Tag: ETF

ETFs for Asset Allocation

Building blocks for a diversified portfolio

Over the last few years, most brokers in the US have started offering no-frills accounts with zero-brokerage and fractional shares. However, new investors who are just getting started are either over-served by advisors or under-served by social media. In this post, we list out ETFs that every investor should be aware of if they are interesting in building a diversified portfolio.

We filtered for

  • Assets under management (AUM) – larger the better

  • Cost (expense ratio) – lower the better

  • Liquidity and popularity – higher the better

We cover equities, bonds, real-estate and commodities across the US, DM (Developed Markets) and EM (Emerging Markets.)


The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund ETF is a $250 billion whale of a fund that is probably the only equity ETF a small-ticket first-time investor should consider.

Covering the entire US equity market, it is as passive as they come. With an expense ratio of 3bps (you pay $3 for every $10,000 investment,) it is the cheapest as well.

ETF, Vanguard


The iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF is one of the largest bond ETFs on the planet with $90 billion in assets. It has everything from treasuries, agencies, CMBS and ABS to investment-grade corporates. You pay 4bps for the privilege.

Split your funds 60% into VTI and 40% into AGG and you basically have a portfolio that has traditionally outperformed 99% of the hedge funds out there.

ETF, iShares

With the Big Two out of the way, if you still have some risk appetite and time on your hands, you can reach out for more returns (potentially.)


The Schwab International Equity ETF tracks all Developed Markets other than the US. With an AUM of $27 billion and an expense ratio of 6bps, it is a decent equity fund if you feel that US stocks are over valued.

Its largest exposure is to Japanese stocks followed by British, France, Germany, Canada and Switzerland. Unlike some other funds in this space, it also includes South Korea.

One caveat though, the fund is not currency hedged. The topic of buying hedged vs. unhedged ETFs is a topic that we will not get into right now. Suffice to say that hedging is not free – it is a price you pay to insulate yourself from fluctuations and you should weigh the cost vs. its benefits over your investment time horizon.

ETF, Schwab


The Vanguard Total International Bond ETF provides exposure to Developed Market (ex-US) investment-grade government and corporate bonds. It is a monster of a fund with $136 billion in assets. An 8bps expense ratio is a wonderful bargain.

The fund is currency hedged.

ETF, Vanguard

We are not fans big fans of EM/FM (Emerging/Frontier Markets) investing from the US through ETFs. In the recent past, these markets have only been a source of risk and not returns. Gains in local currencies, when converted to US Dollars, haven’t compensated for the additional risk. However, for investors who believe that the future is going to be different, these ETFs are worth considering.


The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF is perhaps the largest in this space. $32 billion in AUM and a 70bps expense ratio, it is the go-to ETF for EM investors.

However, the wrinkle is that Hong Kong and China form more than 37% of the portfolio. For investors worried about geopolitical risk, this may be a point of concern. This is where EMXC comes in.

The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ex China ETF is a minnow by comparison (less than $1 billion in AUM) but it doesn’t include China and Hong Kong, making it palatable. However, there’s another wrinkle while investing in EM – some of those countries are ruled by despots. What if you want to invest in EMs that are democratic and respect personal freedom? Enter FRDM.

The Freedom 100 Emerging Markets ETF tracks the Life + Liberty Freedom 100 Emerging Markets Index. The Index is a freedom-weighted EM equity strategy that uses human and economic freedom metrics as primary factors in the investment selection process. And this means excluding China, Hong Kong and India – 3 of the largest markets in EM.

ETF, iShares


The iShares JP Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF an index of US-dollar-denominated sovereign debt issued by EM countries. It holds USD-denominated rather than local-currency debt. This eliminates direct currency risk for US investors. With $20 billion in AUM and an expense ratio of 39bps, its an attractive fund for investors looking to diversify into EM bonds.

