iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF Review | QUAL ETF Review

I’m more aware of investors and funds that utilize quality as a secondary screen for a value or growth strategy.

However, it is rare to find investors that prioritize quality as their primary factor.

And that’s kind of shocking given how well a quality factor approach has done historically (both globally and domestically) when compared to market cap weighted and other factor strategies.

That begs the question, how does one screen for quality as an equity optimization strategy?

Typically, a high quality strategy will key in on three particular fundamental variables:

  1. High Return On Equity 
  2. Earnings Growth
  3. Low Financial Leverage 

The fund we’ll be reviewing today is iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF.

AKA QUAL ETF.

It’s a factor strategy that screens for high quality growth stocks within its parent MSCI USA Index reliant upon the 3 fundament variables we covered above.

In this ETF review we’ll explore how a quality factor based investing strategy can potentially enhance a portfolio at large.

iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF Review | QUAL ETF Review Stars On A Rustic Board
source: PatternPictures on pixabay

QUAL ETF Review | iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF Review

Hey guys! Here is the part where I mention I’m a travel blogger, vlogger and content creator! This investing opinion blog post ETF Review is entirely for entertainment purposes only. There could be considerable errors in the data I gathered. This is not financial advice. Do your own due diligence and research. Consult with a financial advisor. 


source: Yale School Of Management on YouTube

iShares ETFs: Quality Factor Funds

I’ve just realized this is my first fund review from iShares.

As one of the Goliath ETF providers, I don’t feel the need to pump their tires.

As a fund provider they offer an enormous product range with everything from vanilla to factor focused funds for investors.

Instead let’s focus on their “quality” roster of funds and other factor funds they have on tap.

Quality ETFs

QUAL ETF – iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF
IQLT ETF – iShares MSCI Intl Quality Factor ETF

There are just two quality ETFs!

The fund we’re reviewing today and an International Developed version.

It would be nice to see them expand the range by offering an Emerging Markets Quality ETF.

Here are some of the factor funds they provide that investors can potentially consider for US equities.

US Factor Funds

USMV ETF – iShares MSCI USA Min Vol Factor ETF
DGRO ETF – iShares Core Dividend Growth ETF
MTUM ETF – iShares MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF
VLUE ETF – iShares MSCI USA Value Factor ETF
LRGF ETF – iShares U.S. Equity Factor ETF
SMLF ETF – iShares MSCI USA Small-Cap Multifactor ETF
SMMV ETF – iShares MSCI USA Small-Cap Min Vol Factor ETF
SIZE ETF – iShares MSCI USA Size Factor ETF
SVAL ETF – iShares US Small Cap Value Factor ETF
DYNF ETF – BlackRock U.S. Equity Factor Rotation ETF

That’s actually quite an impressive list of factor funds!

I’ve just sorted them by AUM but you have a menu offering factor exposure to minimum volatility, dividend, momentum, value, size, multi-factor and rotation.

The Case For QUALITY Factor Investing

One of the best resources for learning more about factor investing is the MSCI Factor In Focus Series which I highly encourage investors read.

When comparing Global Quality to other Global Factors one can’t help but notice its long-term outperformance and defensive qualities offering a unique 1-2 combination of right hook and left uppercut.

Global Quality Long-Term Performance

World Quality Performance in terms of annualized returns and risk versus other global equity factor strategies
source: msci.com

Although World Momentum and World Enhanced Value offer returns equal to or greater than World Quality, they are far less defensive in nature.

With an annualized risk of just over 14%, World Quality is the second most defensive fund out of eight and tied for second place in terms of performance.

An offensive and defensive powerhouse.

How can that be?

Quality = Defensive Factor Strategy

Quality is a defensive factor versus other factor equity strategies that are persistence and pro-cyclical factors
source: msci.com

Quality is a defensive factor strategy that shares the spotlight with Minimum Volatility and Yield Strategies.

Contrast that with Momentum which is a Persistence factor, and Value and Size which are Pro-Cyclical factors.

Hence, its abilities to outperform and defend make it rather unique as a factor.

Moreover, it presents itself to factor investors as an intriguing puzzle piece to pair with other strategies.

For instance, combining Quality with Value and Momentum offers investors Defensive, Persistence and Pro-Cyclical coverage.

Quality Factor Long-Term Performance

World Momentum Performance vs Other Factors from 1999 until 2020
source: msci.com

World Quality factor investing has historically driven excess returns of 198 basis points versus the market-cap weighted parent index.

However, as with all factor strategies, investor’s need to be extremely patient and persistent through inevitable periods of relative underperformance.

Quality Annual Performance vs Other Factor Strategies

Quality Factor Annual Performance vs Other Factor Strategies
source: msci.com

If you feast your eyes upon the results for Quality in the early 2000s, my point about needing to be extremely patient is clearly highlighted.

