With coupon rates on risk-free government bonds yielding only 2% these days, investors have gone gaga for dividend-focused exchange-traded funds. More than $6.1 billion in new funds flooded dividend ETFs during the first quarter, according to S&P Capital IQ, and total assets under management in such vehicles now sits at a record $68.5 billion!
So clearly, investors’ appetite for income must be satiated by now, right?
Well, at the very least, FlexShares — the ETF unit of high-net-worth bank Northern Trust (NASDAQ:NTRS) — doesn’t think so, and has launched three new dividend-focused equity funds as a bet that it’s right.
The trio of new funds — the FlexShares International Quality Dividend Index Fund (NYSE:IQDF), FlexShares International Quality Dividend Dynamic Index Fund (NYSE:IQDY) and FlexShares International Quality Dividend Defensive Index Fund (NYSE:IQDE) — began trading this past Tuesday, and offer investors another few ways to gain income exposure.
But do they really add anything different and improved to the portfolio?
Pick Your Risk
With nearly $11.16 billion plunked into the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (NYSE:SDY) and $5.4 billion in the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (NYSE:VYM), investors have loudly voted with dollars as to which ETFs they prefer in this space. And that doesn’t even include the other billion-dollar funds from Vanguard, State Street (NYSE:STT) and BlackRock‘s (NYSE:BLK) iShares. So why would another firm think it could make waves with a relatively simple and common strategy of investing in high-quality equities that pay dividends?
The devil might be in the details.
The new FlexShares funds are part of a new breed of dynamic indexing. These intelligent index products track baskets of stocks based on various fundamental factors. These can include measures of profitability, cash flows, earnings and even volatility to create the underlying basket of stocks. The basic idea is that by using non-traditional weights or factors, these dynamic indices will outperform “standard” measurements — like the S&P 500 — on a risk-adjusted basis.
The three funds are all designed to provide exposure to the long-term growth potential of international equities and deliver dividend income. The “Quality” jargon in the funds’ names means that a screening process will select stocks based on expected dividend payments and three fundamental factors: profitability, solid management and reliable cash flows. “Dynamic” and “Defensive,” meanwhile, refer to measures of volatility. “Dynamic” will showcase firms with volatility above the respective “Quality” index, and “Defensive” will be below.
More simply put: It essentially allows you to “pick your risk profile” when compared to the index. Want more risk? Choose the Dynamic IQDY. Want less? IQDE is for you. Want to match the market? IQDF is for you.
Breaking Down the Funds
All three funds will charge 0.47% in expenses a year — that’s not much, and comparable to other international dividend ETFs. For example, the $2 billion iShares Dow Jones International Select Dividend ETF (NYSE:IDV) charges 0.5%.
However, aside from the slightly cheaper expense ratio, there isn’t much else to be had.
All three funds have roughly the same number of holdings between 215 and 217. More importantly, the three ETFs — despite their different “intelligent” indices — feature many of the same stocks within their top 10 holdings.
All count the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (PINK:CMWAY), British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI), Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A, RDS.B) and AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) in their top 10 holdings — interestingly, all are found in the top holdings of iShares’ IDV as well.
Given the similarities, I’m not sure what investors are truly gaining by shifting into the “Dynamic” or “Defensive” funds — especially since FlexShares hasn’t provided any back-testing or hypothetical yield information on its website. This could help explain why the U.S. equities-focused versions of these funds launched back in December — the FlexShares Quality Dividend Dynamic Index Fund (NYSE:QDYN) and FlexShares Quality Dividend Defensive Index Fund (NYSE:QDEF) — haven’t really caught on with investors. Based on their yield information, the two styles only provide a few tenths of a percentage point more in yield over their base “Quality” index.
All in all, the trio of funds have some work to do.
Skip It For Now
Northern Trust is no stranger to the ETF business and currently has about $4.69 billion in assets in the FlexShares line of funds. Given some of its other innovative and popular products, I’m surprised by this launch. Overall, the new funds — along with their U.S.-focused twins — fall flat on the dividend ETF front.
While it’s too early to tell just how effective the funds will be, at first glance, investors looking for international dividends might be better suited in the IDV or the SPDR S&P International Dividend (NYSE:DWX). Both have solid operating histories, trading volumes and similar expense ratios.
I would skip the new ones until they can prove themselves to investors.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt was long RDS.A and RDS.B.