Play it Safe with These 4 ETFs Your Grandfather Would Love

Todd Shriber's picture

Monday, October 10, 2011 - 9:00am

by Todd Shriber

As an asset class, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have a reputation for volatility. In some ways this reputation is well-deserved. After all, scores of ETFs are of the leveraged variety. These funds add extra juice by delivering double or even triple the daily performance, bullish or bearish, of a given index -- certainly not the type of investment you might find your grandfather holding. And ETFs are constantly in the news, often in a controversial light, whether they're being blamed for the "Flash Crash" of 2010 or the shenanigans of a rogue trader.

Right or wrong, this can be enough to scare more conservative investors away from ETFs. It's a shame, though, because ETFs have a little something for everyone, from the adventurous, active trader to those building a retirement portfolio.

Consider that ETFs usually have much lower fees than mutual funds, and there are myriad funds offering exposure to dividend stocks and conservative sectors. Add the diversity that ETFs carry, and this makes ETFs worth considering for anyone looking to conservatively build a portfolio, for retirement or otherwise. Just have a look at these four ETFs your grandfather would love...

1. Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSE: VIG)
The Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF accomplishes two of the objectives just mentioned: low fees and dividend stocks. The ETF features a scant expense ratio of 0.18%. That's lower than 84% of comparable funds according to Vanguard's website. With $8.8 billion in assets under management, VIG is home to 127 stocks.

And while this isn't a Dow-tracking ETF, nine Dow components line VIG's top-10 holdings, with ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) being the exception. Consumer staples, one of a grandfather's favorite sectors, account for almost quarter of the ETF's sector weight. Fortunately, financials get a weight of just 6.3%.

2. iShares S&P Conservative Allocation Fund (NYSE: AOK)
This ETF's name is everything it implies, though this fund doesn't get a lot of the press it should. The iShares S&P Conservative Allocation Fund is nearly three years old, has almost $69 million in assets under management and a fair expense ratio at just 0.3%. AOK is an ETF fund-of-funds, meaning all of its holdings are other iShares ETFs.

The concept is somewhat unique, though not unheard of in the ETF world. But what granddad really cares about with his investments is being able to sleep at night and earn a steady return. Nearly 82% of AOK's weight is devoted to ETFs that track U.S.-issued bonds, either Treasuries or high-grade corporates. Year-to-date, AOK is flat -- not bad, considering the S&P 500 is off 10%.

3. Utilities Select Sector SPDR (NYSE: XLU)
Younger investors sometimes joke about some obscure utility stock their grandfather left them long ago. Well, utilities stocks are no laughing matter. That's certainly the case now in a low interest-rate environment, which makes utilities' divided yields look more attractive.

If utilities are the epitome of a ''boring is beautiful'' sector, then XLU is the epitome of a ''boring is beautiful'' ETF. It's cheap, with an expense ratio of 0.2%. A yield of 3.9% isn't bad, either. Best of all, XLU is up 5% year-to-date, showing this ETF has no correlation to the S&P 500.

4. Vanguard Health Care ETF (NYSE: VHT)

Another Vanguard fund makes the list, because the third-largest U.S. ETF issuer is home to some of the lowest expense ratios in the ETF arena. In the case of the Vanguard Health Care ETF, the expense ratio of 0.24% is lower than 85% of comparable funds, according to Vanguard's website.

VHT holds 293 stocks, with the top-10 littered with health-care names such as Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT), Merck (NYSE: MRK) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE). However, there is something for the risk-takers here as well. More than 13% of VHT's weight is devoted to biotech stocks.

Risks to Consider: The biggest risk to any member of this list would be a sudden market turn for the better that brought the ''risk on'' trade sentiment back. These ETFs may not suffer in an environment that favors high-beta stocks, but with the exception of VIG, they will probably underperform the broader market.

A risk specific to XLU is that the ETF has performed well in a topsy-turvy market, which could make it vulnerable to at least a small decline in a strong bull market. If there is a bond bubble, and it bursts, then AOK would suffer.

Action to Take-->
The information I give for these ETFs is just to get you started. They're all great low-beta choices, but you should look further into each individual fund to see which one suits your objectives the best. For investors looking for pure equity exposure, VHT makes sense in the current environment because health-care stocks have held up well compared with the broader market. VIG is one to consider as a value play to be bought on pullbacks.

Todd Shriber does not personally hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.
StreetAuthority LLC does not hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.