Low Volatility Stocks Post The Only 2018 Gain For US Equity Factors

And then there was one. With just two trading sessions left for 2018, low volatility is alone for posting a year-to-date gain among the major US equity factors, based on a set of ETFs.

The iShares Edge MSCI Minimum Volatility USA (USMV) is up fractionally for the year through yesterday’s close (Dec. 27). The fund’s 0.6% total return is effectively a flat performance, but even this spare gain compares rather well against the rest of the field, which is under water in varying degrees for 2018.

The biggest year-to-date setback for the main US equity factors is in small-cap value stocks: iShares Core S&P Small-Cap (IJR) has lost a hefty 13.8% so far this year.

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By James Picerno

The prevalence of red ink across most of the equity factor scorecard is understandable, given the negative tailwind for equity beta generally. Indeed, the US stock market overall is suffering this year, based on the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY), which is down 5.3% year to date on a total-return basis.

Although nearly every corner of the US stock market is struggling as the year comes to a close, the breadth of the performance gap at the extremes of the factor horse race is striking. All the more so when you consider that small-cap value had been outperforming low volatility this year by a wide margin as recently as late-August. The subsequent reversal of fortune, however, has been swift and deep, providing low vol with a wide 14 percentage-point performance edge over small-cap value in 2018, as of yesterday’s close.

Despite low vol’s relatively strong performance vs. small-cap value and other slices of US equity factors, the technical profile for iShares Edge MSCI Minimum Volatility USA (USMV) doesn’t look particularly encouraging at the moment. A key question for the ETF in early 2019: will the 50-day moving average for USMV succumb to gravity and fall below the 200-day average? So far, that trend indicator has remained bullish, but with the rest of the market under pressure it’s open for debate if USMV can continue to buck the trend in the new year.

Meanwhile, investors looking for a contrarian play will be watching IJS in 2019 for hints that the worst has passed. It’s not yet obvious that the point of maximum capitulation has arrived, but after months of pummeling it’s a safe bet that small-cap value deserves to be on the short list for a possible rebound on the assumption that reversion to the mean will kick in at some point.