It has been a good year for the market in general, but an especially stellar for healthcare stocks. According to data from Morningstar, healthcare mutual funds have returned more than 25% on average, compared to a nearly 17% total return for the S&P 500.
But even if healthcare stocks were right on par or even worse for just a few months in 2013, there’s no denying the sector’s attraction based on its exposure to some powerful megatrends.
At the forefront is simple age. The U.S. population is getting older — there are 78 million baby boomers, and about 10,000 are reaching 65 each day — fueling the need for more medication, more care and more facilities to keep them ticking.
Then you have more specific factors such as obesity, which has reached worrisome levels, impacting more than 35% of the U.S. population. And obesity relates to an assortment of ailments — including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer — so you can imagine just how much money’s at stake for pharma on that front alone.
So, how can you get exposure to healthcare without banking on a few individual companies that might or might not find the next great cure? Mutual funds or ETFs, which cover large swaths of the industry and allow you to hold dozens of companies in a single fund.
Here are three in specific that you should consider:
SPDR Health Care Select Sector Fund
One of the most popular ways of playing the healthcare sector is the SPDR Health Care Select Sector Fund (XLV) — an exchange-traded fund that holds each of the S&P 500’s healthcare operators (right now, that number’s at 57).
The XLV is broken down into several industries — about half the fund is in pharmaceuticals, but it also has significant holdings in healthcare providers and equipment, biotech and even healthcare technology (companies that provide business-specific IT work, for instance). Thus, you have a diverse set of holdings that includes Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), UnitedHealth Group (UNH) and Medtronic (MDT), among others.
One thing to keep in mind, though: The fund is market-cap weighted, which means the largest companies hold more influence over the fund. For instance, one company alone — J&J — makes up more than 13% of XLV. Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer (PFE) and Merck (MRK) constitute 30% of the fund’s weight. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does mean XLV’s performance is heavily skewed by what just a few stocks do.
Past that, performance has been strong, returning 23% for the year and averaging 11.45% annually in the past five years, and XLV currently yields 1.7%.
Expenses are a low 0.18%, or $18 for every $10,000 invested.
Fidelity Advisor Biotechnology
The biotech industry is particularly exciting to investors because it often includes smaller companies that can run off huge returns on just a single product approval. Plus, these companies sometimes become targets for larger pharma players that are having difficulty replenishing their product pipelines through R&D, and thus resort to buyouts instead.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the overall success of the industry is the Fidelity Advisor Biotechnology (FBTAX) fund, which has gained an impressive 36% for the year-to-date, has averaged 12% gains in the past five years and has consistently beaten its benchmark since inception.
Portfolio manager Rajiv Kaul is an expert in the biotech field. He has a deep understanding of the intricacies of the clinical trials process and understands the huge potential of market opportunities. But he also tries to reduce the risk levels by placing some of his focus on companies that already have cash flows from other drugs. This approach has helped minimize losses during volatile times, such as in 2008 when FBTAX only lost 11% — much better than many of its peers.
Current top holdings include larger biotech companies such as Gilead Sciences (GILD), Amgen (AMGN), Celgene (CELG) and Biogen (BIIG).
FBTAX’s A shares cost 1.27% in fees, as well as a maximum sales charge of 5.75%; other share classes’ fees and loads differ.
Vanguard Health Care
Vanguard Health Care (VGHCX) is an interesting pick right now, as the fund must go without longtime manager Edward Owens, who retired at the end of 2012. Owens had been at the helm since 1984 and averaged 16% annually since then, compared to 11% for the S&P 500.
While investors naturally tend to be skeptical when a standout manager leaves, VGHCX should see a smooth transition. New chief Jean Hynes also is a top-notch money manager, starting as an analyst with the fund in 1992 and becoming a co-manager in 2007.
Hynes has performed well this year, leading VGHCX to 23% year-to-date returns. The fund also benefits from an affordable expense ratio of 0.35% on Investor Class shares, as well as a buy-and-hold approach that keeps portfolio turnover to a mere 8%.
The fund is somewhat similar to XLV in its industry breakdowns, though it’s more diverse in its number of holdings (91 to XLV’s 57) and isn’t as top-heavy. Merck is VGHCX’s No. 1 holding at 6%, followed by Amgen, UNH, Forest Laboratories (FRX) and Roche (RHHBY).
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook. He is also the author of High-Profit IPO Strategies, All About Commodities and All About Short Selling. Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.