Seeking Shelter in Consumer ETFs

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Due to its resilience in the face of market turmoil, the consumer sector has been one of the more interesting corners of the investing picture to watch in recent memory.

In recent weeks, however, the pressure of economic doubts facing Europe, China and other regions of the globe have begun to take their toll on this hardy market component. Evidence of this shakiness could be seen last Friday when personal income data was released. According to the report, incomes dipped by 0.1% in August, marking the first decline in this reading since October 2009.

The road ahead could be rocky for the consumer sector but I encourage investors to avoid steering clear entirely. Rather, by making adjustments, it is possible to maintain exposure to the consumer, while mitigating risk.

In the past, the SPDR S&P Retail ETF ( XRT) stood out as one of the best consumer-dedicated options to take advantage of the global economic recovery. However, as optimism has faded and investors have taken steps to reduce their exposure to risk, market correlated corners of the consumer sector, like retailers, have been under heavy pressure.

During the most recent three-month period, shares of XRT have slipped alongside the broader S&P 500, locking in over 18% losses.

A better bet on the consumer for the near term will likely be the consumer staples. Considered a defensive market slice, companies comprising the consumer staples industry are dedicated to producing household essentials. Firms like Procter & Gamble ( PG), Coca-Cola ( KO) and Kraft ( KFT) are in this sector.

The Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ( XLP) is a perfect option for ETF investors looking to dive headfirst into consumer non-cyclicals. The fund boasts heavy exposure to the companies highlighted above, as well as other names such as Wal-Mart ( WMT), Colgate-Palmolive ( CL) and Heinz ( HNZ).

Over the past three-month period, betting on consumer staples has paid off as indicated by XLP's strength compared to both XRT and the broader markets. Since the start of July, the fund is off by less than 7%.

XLP's defensive nature will likely make it a popular choice amongst conservative investors. Aggressive players, however, may be less willing to unload their exposure to consumer discretionary sector entirely. In that case, the iShares Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods Index Fund ( IYK) may be a more appropriate option.

IYK is a catch-all consumer ETF. Rather than choosing between consumer staples and consumer discretionary firms, the fund provides investors with access to both classes, making it an attractive middle-of-the-road option. Companies comprising the fund's top ten holdings include Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Ford ( F) and Nike ( NKE).

This exposure to consumer discretionary players will come in handy in the event that the markets can regain their footing and head higher.

Not surprising given its wide-net approach to the consumer, IYK's three-month performance falls between that of XRT and XLP.

While turmoil may be in store for the consumer as we move ahead, I would encourage investors to avoid writing off this market segment. By targeting safe corners of the sector it is possible to maintain exposure while reducing risk. Both XLP and IYK are attractive options investors can turn to in order to achieve this goal.

Written by Don Dion in Williamstown, Mass.

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At the time of publication, Dion Money Management owned the iShares Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods Index Fund.

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