Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me is the title of a classic counterculture novel -- but it could also be the theme of the current dominant trends in exchange traded funds.
The accompanying table of the 10 highest-rated ETFs includes six that have each achieved double-digit rewards for their owners in the last year by capitalizing on the steady slump in the U.S. dollar. Two others earned the highest possible grades of A+ from TheStreet.com Ratings by moving opposite the cascading domestic market for small-cap stocks.
Like everything else on the list -- and in contrast to the negative 11.91% performance of the S&P 500 total return index -- they achieved double-digit gains over the past year.
Because U.S. stock prices and the greenback each suffered long, deep slides, the objective criteria that determine TheStreet.com Ratings grades evaluated the steady gains by funds that move inversely to the dollar and the general stock market and awarded them relatively high marks.
The final pair of top-rated ETFs are classic hiding places for periods of economic stagnation and equity-market erosion -- short and intermediate Treasury bonds and inflation-protected Treasuries.
PowerShares DB Gold Fund
wins top honors among the funds on the list for 12-month performance with a surge of 39.91%, the
CurrencyShares Australian Dollar Trust
is the overall steadiest performer of the group. Benefitting from demand for raw materials from China and other Asian nations, the Aussie dollar fund has appreciated 6.70% for the quarter ended June 30, 12.89% for the first half of 2008 and 19.65% over the past 12 months. This is in sharp contrast to negative returns for all three periods by the S&P 500.
While all the funds on the list have achieved admirable performance in the most recent 12 months, investors are cautioned to show great care in approaching "inverse" and "defensive" funds. Whereas equities can accumulate intrinsic value as corporate profits are achieved, currency speculation is a zero-sum game, where every gain is at the expense of an offsetting loss.
And before investing in an inverse market fund, an investor should be perfectly confident that stock prices will continue to erode for the foreseeable future.
Richard Widows is a senior financial analyst for TheStreet.com Ratings. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.