Beyond SPY: Nine Alternatives To S&P 500 ETFs

by on April 21, 2010 | Updated April 22, 2010

When ETFs began to make their way into the investing mainstream, almost all products were “plain vanilla” funds linked to well known stock benchmarks, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500. But as the popularity of ETFs has surged, so too has the number of product offerings, with approximately 30 issuers now competing for a slice of a still-growing pie. 

In addition to offering exposure to different asset classes (such as commodities, volatility, and hedge funds), many ETFs now present unique approaches to stock and bond investing by tweaking popular and widely-followed benchmarks. The very first ETF, the S&P 500 SPDR (SPY), remains by far the largest U.S.-listed ETF, reflecting investor familiarity with the underlying benchmark. Between SPY and the iShares S&P 500 Index Fund (IVV), assets in S&P 500 ETFs at the end of March exceeded $100 billion, or about 12% of total ETF assets. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the S&P 500 has inspired numerous spinoff indexes to which various exchange-traded products are linked.

Some increasingly-popular ETFs maintain similar company exposure to the S&P 500, but eschew traditional market capitalization-weighting in favor of alternative methodologies. Others use various quantitative analysis in an attempt to separate the top performing S&P 500 stocks from the laggards of the group. Some even use short positions and hedging strategies to deliver a unique risk/return profile. Below, we profile nine such ETFs and ETNs that put a unique twist on S&P investing:

Ticker 1 Year Gain* Expense Ratio
RWL 60% 0.49%
EPS 51% 0.28%
FEX 64% 0.70%
PJF 42% 0.60%
EQL n/a 0.55%
RSP 73% 0.40%
SPGH n/a 0.85%
CSM n/a 0.95%
DLN 47% 0.28%
SPY 49% 0.09%
*As of March 31, 2010
  • RevenueShares Large Cap ETF (RWL): This ETF is comprised of the same securities as the S&P 500, but ranks each component by top line revenue, not market capitalization, when determining the weighting given to each. As such, RWL will generally overweight stocks with low price-to-revenue multiples and underweight stocks with high price-to-revenue multiples. RWL charges an expense ratio of 0.49%.
  • WisdomTree Earnings 500 Fund (EPS): The cleverly-named EPS tracks the WisdomTree Earnings 500 Index. This index measures the 500 largest market capitalization companies that have generated positive earnings in the past four fiscal quarters. The companies are weighted based upon “core earnings,” a calculation of earnings that includes expenses, income, and activities that reflect the actual profitability of a company’s operations. EPS charges an expense ratio of 0.28%.
  • First Trust Large Cap Core AlphaDEX (FEX): This “enhanced” ETF tracks the Defined Large Cap Core Index. This benchmark is constructed by ranking S&P 500 stocks on a series of growth and value factors, such as price appreciation, sales-to-price, and cash flow-to-price. Stocks receiving the highest weighting are included in the index, with bigger weightings given to the top-ranked equities (read more about enhanced ETFs in this special report).
  • PowerShares Dynamic Large Cap Portfolio (PJF): This ETF tracks the performance of another enhanced benchmark, the Dynamic Large Cap Intellidex Index. The index is designed to identify which stocks, in a certain market segment, have the greatest potential for financial growth. The benchmark analyzes potential component stocks by calculating unique financial characteristics from four broad financial perspectives: fundamental, valuation, timeliness and risk. PJF charges an expense ratio of 0.60%.
  • ALPS Equal Sector Weight ETF (EQL): Like SPY, this ETF offers exposure to the domestic large cap equity market. Unlike SPY, it gives equal exposure to each sector of the economy, investing in equal proportions in all nine of the Select Sector SPDRs. This gives the fund the advantages of diversification, the opportunity to participate in a market rally, and potentially lower exposure to overvalued corners of the market (see Why EQL May Be A Better S&P 500 ETF Than SPY).
  • Rydex S&P Equal Weight ETF (RSP): This ETF follows the performance of the S&P Equal Weight Index, a benchmark that includes all constituents of the S&P 500. As its name suggests, RSP gives an equal weighting to each component, meaning that upon rebalancing all of the 500 stocks in the S&P 500 are given an equal weight of 0.2%. For investors who dislike the tendency of cap weighted benchmarks to overweight overvalued stocks, RSP offers a price blind alternative for large cap exposure.
  • UBS E-TRACS S&P 500 Gold Hedged ETN (SPGH): This fund measures the S&P 500 Gold Hedged Index, a benchmark that simulates the combined returns of investing equal dollar amounts in the S&P 500 Total Return Index and long positions in near-term exchange-traded COMEX gold futures contracts. As such, SPGH provides investors with a hedge against declines in the value of the U.S. dollar relative to gold bullion (read more about the ETN here).
  • ProShares Credit Suisse 130/30 (CSM): This ETF tracks the Credit Suisse 130/30 Large-Cap Index, using a unique strategy by shorting the stocks predicted to perform poorly, and doubling down on those that are expected to outperform. For each stock in the universe, expected alpha scores are calculated to determine the position taken. A portfolio optimization process is used to ensure that the long/short portfolio maintains similar risk characteristics to the long-only large cap universe. The ETF’s name refers to the fact that the portfolio maintains 30% short exposure and 130% long exposure, resulting in a net 100% long position (see more about 130/30 investing here).
  • WisdomTree LargeCap Dividend Fund (DLN): This ETF follows the WisdomTree LargeCap Dividend Index, a fundamentally-weighted benchmark that measures the performance of the large-capitalization segment of the U.S. dividend-paying market. Allocations given to individual stocks are determined based on cash dividends paid. This methodology may create a bias towards value stocks, and concentrates exposure among the biggest dividend-paying firms.

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Jared Cummans contributed to this article.

Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.