By Michael Johnston, founder of ETF Database
The tremendous increase in the number of exchange-traded funds launched in recent years has seemingly brought cheap, efficient access to nearly every corner of the globe within reach of U.S. investors.
There are now funds devoted to Vietnam, Turkey, Israel, Colombia, among countless other countries. But while the breadth of international options has expanded significantly, the exposure offered by such funds is fairly limited, as most international exchange-traded products are dominated by mega-cap equities.
Blue-chip indexes may technically offer exposure to foreign markets, but their correlation with the local economy is often far from perfect. Spain is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. The
iShares MSCI Spain Index Fund
invests exclusively in Spanish companies. A look under the hood, however, reveals that nearly 45% of EWP is allocated to
, two companies that are listed on Spanish stock exchanges but derive a significant portion of revenues and profits from foreign markets.
While the Spanish economy struggled with skyrocketing unemployment and a deteriorating fiscal environment, EWP actually gained 33% in 2009. This gain was largely attributable to big growth in the operations of Santander and Telefonica in Brazil.
International investing used to be binary process: Your portfolio either had exposure to a country or it didn't. But ongoing innovation in the ETF industry has significantly increased options. Small-cap domestic ETFs have long been popular with investors, but opportunities to access smaller companies listed in foreign markets have historically been limited. That is beginning to change, however, as investors focus more on the international component of portfolios and begin seeking out alternatives to foreign equivalents of the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
A look at the performance of small-cap funds relative to their mega-cap competitors in 2009 sheds some light on the increase in popularity of these ETFs, and hints as a bright future:
Developed Markets: PDN vs. PXF
For investors looking to gain exposure to developed economies beyond the U.S., the
PowerShares FTSE RAFI Developed Markets ex-U.S. Portfolio
has become a popular holding. But PowerShares offers another way to gain developed market exposure through the
FTSE RAFI Developed Markets ex-U.S. Small-Mid Portfolio
. This ETF is based on an index that selects small- and mid-cap companies based on four fundamental measures of firm size: book value, cash flow, sales and dividends.
PDN has been somewhat slow to accumulate assets, with just $10 million in cash inflows in 2009. But those investors who have bought into this fund have no doubt been delighted with the results, as PDN delivered almost 20% more in 2009 than its large cap counterpart.
2009 Returns: PDN +54%, PXF +36%.
China: FXI vs. HAO
With a market capitalization of more than $10 billion, the
iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index Fund
is by far the largest China ETF available to U.S. investors. But it isn't the only way to gain China exposure. The
Claymore/AlphaShares China Small Cap ETF
has seen its popularity surge over the last year, thanks in part to a return of more than 95% in 2009 (making it one of the year's top ten performing equity ETFs).
In addition to offering more of a "pure play" on the domestic economy, HAO offers more complete exposure across the various sectors of the Chinese economy. FXI has minimal exposure to consumer stocks and tech companies, concentrating about half of its assets in financials firms. HAO, on the other hand, spreads exposure across all industries, giving a material weighting to consumer services companies.
2009 Returns: HAO +97%, FXI +47%
Brazil: BRF vs. EWZ
Since its launch in mid-May 2009, the
Market Vectors Brazil Small Cap ETF
has seen almost $500 million in cash inflows, making it one of the most successful new ETFs of 2009. From a performance perspective, BRF has been a hit too, more than doubling between its launch date and the end of the year.
iShares MSCI Brazil Index Fund
has a huge holding (20%+) in Petroleo Brasileiro, BRF has a minimal allocation to the energy sector, focusing instead on companies that derive a larger portion of revenues from within Brazil. Brazil's mega-cap companies are dependent on the global industrial cycle and other external factors (such as oil prices), but small cap stocks depend more heavily on real growth in the domestic economy to prosper.
2009 Returns (May 14-Dec. 31): BRF +104%, EWZ +59%
EAFE: SCZ vs. EFA
For investors looking to gain exposure to developed markets outside of North America, the EAFE region is one of the most popular options. The
iShares MSCI EAFE Index Fund
offers exposure to more than a dozen developed European, Australasian and Far Eastern markets, with the most significant weightings given to Japan and the U.K.
The index underlying EFA has a median market capitalization of more than $6 billion, and counts
among its largest holdings. Another iShares fund, the
MSCI EAFE Small Cap Index Fund
maintains similar country weightings, but offers completely different exposure. SCZ targets 40% of the eligible small cap universe in each industry group of each country represented by the MSCI EAFE Index, resulting in a benchmark composed of stocks with a market capitalization between $200 million and $1.5 billion.
2009 Returns: SCZ +43%, EFA +27%
Japan: SCJ vs. EWJ
Japan is home to the world's second largest economy, making it a vital component of any portfolio with a truly global focus. But many of the largest Japanese companies, such as
, generate significant revenue outside of Japan, maintain large customer bases in the U.S. and elsewhere. The aforementioned companies are major components of the
iShares MSCI Japan Index Fund
, but are nowhere to be found in the
Japan Small Cap Index Fund
, which primarily invests in companies with a market capitalization of less than $1.5 billion.
It should be noted that Japan is one region that has a number of small cap options: in addition to SCJ, the
SPDR Russell/Nomura Small Cap Japan ETF
WisdomTree Japan SmallCap Dividend Fund
also target these equities.
Japanese stocks missed out on the recovery efforts of 2009, but small caps still managed to outpace the bellwether stocks, a fairly consistent trend across international equity ETFs.
2009 Returns: CSJ +6%, EWJ +3%
The foregoing review isn't meant to imply that international small caps will consistently generate excess returns over mega-cap companies. Small companies tend to be more volatile than larger companies, a phenomenon that applies to the upside as well as the downside. But the big gaps in returns delivered in 2009 does clearly show that small-cap stocks maintain a significantly different risk and return profile than large-cap funds. Achieving international equity exposure is now a multistep process, and the choice between large-cap and small-cap exposure can have a material impact on portfolio performance.
Although the above list of small-cap international ETFs isn't exhaustive, it comes pretty close to covering the universe of available funds -- a testament to the potential for expansion in this space as the ETF industry continues to develop. Given the success of many of these small cap ETFs -- both in terms of cash inflows and performance -- expect new fund launches to come in waves in coming years.
Michael Johnston is the senior analyst and founder of ETF Database, a Web-based investment resource providing actionable ETF investment ideas and an
for investors analyzing potential ETF investments. Johnston oversees ETF Database's free
, one of the most popular sources for news and commentary focusing exclusively on the exchange-traded fund industry. Johnston also maintains and develops content for
, a line of analyst reports and model portfolios designed to help investors utilize ETFs to meet their investment goals.
Johnston has completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program, and obtained his bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Notre Dame. Prior to founding ETF Database, Michael worked in a private client service group performing valuations of companies operating in a wide range of industries.