Low-volatility funds can still get bumpy

Illustration: Jacob Thomas What to know about new mutual funds and ETFs that aim to deliver a smoother ride.

There’s at least one market that mutual funds know how to time. When anxiety is high, count on fund companies to wheel out products that play into those fears.

Despite the stock market’s recovery since the financial crisis, retail investors are still queasy about stocks. Enter so-called low- or managed-volatility funds, whose numbers have more than doubled to 35 since the start of 2012. They target stocks with a low “beta”; if a stock tends to fall less when the market drops (or rise less when the market soars), it earns a low beta score.

In jittery times, what’s not to like about more-predictable returns? Boosters of the low-vol approach also point to research showing that stocks that bounce up and down less may deliver better long-run performance.

Some caution is in order, however:

“Low” volatility is relative

If a low-volatility moniker reads to you as “low risk,” think again.

These funds aim for low volatility for stock funds — they can still lose plenty. In 2008, when the S&P 500 sank 37%, BlackRock Managed Volatility ISHARES TRUST EDGE MSCI MIN VOL EUROPE ET EFAV -0.29% led the low-vol pack but still lost 27%.

“If the market has peaked, these funds won’t save you,” says Eric Weigel, director of research at the Leuthold Group.

Low-vol isn’t cheap right now

After the financial crisis, investors gravitated to stocks with high dividends in defensive sectors such as utilities, health care, and consumer staples — the same stuff low-volatility funds tend to buy.

“As a result, low-volatility, high-dividend stocks are more expensive than they’ve been in a while,” says Jason Hsu, chief investment officer at Research Affiliates.

The average stock in the SPDR Russell 1000 Low Volatility ETF, for instance, trades at nearly 18 times its earnings, vs. a ratio of 15 for the S&P 500. Bottom line: You can wait.

Focus on value

It certainly can make sense to add stability to your equity mix. You can get that with many value funds, which buy stocks with low prices relative to earnings. Right now, the average value fund holds stocks 31% cheaper than those in growth funds. That discount is wider than it was a year ago.

While not all value funds are low-beta, many are: American Century Equity Income AMERICAN CENTURY EQUITY INCOME INV TWEIX -0.45% sports a three-year beta of 0.66, while American Funds American Mutual AMERICAN FUNDS MUTUAL FUND A AMRMX -0.22% , a MONEY 50 pick, is at 0.75. (A beta of 1 means a fund is as volatile as the market; look up a fund’s beta at Compare that with 0.87 for Nuveen Symphony Low Volatility Equity NUVEEN SYMPHONY LOW VOLATILITY A NOPAX 0% , one of a few low-vol funds around for three years.

Ultimately, it’s the strategy that counts, not the label.

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