ETF, iShares

Now that we have equities and bonds out the way, lets look at real estate. A REIT is a publicly traded security that invests in real estate through properties or mortgages. For the most part, in the past, their returns were correlated to interest rates. From investopedia: In a study done by the S&P, which analyzed six periods beginning in the 1970s where the yield of the 10-year Treasury grew significantly, of these six periods of interest rate increases, REIT returns increased during four of them.


VNQ, The Vanguard Real Estate ETF has about $75 billion in AUM and charges 12bps. It captures much of the US real estate market.

VNQI, Vanguard Global ex-U.S. Real Estate ETF has about $5 billion in assets and an order-of-magnitude larger than the closest alternative. It contains property companies from both developed and emerging countries, excluding the United States. Japan, China and Hong Kong are the top three geographies where it invests. Like with any other EM/FM investments, caveat emptor!

Some investors view gold as a tail-risk and inflation hedge and some prefer to add commodities to their portfolio to ride on emerging market demand. While it is debatable whether these assets live up to their expectations in the future, there have been lengthy stretches in the past where gold and commodities have outperformed other asset classes.


GLD tracks the gold spot price, less expenses and liabilities, using gold bars held in London vaults. With about $65 billion in management and 40bps in expense ratio, its probably the best way to add exposure to the yellow metal in your portfolio.

PDBC holds a diverse basket of futures contracts on 14 commodities across the energy, precious metals, industrial metals and agriculture sectors. Has about $6 billion in AUM and its 59bps expense ratio is a bargain compare to the effort involved in actively managing a futures portfolio in a tax-efficient manner.

There are over 2500 ETFs listed in various US stock exchanges. We hope that our short list of 12 ETFs above helps investors get started. Do watch the discussion below:

Already have a basic portfolio and looking for quantitative strategies on US stocks and ETFs? Head over to freefloat.us

Does the tail-end add value?

A wise man once said, the decision to go passive is a very active one.

At first, going passive meant buying and holding a broad-based index fund. But that was over 40 years ago. Since then, in the US, the market has evolved and the number of indices, index funds and ETFs have exploded. Think of a theme, strategy, asset class, market or geography, there is an ETF for that.

As of today, there are 2,319 ETFs in the US. And given the intense competition over the last decade, fees have been driven to single-digit basis-points in most cases. Given this fee pressure, US based issuers looked east and landed on Europe a couple of years ago. And there too, competition quickly reduced fees and expanded access.

The next big virgin market is India.

Given this back drop and the small but increasing interest in passive indexing, if a DIY investor wishes to just buy and hold a market-cap based index, which one should she buy?

The most practical choices boil down to NIFTY 50, NIFTY NEXT 50 (collectively forming the NIFTY 100) and the NIFTY 500 indices.

Given the fee differentials between the NIFTY 100 and NIFTY 500 based ETFs/funds, the big question to ask is: Is there any advantage of reaching below the 100 mark? Is 100 enough?

Market-caps follow a power-law. For NIFTY 100, 80% of the index is covered by the top 35 stocks and for NIFTY 500, the number is 82. So unless the rest of the stocks in the index deviate to an extreme degree in terms of total returns (change in price + dividends,) the top 35/80 stocks power most of the returns.

Cumulative Returns
Annual Returns

So, the answer is No. Unless NIFTY 500 based ETFs/funds achieve fee and liquidity parity with the NIFTY 100 based ones, investors are not missing out on anything by sticking with the mega-caps.

Check out the goodies on pluto. Questions? Slack me!

SMA Strategy Transaction Cost Analysis

In our previous blog post on using SMAs to trade ETFs (SMA Strategies using ETFs,) we saw how using SMAs reduced drawdowns and boosted returns. We also saw how our Tactical Midcap 100 Theme out-performed mid-cap mutual funds even after taking into account STT and brokerage costs. Given the increased interest in our newly launched Tactical Midcap 150 Theme, we added transaction cost analysis to our backtests to give investors an idea of what gross and net returns of different SMA look-backs look like over buy and hold.

