly behind the market index. 

The foregoing outcome was largely compatible with the results reported by the stewards of the fund itself.  As an example, the pool snagged a total return of 10.08% on the net value of the assets under management during the fiscal year ending in September 2010; by comparison, the S&P index turned in a gain of 10.16% over the same period (State, 2010). 

In other words, the pool lagged the benchmark by 0.06% over the course of the year. The latter value lies in the same ballpark as the average value of minus 0.03% reported in unison by Yahoo and Morningstar.

In addition to Yahoo and Morningstar, other sources of information can be problematic as well. A case in point is a renowned outfit named StockCharts (StockCharts.com), which serves as a staple resource for professional traders of a technical bent.

Sadly, the popular portal begged to differ with Yahoo as well as Morningstar. In particular, the big kahuna of index funds – namely, SPY – was supposedly outpacing rather than lagging its target benchmark. The remarkable claim is highlighted by the chart below, which has been adapted from StockCharts. 




The exhibit plots the ratio of SPY to the S&P 500 benchnmark over a period of three years ending in February 2011. Over this stretch, the relative gain of the index fund compared to the target benchmark was a tad over 6.8%. Put another way, the average lead of SPY over the index itself was in excess of 2.2% per annum. The latter outcome is of course out of whack with the nuggets of data that we obtained from other sources. An example of the divergence lay in the assertion by Yahoo that the relative change of SPY over the taget index – as denoted by the Alpha factor – came out to negative 0.03% a year on average.

The price of oil can soar and plunge within the span of a single day. For this reason, the commodity is unsuitable for investment by the faint of heart. More generally, the same is largely true of any ETF linked to natural resources. Only a staunch player who can face the tumult with aplomb should consider investing in this corner of the financial bazaar.

The performance of any asset depends on a variety of factors. An exemplar lies in the time span used in the analysis. 

For instance, consider a window of half a decade ending in early 2011. During this period, XLE turned in a much better showing than OIH, which in turn beat USO hands down.

The chart below, from Yahoo Finance, depicts the behavior of XLE, OIH and USO over the course of 5 years ending in early 2011.




The display highlights the sizable difference in performance by the funds during the stretch of half a decade spanning the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.

Roundup of Stumpers and Fixes for ETFs


Amid the rapid growth of exchange traded funds, the heedful investor faces a couple of serious challenges due to the welter of baffling information. One bogey lies in the number and diversity of index funds clamoring for the investor’s attention. Another bugbear springs from the publication of bogus data from otherwise respectable sources of information.

In seeking out the best pool for investment, an orderly approach is to begin by sorting the raft of exchange traded funds into different types of vehicles. Within each group of ETFs, the standard bearer can serve as a baseline for comparison and perhaps even the pool of choice.

Moreover, a cogent way to deal with the slew of conflicting information is to compare and contrast the figures provided by the leading portals. A related tactic is to review the data from a particular source and determine whether the numbers appear to be internally consistent.

In addition, the thoughtful investor ought to plot the data in a graphic form in order to obtain an intuitive grasp of the movements in price. Another recourse is to confirm whether the visual displays appear to be consistent with some crucial pieces of numeric data. An example of the latter lies in the maximum level or the final value the price history.

As in any domain racked by lusty growth, the field of exchange traded funds is hamstrung by a shortage of telling and reliable information. Looking at the larger picture, the swirl of smog and confusion in the arena will doubtless clear up in fits and starts with the passage of time. 

In the meantime, though, the adept investor has to make up for the dismal state of affairs by drawing on personal reserves of gumption and judgment. Given the advantages of exchange traded funds, a modicum of extra effort is surely justified in order to round up the proper information needed to build up a sound program of investment. 

References


Kim, S.  “How to Beat the Investment Funds: Outrun Most Mutual Funds and Hedge Funds while Earning a Bonus”.  http://www.mintkit.com/beat-investment-funds – tapped 2011/4/6.

State Street Global Markets.  “SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust - A Unit Investment Trust - Annual Report”.  2010/9/30.  https://www.spdrs.com/library-content/public/SPY%20Annual%20Report%2009.30.10.pdf  – tapped 2011/4/6.

Yahoo Finance.  “Modern Portfolio Theory Statistics.”  2009/4/22. http://help.yahoo.com/l/us/yahoo/finance/mutual/fitapotheory.html – tapped 2011/3/25.

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