(Dow Jones) A new commodity exchange-traded fund carries an endorsement from a high-profile name from academia. But its complex mechanics and scanty track record means potential buyers will want to study it very carefully.
Commodities have been taking a role in more portfolios as investors come to believe that a sliver of exposure to assets like gold and oil can smooth out investment returns. More than $8 billion has poured into broad-based commodity ETFs since they first appeared in 2006. Even more money has gone into ETFs that track single commodities like gold and broad-based actively managed funds like the Pimco Commodity Real Return fund.
Now SummerHaven Investment Managament LLC is trying to get into the game with a new ETF, U.S. Commodity Index Fund (USCI). The firm's partners include Yale Management School Professor Geert Rouwenhorst, whose research helped spur small investor interest in commodities.
The fund's pitch: Its computer-driven investment strategy favors commodities with low inventories, which are more prone to price spikes, and thus will produce better returns than conventional commodity indexes whose holdings reflect production or trading volumes.
The fund seeks out 14 different commodities each month based on dynamics which hint at inventory levels-relative prices between near- and far-dated futures contracts and one-year price momentum. It works with a roster of 27 possible options, ranging from crude oil to live cattle to soybeans. Once chosen, the commodities are held in equal amounts, with exposure to futures contracts tied to each commodity making up 7.14% of the fund.
According to the fund's prospectus, an investor that followed its proposed strategy during the 10 years leading up to June 30 would have earned eye-popping average annual returns of more than 20%, compared to about 7% for the S&P GSCI, a popular commodity benchmark. The figures are hypothetical and calculated with the benefit of hindsight, so they should be taken with a big grain of salt.
One upshot of the SummerHaven strategy is that it's likely to place less emphasis on energy and more emphasis on precious metals than production-oriented benchmarks do. The iPath S&P GSCI Total Return Index ETN (GSP) has about 70% of its value tied to oil, heating oil, unleaded gas, and natural gas, with only about 3% tied to gold and silver. The new SummerHaven ETF has about 14% invested in energy and 14% in gold and silver.
As they have grown, other commodity funds have run into controversy over whether they are too large to operate in certain commodity markets. SummerHaven's decision to spread the fund's holdings among 14 different commodities will probably ensure the fund remains a bit player in larger, more liquid commodity futures markets. But it could eventually mean a big role in some smaller ones if the fund catches on.
For instance, average daily trading volume for tin is about $180 million; for feeder cattle it's about $340 million. If the new ETF grew to be $1 billion, its position in these commodities markets could amount to about $70 million. Still, SummerHaven says it would have no problem moving in and out of these markets, which index rules give it four days to accomplish. The company says it could also use swaps contracts instead of futures, if that proved more convenient.
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