The love affair with exchange-traded funds that attempt to diminish stock market volatility has been quite a fling. 

So far this year, the iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol USA ETF (USMV) has attracted $12.2 billion, making it among the top ETFs in asset flows. It’s a record intake for factor-focused ETFs. Moreover, it puts USMV right alongside elite asset gathering ETFs like the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) and iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV). Will it last?   

For context, there are almost 800 factor investing ETFs with more than $1 trillion in total assets. Factor funds invest in securities that are built to emphasize certain characteristics like growth, value or yield. And among this group, ETFs that try to reduce market volatility while still remaining fully invested are wildly popular. 

The previously mentioned USMV dominates the “low-vol” category with $36.8 billion in assets. The next closest competitors are the iShares Edge MSCI Min Vol ETF EAFE (EFAV) with $12.9 billion and the Invesco S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF (SPLV) with $12 billion. Altogether, low-volatility ETFs have amassed just shy of $85 billion in combined assets.

Oddly enough, a lack of volatility is a contributing factor to the success of low-vol ETFs.

The CBOE S&P 500 VIX index, for example, has fallen almost 40% this year. And because volatility is inversely correlated (most of the time, but not always) with stock prices, it has pushed stock returns through the roof. The Schwab U.S. Broad Market ETF (SCHB) has soared 28% year-to-date, which is nothing short of a colossal move for a broad-market index fund. 

The CNN Fear and Greed Index, which uses seven factors to measure the mood of stock market participants on a scale from 0 (extreme fear) to 100 (extreme greed), is currently at 75—that's still in "extreme greed" territory. A year ago it was at 11, or "extreme fear."  

Even when stock prices aren’t falling, investors are worried about stock prices falling. And the incurable obsession with reducing real or perceived market risk has benefited low-vol ETFs. The idea that a person can remain fully invested in stocks by betting on companies not prone to violent or wild moves is attractive.

The other thing that’s soothing low-vol investors are strong returns. USMV and SPLV have climbed 25.5% and 25% this year, respectively. That compares quite favorably to unhedged broad market ETFs which have registered year-to-date gains of just one of two percentage points more.

It’s been said “the only bubbles Wall Street ever sees are the bubbles in its champagne glasses.” And while we’re not saying there’s a bubble in low-vol ETFs, there are definitely caveats.

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