From 2000 until 2006 Quality was bottom of its class for four of those years.

However, it was one of the strongest factors from 2007 onwards.

MSCI USA Quality vs MSCI USA Market Cap Weighted Index Performance
source: msci.com

Finally, let’s compare MSCI USA Quality vs its parent market cap weighted index.

Since its inception, the Quality index has delivered annualized returns of 12.07% vs 10.24%.

That’s 183 basis points of long-term outperformance.

Its 10 year (14.24% vs 13.24%) and 5 year returns (11.87% vs 10.88%) have also been relatively better.

However, it has relatively underperformed over the past 3 years (9.88% vs 10.72%) and especially YTD (-18.41% vs -14.43%).

Nobody said it is easy being a factor investor!

If you believe in a particular strategy you’ve got to be prepared to hold on for dear life.

QUAL ETF Overview, Holdings and Info

The investment case for “iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF ” has been laid out succinctly by the folks over at iShares ETFs: (fund landing page)

“The iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of U.S. large- and mid-capitalization stocks with quality characteristics as identified through certain fundamental metrics.

WHY QUAL?

1) Exposure to large- and mid-cap U.S. stocks exhibiting positive fundamentals (high return on equity, stable year-over-year earnings growth and low financial leverage)

2) Index-based access to a specific factor which has historically driven a significant part of companies’ risk and return

3) Use to help manage exposure and risk within a stock allocation”

Here we’re able to clearly see that the Quality index is screening for 3 specific fundamentals:

  1. High Return On Equity
  2. Earnings Growth (stable year over year)
  3. Low Financial Leverage

Let’s move on by consulting the fund’s summary prospectus to find out its methodology for security selection.

QUAL ETF: Security Selection Process

“The Underlying Index seeks to measure the performance of securities in the Parent Index that exhibit higher quality characteristics relative to their peers within the corresponding Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS®) sector.

To construct the Underlying Index, the Index Provider determines the quality score of each security in the Parent Index based on three fundamental variables: high return on equity, low earnings variability and low leverage.

The Underlying Index is weighted based on a component’s quality score multiplied by its weight in the Parent Index.

Weights in the Underlying Index are next normalized so that sectors in the Underlying Index represent the same weight as in the Parent Index.

Additionally, each individual issuer is capped at 5%.

The Underlying Index is rebalanced on a semi-annual basis.

As of July 31, 2022, there were 125 securities in the Underlying Index.”

Quality Index Key Points

So we’re already fully aware that the fund screens for three fundamental variables: high return on equity, low earnings variability and low leverage

Position sizes are capped at 5%.

Sector and weightings are parallel to the fund’s market-cap weighted parent index.

125 stocks in total.

QUAL ETF: Holdings

QUAL ETF Holdings Top 10 Positions
source: ishares.com

The top 10 positions of QUAL ETF currently range from 6.22% to 2.56%.

Home Depot is at the top with United Health Group Inc at the bottom.

Noteworthy, is that five of the top 10 positions are slotted towards Information Technology while three others allocate towards Health Care.

QUAL ETF: Sector Exposure

QUAL ETF Sectors Exposure vs Category Average
source: morningstar.com

When going over the index methodology of QUAL ETF it was clearly stated the fund would try to line up with its parent index.

Here we’re able to see that clearly as the fund lines up neatly across the board with Financial Services being slightly overweight and Technology a little underweight.

QUAL ETF Info

Ticker: QUAL
Net Expense Ratio: 0.15
AUM: 18.7 Billion
Inception: July 16, 2013

QUAL ETF – Style Measures

QUAL ETF Value and Growth Measures Including Styles
source: morningstar.com

QUAL ETF, compared to its category average, has less attractive Price/Earnings (18.29 vs 17.21) and Price/Book (5.19 vs 3.73) whereas it offers relatively better Prices/Sales (1.84 vs 2.12) and Price/Cash Flow (8.99 vs 10.88) where lower is considered better.

On the other hand it is a sweep across the board for QUAL ETF vs its category average for Dividend Yield % (1.97 vs 1.88), Long-Term Earnings % (10.48 vs 9.96), Historical Earnings % (28.76 vs 27.56), Sales Growth % (14.57 vs 9.54), Cash-Flow Growth % (16.95 vs 13.57) and Book-Value Growth % (12.08 vs 9.27) where higher scores are optimal.

QUAL ETF – Stock Style

QUAL ETF Stock Style Weight Style Box Readings
source: morningstar.com

QUAL ETF is certainly top heavy when it comes to its style box weightings.

It has concentrated 79% of it weightings in large cap, 21% in mid-cap and has ZILCH exposure for small-cap.

