3 'Tweaks' to Fortify Your ETF Portfolio

NEW YORK (ETF Expert) -- Extraordinary rallies off bear market bottoms are typical. Bullish run-ups in March 2003 and March 2009 registered enviable unrealized gains of 35% and 65% respectively; each advance experienced little resistance for roughly nine to 10 months.

Powerful moves off minor corrections are less typical, if not downright suspicious. Since mid-November, investors in the S&P 500 SPDR Trust ( SPY) have witnessed a soothing 22% ride to all-time highs.

In the last quarter century, you could probably count the number of times on your hand when U.S. stocks traveled a similar vertical trajectory for more than a half year without a significant hitch or pullback.

Regardless of whether current valuations are reasonable, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the slope of the movement. For example, equities have outshined comparable bonds by nearly 7% over the last four weeks -- a feat that is particularly flashy for the previous two years. Similarly, several high-yield bond (a.k.a. "junk") indices show a modest 2.6% in additional yield over comparable Treasury-bond funds; the spread is more reasonable when it is greater than 3% (300 basis points).

It follows that sensible ETF enthusiasts might consider "tweaking" their holdings. Here are three moves that would lower portfolio risk, yet maintain a desirable level of reward for that risk:

1. Lower the Average Maturity of Your High-Yield Bond ETF. Both iShares High Yield Corporate ( HYG) as well as SPDR High Yield Bond ( JNK) have been terrific in the modern era of quantitative easing; both of these vehicles hold corporate bonds with average maturities in the sweet spot of the Federal Reserve's bond-buying program (i.e., seven years).

On the other hand, the Fed is beginning to hedge its public statements such that ... perhaps the central bank will begin to taper the money printing and subsequent bond purchasing. Although I don't believe that this will actually be the case in 2013, it is certainly possible. And if the Fed does begin to taper, one should expect intermediate- and longer-term Treasury yields to rise, pressuring comparable high-yield corporate bonds.

The answer? Reduce HYG and JNK exposure, downshifting into PIMCO 0-5 Year High Yield ( HYS) or SPDR Barclay Short-Term High Yield ( SJNK). The annual dividend yields that are paid out monthly are only slightly less than the big brothers, but one would have less concern with respect to significant capital depreciation.

2. Shift Away from an All-Market-Cap Weighted Portfolio. If you have invested in the ever-popular SPDR S&P 400 Mid Cap ( MDY), you may have a great deal to crow about over the last 12 months. Owners of MDY have 27% unrealized profits on a year-over-year basis.

However, as the bull market rally has strengthened, a number of savvy individuals have started to shift their attention to funds that track different types of indexes. For instance, WisdomTree Mid Cap Dividend Fund ( DON) tracks a fundamentally weighted index that measures the performance of mid-caps of the U.S. dividend-paying equities. Dividend stocks tend to hold up better in down markets as well as sideways markets because fewer people sell their income-producers. What's more, the relative strength of DON over MDY has increased in recent weeks.

3. Disregard Sector Rotation Hype by Adding to Your Defensive Equity ETFs. It's as though some analysts are getting cocky about the state of market affairs. While noting that defensive noncyclical stock sectors (e.g., consumer staples, health care, telecom, etc.) have been the best performers between the year's inception and April 15, a better-than-anticipated showing by cyclical segments, (e.g., energy, industrials, materials, etc.) in the last month have many declaring that a rotation into economically sensitive sectors is underway.

The problem with the hype is twofold. For one thing, even the best bull markets take breathers. When that happens, the cyclical sectors are almost certain to take a bigger shot to the jaw then staples-heavy funds like WisdomTree Equity Income ( DHS) or health-care dominant iShares High Dividend Equity ( HDV). Second, the Relative Strength Factor (RSF) scores for various segments across the last 10 weeks demonstrate that traditionally defensive segments have been increasing their momentum scores whereas the economically aggressive sector ETFs have been fading.
You’re Going To Buy The Aggressive Risk Sectors Now?
RSF Score 02/14 RSF Score 05/13
Aggressive (Cyclical)
SPDR Select Financials (XLF) 89.7 88.5
SPDR Select Industrials (XLI) 72.0 64.3
SPDR Select Energy (XLE) 71.9 51.7
SPDR Select Materials (XLB) 59.2 49.5
Defensive (Non-Cyclical)
SPDR Select Health Care (XLV) 75.9 90.4
SPDR Select Consumer Staples (XLP) 58.1 75.5
Vanguard Telecom (VOX) 49.4 79.4
SPDR Select Utilities (XLU) 37.9 52.8

To the extent that you've been persuaded that now is the time to jump into manufacturing-oriented materials or global-growth oriented energy, rethink the premise. Then consider lightening up your portfolio's exposure. In contrast, if you require more stocks in your basket, be patient for a pullback on the defensive segments. I like iShares High Dividend Equity ( HDV) with its dividend-plentiful pharmaceutical companies and global telecom giants. Personally, I would probably wait for a pullback to the 50-day trend line.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Disclosure Statement: ETF Expert is a website that makes the world of ETFs easier to understand. Gary Gordon, Pacific Park Financial and/or its clients may hold positions in ETFs, mutual funds and investment assets mentioned. The commentary does not constitute individualized investment advice. The opinions offered are not personalized recommendations to buy, sell or hold securities. At times, issuers of exchange-traded products compensate Pacific Park Financial or its subsidiaries for advertising at the ETF Expert website. ETF Expert content is created independently of any advertising relationships. You may review additional ETF Expert at the site.

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