There are several reasons to consider exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest in Australian equities, beyond simply looking to diversify an investment portfolio internationally. Australia is a major trading partner with China. Additionally, Australia is an important mining center, rich in natural resources. The Australian dollar is a major world currency, and appreciation in its value versus the U.S. dollar would also boost the price of Australian equities.
ETFs offer an easy, low-cost means of obtaining exposure to Australian equities. Some Australian equity ETFs offer above-average dividends, especially compared to U.S. equities.
iShares MSCI Australia ETF
The iShares MSCI Australia ETF (NYSEARCA: EWA), launched in 1996 by BlackRock Inc. (NYSE: BLK), is far and away the most widely held Australian equity ETF, with $1.3 billion in total assets under management (AUM). Most of the other ETFs in this category have only a few million in assets. This ETF tracks the market cap-weighted MSCI Australia Index, which encompasses approximately 85% of the total Australian equity market, except for small-cap companies. The fund is ordinarily 90% or more invested in the 70+ stocks that make up the underlying index, or in depositary receipts that represent stocks contained in the index. Financial services sector stocks account for the bulk of the portfolio, comprising 44% of the portfolio's assets. The next most heavily represented market sector is basic materials, which accounts for 11% of the portfolio. The fund's top five holdings are the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (OTC: CMWAY), Westpac Banking Corporation (NYSE: WBK), Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.
The fund's expense ratio is 0.49%, a bit below the category average of 0.53%. This fund offers the most generous dividend yield in the category at 6.01%. The five-year average annualized return is 0.88%. As of March 2016, the fund is up 4.59% year-to-date (YTD).
SPDR MSCI Australia Quality Mix ETF
The SPDR MSCI Australia Quality Mix ETF (NYSEARCA: QAUS) was launched by State Street Global Advisors in 2014. This relatively young fund has $9.3 million in assets. This ETF provides broad exposure to large-cap and mid-cap Australian equities by tracking the MSCI Australia Quality Mix A-Series Index, which consists of Australian equities contained in one of three equally weighted subindexes that select stocks primarily based on value, quality or low volatility. The fund is usually 80% or more invested in index securities or in American depositary receipts (ADRs) or global depositary receipts (GDRs) that represent index securities. Financial sector stocks again head the portfolio's holdings but do not receive quite as much weight as they do in the iShares MSCI Australia ETF, accounting for 28% of this ETF's portfolio. The top five portfolio holdings are retailer Wesfarmers Ltd. (OTC: WFAFY), Commonwealth Bank of Australia, biotech firm CSL Ltd. (OTC: CSLLY), Westpac Banking Corporation and supermarket chain Woolworths Ltd.
(OTC: WOLZY). The portfolio turnover ratio is a relatively low 12%.
The expense ratio for the SPDR MSCI Australia Quality Mix ETF at 0.3% is the lowest in the category. The fund's dividend yield is 5.89%. The one-year return for this fund, reflecting an overall down year for Australian equities in 2015, is a negative 8.48%, but the fund is up 5.23% YTD as of mid-March 2016 .
IQ Australia Small Cap ETF
While the above two funds are focused on mid-cap and large-cap Australian equities, the IQ Australia Small Cap ETF (NYSEARCA: KROO) is specifically focused on small-cap Australian equities. IndexIQ launched this fund in 2010. It has just $4.4 million in total assets and does not have as much liquidity as either of the previously discussed ETFs. It tracks the market cap-weighted IQ Australia Small Cap Index, which is designed to reflect the overall performance of small-cap Australian stocks. The fund is typically 80% invested, plus any borrowings for investment, in the securities contained in the underlying index. The basic materials sector is the most heavily represented, accounting for 24.97% of the portfolio's assets, followed by consumer cyclical stocks at 22.54%. The top five holdings are BlueScope Steel Ltd. (OTC: BLSFY), packaging firm Orora Ltd. (OTC: ORRYY), medical products manufacturer Ansell Ltd. (OTC: ANSLY), financial services company IOOF Holdings Ltd. (OTC: IOOFY) and chemical company DuluxGroup Ltd.
(ASX: DLX). The portfolio turnover ratio is 36%.
This fund has one of the highest expense ratios in the category at 0.7%. The dividend yield is 4.94%. The fund's five-year average annualized return is -6.78%, but YTD in 2016, the fund is up 9.73%.