Momentum ETFs Still Have Some Momentum

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There has been considerable debate regarding the fate of momentum stocks this year, but the iShares MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF (CBOE: MTUM) is still higher by more than 7% since the start of 2018.

MTUM tracks large- and mid-cap U.S. stocks with relatively high price momentum. The underlying MSCI USA Momentum Index calculates the ratio of each stock’s price returns over the trailing 13 and seven months against volatility over the past three years. Companies are then weighted by their risk-adjusted momentum.

“History reveals this factor is rewarded in times of economic growth—and that support remains firmly in place, we believe,” said BlackRock in a note out Monday. “We expect the global economic expansion to continue through 2018, and see upside to consensus forecasts amid tax cuts and robust government spending in the U.S. The stimulus may hasten (and shorten) the U.S. economic cycle, but we estimate the cycle can power on amid broad global growth—even if domestic overheating pressures pick up in the near term.”

The $7.65 billion MTUM tracks the MSCI USA Momentum Index and holds 124 stocks. Although the ETF is a momentum strategy, that should not imply significantly higher volatility. MTUM's three-year standard deviation of 10.24% is not much higher than the S&P 500's.

“The volatility of the macro environment also matters. We find in our analysis that momentum has outperformed broad indexes in low macro vol regimes and lagged slightly in high macro vol regimes,” said BlackRock. “Our economic regime model indicates we are in a low macro vol regime—and one we believe has staying power. The early-February volatility spike came on the heels of an unusually placid 2017. We do not expect a return to the ultra-calm conditions, nor do we believe this episode represents a shift out of the low-vol regime.”

Since momentum strategies can overweight riskier stocks, the ETF could could underperform during another correction. Since defensive stocks typically do better during volatile conditions, the momentum strategy could load up on conservative picks and miss out on the initial recovery in riskier assets.

“Overall, we see potential for momentum to outperform over the next three to six months absent a deterioration in the economic growth outlook, a significant deceleration in earnings momentum, or a geopolitical crisis that brings into question the bright economic outlook or spoils risk appetite,” according to BlackRock.

For more on Smart Beta ETFs, visit the Smart Beta Channel home page.

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