Investors nowadays have one heck of a toolbelt to work with, thanks to the Internet, which provides us with a steady stream of stock information, technical analysis, analyst opinions and more.
But once in a while, a great investment idea comes from just taking a moment to look around and smell the roses.
For instance, investors in the late 70s and early 80s who got an early look at a PC and thought to themselves, “Every house in America is going to have one of these!” might have decided that up-and-coming players in the computer world were the place to put their funds. And those who did pour their cash into shares of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Microsoft (NADSAQ:MSFT), among others, watched their investments flourish down the road.
Today, investing in specific trends and themes has been made even easier by the proliferation of exchange-traded funds, which now cover almost every niche flavor you can imagine. Granted, a number of these funds are absolute stinkers — the past few months have seen the end of a fishing ETF and a waste management ETF, for instance. But the following three ETFs play to trends that look awfully attractive going forward:
Market Vectors Semiconductor ETF
InvestorPlace Editor Jeff Reeves aptly summed up the future of semiconductors in a recent article about the benefits of Intel (NASDAQ:INTC):
“After all, chips are in everything from toasters to lawnmowers these days — and demand is growing all the time.… And though I am reluctant to make any assumptions about the world my two girls will live in a few decades from now, I am certain computer chips will be even more ubiquitous than they are today.”
Anyone care to argue? I sure don’t. Semiconductors eventually will be in everything — even us, some conspiracy theorists would contend.
However, holding INTC on its own means worrying about Intel’s weakness in mobile, company-specific supply problems and anything else that might pop up. Similar concerns will accompany any single chip stock. But Van Eck’s Market Vectors Semiconductor ETF (NYSE:SMH) is a much broader play on the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle, bundling some of the biggest U.S.-listed semiconductor names, including Intel, Texas Instruments (NASDAQ:TXN), Broadcom (NASDAQ:BRCM), Micron (NASDAQ:MU) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD).
In fairness, with only 25 holdings — including an almost 20% weighting for INTC — it’s not nearly as diversified as the SPDR S&P Semiconductor ETF (NYSE:XSD), which is much more balanced and has 48 holdings. And having just launched in December 2012, Market Vectors’ fund is considerably greener than the 6-year-old XSD. Year-to-date, SMH is up 16% to XSD’s 10%, though they’ve swapped places several times so far in 2012. Expense ratios also are a wash, too, as both charge 0.35%.
However, I’m giving the nod to SMH because it already has $420 million in assets under management, almost 10 times XSD’s, and is far more liquid.
First Trust ISE Cloud Computing Index Fund
About those semiconductors… For all the talk of toasters, they’re still the horses helping to power the PCs, tablets and smartphones that increasingly are accessing the “cloud.” In short, cloud computing involves using remote servers (usually via the Internet) for everything from raw storage, computing software and games to technical support and customer service.
For instance: Most people are familiar with Microsoft’s Office suite. Well, Office 365 is a cloud subscription service that allows you to use programs like Word and Excel over the Internet from various locations, and also includes other features like document sharing and online meetings.
This technology is rapidly replacing traditional software both in the home and in the workplace. Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) says the global cloud will see a 66% compound annual growth rate through 2015. A recent Netscribes report said China’s cloud computing market will grow 77.5% annually in the same period. A bevy of other reports list different figures, but all point up — way up.
For 0.6% in expenses, the First Trust ISE Cloud Computing Index Fund (NASDAQ:SKYY) offers exposure to a number of pure-play cloud companies, including Rackspace Hosting (NYSE:RAX), Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM) and NetApp (NASDAQ:NTAP). However, SKYY also holds traditional software companies like Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) and SAP (NYSE:SAP) that are moving into cloud services, and it even lumps in tech giants such as Apple and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), which are more well-known for their respective gadgets and e-commerce services, but also provide cloud services.
Of these three funds, SKYY is the least-focused play, but considering that the spillover brings tech giants like Apple, Amazon and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) under the umbrella — helping it to impressive 20% YTD gains — investors should keep that worry to a minimum.
Market Vectors Gaming ETF
Without delving into the moral case here, investors should love addiction. Just ask anyone who owns tobacco stocks.
Similarly, addiction is what helps make gaming stocks — fueled by a steady stream of people who can’t tear themselves away from the slots, not to mention interest from those who can game a little more responsibly — so attractive.
Plus, casinos are growing like weeds because governments in the U.S. and abroad are desperate for ways to bolster the bottom line and want to keep gambling revenues inside their own borders.
China’s gargantuan Macau gaming hub just saw revenues skyrocket 24% in March. Back home, Nevada casinos watched their gaming revenues grow about 6% — the state’s fifth consecutive month of increases — and the lesser-discussed New York gambling scene popped with 29% year-over-year revenue gains. Struggling Japan, tired of watching its citizens spend their entertainment yen abroad, is considering finally legalizing gambling. And Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson even sees potential to turn debt-addled Spain into an eventual European gaming mecca.
All this makes the Market Vectors Gaming ETF (NYSE:BJK) look like a fruitful bet. Naturally, it carries all the big Vegas/Macau players — LVS, Melco Crown Entertainment (NASDAQ:MPEL), Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN) and MGM Resorts (NYSE:MGM). But BJK also holds gaming suppliers, which stand to gain as even private casino operators juice up their operations.
For instance, BJK has a 3% weighting in International Game Technology (NYSE:IGT), which not only designs, makes and distributes slots and other gaming machines, but also is building up a mobile gambling portfolio of games available on the Apple iOS and Google Android operating systems.
Another bonus: BJK is far less volatile than even many of its largest-cap holdings, so persistently watchful investors won’t have to deal with the day-to-day agita the gaming sector tends to provide.
Market Vectors Gaming charges a reasonable 0.65% in expenses. Total assets under management are just about $80 million, though those select few already smart enough to be in BJK have enjoyed 22% returns in 2012 — double the S&P 500.
Kyle Woodley is the assistant editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter at @KyleWoodley.