Guide to Interest Rate Hikes and ETFs: 4 Ways to Play

Amid spiraling woes, the China-led global deceleration fear in particular, the question that Wall Street is raising is whether the Fed will finally raise the first interest rates in almost a decade later this month. While the recent global rout could put a pause on the September lift-off, a series of upbeat data on the domestic front is supporting the prospect of a rates hike.

Data Supportive of Rates Hike

The U.S. economy is on a firmer footing, having expanded 3.7% in the second quarter. The number is well above the initial reading of 2.3% and 0.6% growth in the first quarter, suggesting that the U.S. could easily withstand the China turmoil and global growth worries. Trade gap narrowed 7.4% from June to $41.9 billion in July, the smallest since February. Exports rose 0.4% amid a strong dollar and weakness in major trading partners such as China and Europe (read: Rate Hike Fears Rise, Time for Taper ETF? ).

Consumer credit has been on the rise over the past four years, a sign of confidence amid low gas prices and steady job creation. Further, the housing market has been firing all cylinders thanks to soaring demand for new and rented homes, rising wages, accelerating job growth, affordable mortgage rates and of course increasing consumer confidence. The August job data, which is the most important indicator of the Fed policy, has been mixed.

Though the U.S. added fewer-than-expected jobs tallying 173,000 in August, the drop in the unemployment rate and acceleration in average hourly wages kept the prospect of a September lift-off alive for later this month. In fact, the unemployment rate dropped from 5.3% in July to a seven-and-half year low of 5.1%, a level that the Federal Reserve considers as full employment while average hourly wages rose a modest 0.3% from the prior month and 2.2% from the year-ago level. These suggest that the labor market is healing.

Inflation remains soft, but has been increasing steadily this year and is expected to touch the 2% target on a improving economy, marked by a steady labor market and a strengthening housing sector. However, uncertainty still looms around the timing of interest rates given the turmoil in China, trickling oil prices , and a slowdown in key emerging markets.

Any Reason to Worry?

Higher rates would attract more capital to the country from foreign investors, thereby boosting the U.S. dollar against the basket of other currencies. This would have a huge impact on commodity-linked investments, reflecting that a rising rate environment will hurt a number of segments. In particular, high dividend paying sectors such as utilities and real estate would be the worst hit given their higher sensitivity to rising interest rates. Further, securities in capital-intensive sectors like telecom would also be impacted by higher rates.

In this backdrop, investors should be well prepared to protect themselves from higher rates. Here are number of ways that could prove extremely beneficial for ETF investors in a rising rate environment (read: Worried About Higher Interest Rates? Buy These Four ETFs to Profit ):


Insurance stocks are one of the prime beneficiaries of a rate hike, as these are able to earn higher returns on their investment portfolio of longer-duration bonds. But at the same time, these firms incur loss as the value of longer-duration bonds goes down with rising interest rates. Nevertheless, since insurance companies have long-term investment horizons, they can hold investments until maturity and hence, no actual losses will be realized.

While there are number of insurance ETFs, SPDR S&P Insurance ETF ( KIE ) could be a good bet. This fund follows the S&P Insurance Select Industry Index and offers an equal weight exposure to 52 stocks, suggesting no concentration risk. About 39% of the portfolio is allocated to the property and casualty insurance while life & health insurance accounts for one-fourth share. The ETF has managed $523 million in its asset base and trades in a moderate average daily volume of over 96,000 shares. It charges 35 bps in annual fees and has a Zacks ETF Rank of 3 or 'Hold' rating with a Medium risk outlook.


A look to the broad financial sector is also a good option, as a steeper yield curve would bolster profits across various corners of the segment. Not only will insurance stocks climb, banks and discount brokerage firms will also be the winners in a rising rate environment. A broad way to play this trend is with Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund ( XLF ) , having AUM of $17.4 billion and average daily volume more than 33 million shares.

The ETF follows the S&P Financial Select Sector Index, holding 90 stocks in its basket. The top three firms - Wells Fargo( WFC ), Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B ) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM ) - account for over 8% share each while other firms hold less than 5.9% of assets. In terms of industrial exposure, banks take the top spot at 36.9% while insurance, REITs, capital markets and diversified financial services make up for a double-digit exposure each. The fund charges 15 bps in annual fees and has a Zacks ETF Rank of 1 or a 'Strong Buy' rating with a Medium outlook (read: 5 ETFs Strategies to Prepare for Higher Rates ).

Short-Duration Bonds

Higher rates have been cruel to bond investors, especially the longer term, as an increase in rates has always led to rising yields and lower bond prices. This is because price and yields are inversely related to each other and might lead to huge losses for investors who do not hold bonds until maturity. As a result, short-duration bond are less vulnerable and a better hedge to rising rates.

While there are several options in this space, iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF ( SHY ) seems to be intriguing choice. It has a solid $12.5 billion in AUM and is highly traded with more than 1.2 million shares a day on average. The ETF follows the Barclays U.S. 1-3 Year Treasury Bond Index, holding 83 bonds in its basket with average maturity of 1.87 years and effective duration of 1.84 years. It has 0.15% in expense ratio and has a Zacks ETF Rank of 3 with a Low risk outlook (see: all the Government Bond ETFs here ).

Inverse ETFs

Investors worried about higher interest rates could also go short on rate sensitive sectors like utilities and real estate via ETFs. There are a number of inverse or leveraged inverse products currently available in the market that offer inverse (opposite) exposure to these sectors. While a leveraged play might be a risky option, inverse ETFs are interesting choices and provide hedging strategies in a rising rate environment.

In this regard, ProShares Short Real Estate ETF ( REK ) seeks to deliver the inverse return of the daily performance of the Dow Jones U.S. Real Estate Index. The product has amassed $34.4 million in its asset base while volume is moderate at around 81,000 shares a day. Expense ratio came in at 0.95% (read: Short These Sector ETFs as Rates Rise ).

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SPDR-KBW INSUR (KIE): ETF Research Reports

SPDR-FINL SELS (XLF): ETF Research Reports

ISHARS-1-3YTB (SHY): ETF Research Reports

PRO-SH REAL EST (REK): ETF Research Reports

WELLS FARGO-NEW (WFC): Free Stock Analysis Report

JPMORGAN CHASE (JPM): Free Stock Analysis Report

BERKSHIRE HTH-B (BRK.B): Free Stock Analysis Report

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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