Amid surging popularity for
dividend-centric ETFs, First Trust has just thrown its hat into the foreign dividend ETF ring with the First Trust Global Select Dividend Fund ( FGD). FGD is similar to ETFs from several different providers: iShares EPAC Select Dividend Index Fund ( IDV), PowerShares International Dividend Achievers ( PID) and the WisdomTree DEFA High Yielding ETF ( DTH). Like all of those funds, FGD is heaviest in financial stocks -- but, at 34.84% weight, it is the lightest of the four. (The S&P 500 has 18.66% in financials.) FGD generally has evenly spread exposure to the other sectors, but no technology. It also has one very noticeable quirk compared to the other funds: a very large 15.22% in the utility sector, compared to single-digit weightings for the other funds. It makes sense in that utilities usually pay high dividends, but it does add risk in that utilities tend to be interest-rate sensitive, and a dramatic rise in rates could cause FGD to lag its competitors. The country makeup is generally the same as the others, heaviest in Australia at 28.41%, followed by Great Britain at 22.14%. However, FGD allocates 20.08% to the U.S., while none of the other funds have U.S. exposure. FGD also allocates 8.01% to Canada, which is in PID at 20.08%, not in DTH at all and at a 0.93% weight in IDV. The reason to mention Canada at all is that its market, even the financials, has held up very well during the liquidity crisis of the last few months. Recent central-bank activity, the loonie perhaps getting ahead of itself and Canada's vulnerability to oil-price declines may add up to an argument for not being overweight. I do think some exposure, more than 0.93%, is warranted.
FGD should yield 4.34% (4.94% index yield minus the 0.60% expense). The back test numbers are impressive, as they always are, for higher returns with less volatility than the broad market. The underlying index has averaged 25.17% annualized for five years. Stocks in the fund meet several screens, including dividends paid being greater than or equal to the company's five-year average. Constituents must also satisfy stringent payout ratio and trading volume rules. FGD strikes me as being well diversified compared to similar funds, so it might be less reactive -- though not immune -- to typical sector or single-country blowups. The financial sector is on shaky ground, impacting the direction now. I think that will be the case until the entire yield curve normalizes. Its weight in the UK could also be a drag, as that economy is showing signs of weakening from its own exposure to the housing saga.
Of course, it is not realistic to expect any one product to be the best performer at all times and in all market situations. It makes more sense to expect that products might each take turns providing leadership. Depending on the investor, perhaps the exercise of evaluating these funds might be better thought of as avoiding the worst or most volatile one. Near-term risks do not make the fund bad. The issue for anyone wanting a diversified portfolio using broad-based products is whether this could be the best exposure -- and, if it is, should it be underweighted or not? For now, I would recommend underweighting. While it probably needs time to prove itself, I think FDL is unlikely to be the most volatile name in the space. I believe the iShares product, IDV, will continue to be the most volatile.