Exposure to the hard-hit U.S. energy sector, at a low cost

For investors bold enough to venture into this bruised market segment, this ETF is one of the best bargains around.

Robert Goldsborough 23 February, 2016 | 6:00PM
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 Energy Select Sector SPDR (XLE) offers broad, inexpensive exposure to the U.S. energy sector. This exchange-traded fund invests in the 40 oil and gas and energy-services companies found in the S&P 500 and weights its holdings by market capitalization. This includes integrated oil and gas producers, firms that engage in oil and gas exploration and production, companies providing oil and gas equipment and services, and those in the refining and marketing segment of the value chain.

Because of this ETF's industry concentration, it would be most suitable as a satellite holding in a diversified portfolio. Sector SPDR ETFs are among the cheapest and most-liquid sector funds available. Its dirt-cheap 0.14% management-expense ratio is low even by ETF standards.

The top-heavy portfolio is dominated by a pair of heavyweights: vertically integrated supermajors  Exxon Mobil (XOM) and  Chevron (CVX), which together make up more than 35% of XLE's assets. While these two firms represent a large chunk of assets, they operate in a diverse set of businesses across the energy complex.

Energy-market volatility has had a major impact on United States equity-market performance in recent years. That has made this fund far more volatile than the broader market. For example, over the past 10 years, this ETF's standard deviation of returns of 22% is far higher than the 15.1% posted by the S&P 500. And XLE's three-year standard deviation of returns of 17.2% also far eclipses the 10.9% logged by the broad benchmark. Within this fund, some of the greatest volatility can be found in the performance of energy exploration and production firms and oil-services companies such as  Schlumberger (SLB),  Baker Hughes (BHI), and  Halliburton (HAL) (Baker Hughes and Halliburton are in the process of merging). In aggregate, exploration and production firms make up more than one fourth of this ETF's assets.

Over the years, XLE's diversification potential seems to have been eroding. Over the trailing 15-year period, XLE has been 66% correlated with the S&P 500. However, over the trailing 10- and five-year periods, its correlation to the S&P 500 has increased to 72% and 78%, respectively. Still, XLE remains an effective tool for investors seeking an overweighting to the energy sector within a broadly diversified portfolio. Keep in mind that as a U.S. sector fund, XLE does not hold international supermajors such as   BP (BP) or  Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A), nor does it hold any of the Canadian energy stocks that likely account for a large portion of many Canadian investors' holdings, such as  Suncor (SU) and  Canadian Natural Resources (CNQ).

Fundamental view

Energy-price volatility has become the new norm. After years of stagnant oil production, oil supply has risen dramatically, as U.S. producers have continued to bring new supply online, particularly in the Bakken and Eagle Ford Formations, owing largely to new drilling methods, such as hydraulically fractured, tight oil wells. Members of OPEC have responded by staying the course--keeping output steady in an attempt to maintain their market shares. Meanwhile, China's previously strong oil demand has fallen amid a deceleration in economic growth. The upshot is that the world is awash in oil and prices have plummeted. U.S. natural gas prices also have been held low amid abundant supply. This combination of oversupplied oil and gas markets has meant considerable recent pain for the firms found in this ETF, particularly those in the exploration and production space.

There appears to be no such thing as a "steady state" when it comes to commodity prices, and investors shouldn't expect oil and gas markets to remain oversupplied forever. While predicting very short-term commodity-price movements is extremely difficult, Morningstar's equity analysts see no immediate relief to this period of oversupply and in fact take the position that current crude oil prices are well below the levels required to encourage sufficient investment to meet demand beyond 2017. However, for investors taking a medium- or long-term view, there are several potential signs of hope for the energy sector.

First, ailing energy producers in the U.S. are reducing their upstream capital spending again in 2016 as they did in 2015. Lower investment should mean less output, which over time could contribute to a rebalancing of the markets. In addition, less oil-directed drilling activity theoretically could mean lower growth in U.S. natural gas production. And while it's far more difficult to place a probability on such events, a far more immediate impact on energy prices could come from some geopolitical event involving a major oil-producing nation or alternately, Saudi Arabia finally crying uncle and cutting oil production, thus abandoning its ongoing quest to hold market share.

Given that Exxon Mobil makes up such a large portion of this ETF (about 21%) it's worth discussing its outlook. Exxon has distinct and sustainable competitive advantages, as evidenced by the fact that Morningstar's equity analysts award it a wide Economic Moat Rating. Exxon's wide moat comes from its integration of its low-cost upstream and downstream businesses and its low cost of capital. (By contrast, refining operations generally offer no moat, since refiners produce a commodity product in a highly competitive market with no pricing power.) While Exxon responded to the slowdown in energy prices by reducing capital spending, it may need to increase spending within several years to maintain production. In addition, should oil prices remain low for an extended period, Exxon may well need to increase debt to avoid reducing share repurchases and slowing dividend growth.

Alternatives

There are only a handful of ETFs trading in Canada that focus on the energy sector, none of which provide capitalization-weighted exposure to the U.S. sector. Among alternatives that target Canadian energy stocks, the oldest and cheapest is iShares S&P/TSX Capped Energy (XEG), which is much more expensive than its U.S.-traded counterparts with a 0.63% MER. When investing on U.S. markets, ensure that currency conversion costs don't cancel out the benefits of lower fees on U.S. ETFs.

South of the border,  Vanguard Energy ETF (VDE) is better diversified and cheaper than XLE with a 0.10% fee and a 0.01% estimated holding cost. (Estimated holding costs include transaction costs, sampling error, and share-lending revenue.) VDE holds 144 firms.

The pricier  iShares US Energy ETF (IYE) (0.43% expense ratio) holds 81 firms and is very similar to XLE in its concentration and security weightings.

 Fidelity MSCI Energy ETF (FENY) is inexpensive, with a 0.12% fee, but it has fewer assets than competing ETFs, which could make it more expensive to trade. FENY tracks a slightly different index--the MSCI USA IMI Energy Index--while VDE tracks the MSCI US Investable Market Energy 25/50 Index. The indexes are very similar, with nearly identical weighting schemes, similar numbers of holdings and minimal differences in holdings.

VDE and FENY provide more diversification, but are just as top-heavy as XLE. By including smaller energy firms, VDE and FENY have posted slightly higher standard deviations over the past two years than XLE and IYE.

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About Author

Robert Goldsborough

Robert Goldsborough  Robert Goldsborough is an analyst covering equity strategies on Morningstar’s manager research team.

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