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Smart Beta: Hate the Term, not the ETFs


In marketing terms, the terminology “smart beta” that is applied to a growing number of exchange traded is nearly as reviled as Coca-Cola’s (KO) now infamous effort to bring “new” Coke to the world in 1985.

Just as soda drinkers were attached to Coke Classic, thereby making new Coke offensive simply because it was, well, new, scores of critics take issue with smart beta ETFs not because of what really matters, namely performance and methodology, but more because of terminology.

“The heart of the controversy comes from the word “smart.” It implies that market-cap-weighted ETFs are dumb. Smart-beta ETFs won’t always outperform the rest,” reports Eric Balchunas for Bloomberg. Balchunas goes on to note that those finding “smart beta” offensive have gone so far as to try to kill the term by introducing new phrases, such as “strategic beta, advanced beta, alternative-weighted, factor-based, non-market-cap weighted or simply strategy funds.”

Morningstar has opted for the term “strategic beta,” which makes sense as many issuers of these non-cap weighted ETFs are doing just that: Applying an element of strategy to passive management that is usually absent from traditional cap-weighted offerings.

Even with the controversy, there is no denying that smart beta ETFs are acquiring supports…and assets. There were 335 such ETFs with nearly $300 billion in combined assets under management at the end of 2013. Smart beta ETFs “contributed a record $65.1bn of inflows in 2013 led by dividend-weighted funds, and nearly doubled the $34.2bn from last year,” said BlackRock. [Flows Show Investors Favoring Smart Beta ETFs]

Some investors and many critics have also inferred that “smart beta” implies an element of newness or lack of track record as far as many of the ETFs sporting the label go. In reality, that is empirically false. Just look at three of the largest purveyors of alternatively-weighted ETFs: Invesco’s (IVZ) PowerShares, WisdomTree (WETF) and First Trust.

Smart beta offerings from PowerShares, such as the wildly popular PowerShares Buyback Achievers Portfolio (PKW) and the PowerShares S&P 500 High Quality Portfolio (SPHQ) have been around since 2005. Many strategic beta offerings from WisdomTree data back to mid-2006 while the first members of First Trust’s AlphaDEX lineup started appearing in 2007.

Despite the debate over what to call these ETFs, what cannot be assailed is their increasing prominence in the ETF universe. Institutional investors are increasing their adoption of alternatively weighted or factor-based exchange traded funds, according to a survey released by Russell Investment’s in April. [Russell Says More Institutions Using Smart Beta ETFs]