It’s 17% Value, 45% Blend and 38% Growth.

Hence, it could be currently classified as mostly a large cap growth / blend fund.

MOAT ETF – Factor Profile

QUAL ETF Factor Profile vs Category Average (Large Cap Blend)
source: morningstar.com

QUAL ETF pulls hard on the lever of quality (as one would hope) while also offering addition factor exposure to low volatility, yield and growth.

QUAL ETF Performance

We made a point of highlighting that factors go through periods of relative outperformance AND underperformance.

With QUAL ETF we’re clearly able to see both sides of the coin.

QUAL vs SPY 2015 until 2020

QUAL ETF vs SPY Performance from 2015 until 2019
source: portfoliovisualizer.com

By tracking a 5 year period from 2015 until 2020, we’re able to see QUAL ETF offering higher returns (CAGR: 12.20% vs 11.57%) while offering an ever so slightly smoother ride (Stdev: 11.86% vs 11.94%).

During this stretch of time its returns were above risk earning it a high SHARPE RATIO (0.95) and SORTINO RATIO (1.54).

However, results haven’t been as kind for QUAL ETF in the 2020s.

QUAL vs SPY 2020 until 2022

QUAL ETF vs SPY 2020s Performance
source: portfoliovisualizer.com

SPY ETF has offered investors better returns and risk management in the 2020s.

What can I say here that I haven’t already mentioned?

If you’re a committed factor investor prepare to buckle up and suck on a lemon every once in a while.

You’ve gotta be able to ride through the storm to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

QUAL ETF Pros and Cons Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down
source: pixabay

QUAL ETF Pros and Cons

Let’s move on and examine the potential pros and cons of QUAL ETF.

QUAL Pros

  1. Exposure to the Quality Factor that historically has driven excess returns while offering more defensive coverage than its market cap weighted index (with the same results globally as well)
  2. An offensive and defensive factor that can hang with the likes of momentum and value for long-term performance but also defend in the same category as minimum volatility and yield
  3. Keying in on intuitive fundament variables: high return on equity, low earnings variability and low leverage
  4. An alternative to growth strategies for investors who are interested in growth exposure without screening primarily for it
  5. The ability to form numerous barbell strategies with other factors such as value and momentum
  6. 125 positions offers a nice middle ground between being a high conviction enough strategy without being as concentrated as say a 50 position fund
  7. Rock bottom fees of 0.15 for a factor fund whose category often charges 2 to 3X that amount

QUAL Cons

  1. Tracking error versus market cap weighted indexes (see its performance in the 2020s) and inevitable relative underperformance that is just a part of being a factor investor
  2. Not offering much mid-cap or small-cap exposure for investors seeking more style box balance

QUAL Potential Portfolio Solutions

Investors who are impressed with the offensive and defensive aspects of a high conviction quality strategy may be interested in the following portfolio:

40% QUAL 
20% IQLT
30% DBMF
10% TYA

Here we’re leaning in heavy to a quality equity factor strategy with QUAL and IQLT (which offers Int-Dev exposure).

DBMF provides us with Managed Futures as an alternative.

And we’ll enjoy capital efficient treasury exposure with TYA.

Since TYA ETF is relatively new let’s sub AGG ETF to see how this portfolio has performed versus a 60/40 portfolio in the 2020s.

QUAL ETF + Friends vs 60/40 Portfolio VBIAX

QUAL ETF + Friends vs 60/40 Portfolio VBIAX
source: portfoliovisualizer.com

Our QUAL + Friends Portfolio has relatively outperformed a 60/40 Portfolio (VBIAX) in the 2020s: (CAGR: 7.64% vs 4.88%)

Moreover, it has offered investors a smoother ride: (Stdev: 11.62% vs 14.32%)

We’ll take it and move on!

What Others Have To Say About QUAL ETF

Now that we’ve covered a few different portfolio solutions let’s see what others have to say about the fund for those who prefer video format.


source: TrendLizard on YouTube

Nomadic Samuel hiking in Germany
Nomadic Samuel hiking in Germany

Nomadic Samuel Final Thoughts

I think Quality is one of the most underrated factor strategies investors can potentially consider.

Its offensive and defensive prowess is undeniable.

Consistently, quality factor strategies offer long-term outperformance and enhanced risk management versus market-cap weighted indexes.

That’s true both for domestic and global backtests.

Hence, I’m overall fond of QUAL ETF for investors seeking US Large Cap factor exposure.

However, its relative underperformance in the 2020s is a harsh reminder for factor investors to ultimately stay the course.

Now over to you.

What do you think of QUAL ETF and Quality investing strategies overall?

Please let me know in the comments below.

That’s all I’ve got for today.

Ciao for now.

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