NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As I noted last week, the consumer has become a standout performer in this uncertain market. While it is possible to target this crucial slice of the economic pie using a range of discretionary ETFs, risk adverse investors may find non-cyclical stocks more appropriate.While ETFs like the PowerShares Dynamic Leisure & Entertainment Portfolio and SPDR S&P Retail ETF ( XRT) target firms responsible for providing individuals with what they "want," ETFs like the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ( XLP) are backed by companies responsible for what consumers "need." Although these companies tend not to see the same standout performances during periods of economic euphoria, investors often flock to this sector to find some welcomed relief when fear takes hold. This week is an important one for this defensive sector as industry leaders including Procter & Gamble ( PG), Kraft ( KFT), and CVS Caremark ( CVS) report earnings. Their performance during the most recent quarter, as well as their respective outlooks for the second half of 2011 will provide important clues on the consumer. There are a number of ETFs investors can turn to in order to gain access to these industry leaders as well as a number of other consumer staples favorites. Investors looking to specifically target the three names listed above should turn to XLP. The largest and most liquid staples-focused ETF, this product sets aside nearly a quarter of its assets to these firms. Though lesser known, another consumer staples ETF investors may want to keep a close eye on is the First Trust Consumer Staples AlphaDEX Fund ( FXG). Unlike XLP, which utilizes a passive investment strategy to target consumer staples, First Trust's underlying benchmark is weighted using a pseudo-active methodology. Underlying companies are rated using a number of variables including three-, six-, and 12-month price appreciation; book value to price; and return on assets. This strategy results in an index unlike any other consumer staples ETF currently on the market. For example, rather than setting aside major chunks of its assets for industry bellwethers like Procter & Gamble and Phillip Morris ( PM), FXG is weighted in a laddered manner, with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters ( GMCR), Archer-Daniels-Midland ( ADM) and Smithfield Foods ( SFD) topping its list.
FXG will be considerably less influenced by the big earnings reports slated for this week. While Procter & Gamble and CVS can be found underlying the fund, together they account for less than 5% of the fund's index. Kraft, meanwhile, is noticeably absent from the fund's holdings. FXG has seen a stand-out performance compared to plain-vanilla consumer staples ETFs. Year to date, the fund has returned over 16%. In comparison, XLP has jumped only 6% during this period. While FXG's outperformance may be attractive, investors must consider the fund's complex investing strategy comes at a cost. FXG's 0.70% ratio makes it more than three times more costly than XLP's 0.20% expense ratio. In 2011, it is clear that FXG has earned its keep. However, cost conscious investors may still be hesitant towards this pricey option. Washington lawmakers have made some important progress in the debt-ceiling discussion. Although this has brought on a collective sigh of relief, as we have seen from the market's shaky action at the start of the week, there are ample concerns still present. Moving ahead, there is a strong likelihood that defensive sectors like consumer staples will continue to stay in vogue for protection-minded investors. Written by Don Dion in Williamstown, Mass.
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