Annualized Returns

SMA Strategy Transaction Cost Analysis
transaction cost = 0.2%


1) SMA strategies on the NIFTY 50 index do not produce excess returns over buy-and-hold. However, the 200-day SMA did keep an investor out of the worst of the 2008 drawdown at a reasonable cost.

2) For other indices, perhaps counter-intuitively, 20-day SMA beat 10-day SMA both in Gross and Net returns.

3) SMA strategies will under-perform buy-and-hold when markets are generally trending up. However, they will out-perform when markets turn negative.
NIFTY MIDCAP 150 TR.20.cumulative
NIFTY MIDCAP 150 TR-20.annual

The RETFMID150 ETF tracking the NIFTY MIDCAP 150 index, continues to be well traded on the NSE. You can access the SMA(20) strategy shown above through our Tactical Midcap 150 Theme.

Code and additional charts on github.

What is the right benchmark for funds owning US equities?

Some funds, the Parag Parikh Long Term Equity, for example, have a carve out for international (primarily US) equities. From a tax perspective, if a fund owns at least 65% of its portfolio in Indian stocks, it is treated as “Indian Equity Fund” for taxation – 15% short-term gains and 10% long-term gains (if held beyond one year). Otherwise, short-term gains (if held for less than 3-years) are added to your income and taxed at your marginal rate. So there is some advantage in packaging US stocks inside a an Indian equity fund. However, what is the appropriate benchmark in this case?

The PP-LTE Fund benchmarks against the NIFTY 500 TR index. But based on its portfolio, it should ideally be benchmarked against a 65/35 Indian Midcap/US Large Cap index. If you construct an Index with the M100 ETF making 65% of the portfolio and the rest allocated to the SPY ETF (tracking the S&P 500 index,) you will get an idea of the fund’s alpha/excess returns.

Parag Parikh Long Term Equity vs. 65/35 M100/SPY:

If you rebalance the 65/35 monthly, the LTE Fund’s annualized returns are 16.47% (Reg.) and 17.10% (Dir.) vs. the 65/35’s 15.30%. That’s excess returns of 1.8% for the direct plan, delivered to investors in a tax efficient manner, after all costs have been factored in. Another way to look at this is that even if the present management is replaced and investors do not have faith in the new one, they can just replace the fund with two ETFs and get almost to the same place.

Code and charts on github.

Most investors would be better off indexing

If you had invested in this fund in April 2006, would you still be invested in it?

Between 2006-04-03 and 2019-03-08 (13-years), SBI Magnum MIDCAP FUND – REGULAR PLAN – GROWTH has returned a cumulative 268.66% vs. NIFTY MIDCAP 100 TR’s cumulative return of 321.39%. Annualized returns are 10.96% and 11.96%, respectively.

A point of out-performance, a gallon of pain:

Between 2008-01-01 and 2013-01-01 (5-years), SBI Magnum MIDCAP FUND – REGULAR PLAN – GROWTH has returned a cumulative -27.09% vs. NIFTY MIDCAP 100 TR’s cumulative return of -1.54%. Annualized returns are -6.34% and -0.31%, respectively.

When it comes to discretionary active management, the problems are many:

  1. There are over 40 asset management companies. Almost all of them have a midcap fund. Almost all of them claim to be “value” investors.
  2. Value, as described in Graham And Dodd, cannot scale to the 10’s of thousands of crores that these funds collectively manage.
  3. So almost all funds are, at best, index plus a value and/or GARP and/or quality tilt.
  4. And occasionally, fund managers blow it. They hop over to other funds. Or retire.
  5. And occasionally, the investing style goes through a bad patch.
  6. And usually, the business of fund management (accumulating assets) wins over the profession of fund management (superior risk adjusted returns.)

There is no way that any investor can dodge all these minefields. So, the risk that a mutual fund investor takes = market risk + manager risk + style risk + capacity risk.

Investors should primarily allocate to index funds (take only market risk.) Actively managed discretionary mutual funds should be a niche.