The first month of 2011 is in the books, and January certainly displayed no shortage of action for investors. Earnings season kicked off to a relatively strong start, though disappointments sprinkled throughout cast some doubt on the strength of an ongoing recovery. Last year was a good one for almost every asset class, with the vast majority of U.S.-listed ETFs turning in gains. And for the most part, that positive trend continued in January, with many ETFs inching higher.
A handful of products raced ahead in January, posting double-digit gains over the course of a single month. And many of the big winners from January were the few dogs of 2010; those that were battered last year staged sharp rebounds to start the new year. Below, we highlight a handful of exchange-traded products that gained at least 10% during January [for more ETF insights, sign up for our free ETF newsletter].
Daily Inverse VIX Short Term ETN (NYSE: XIV ) : +15.2%
This ETN is designed to offer inverse exposure to a benchmark comprised of futures contracts, and has emerged as an intriguing option to bet on a flat market. The spot VIX actually rose during January, but steep contango in the market for VIX futures translated into another big decline for popular volatility ETFs. XIV is an interesting opportunity to exploit this contango, though it exposes investors to the risk of a big jump in volatility.
iShares MSCI Spain Index Fund (NYSE: EWP ) : Up 14.0%
Spain was one of the biggest disappointments of last year, as sky-high unemployment and expectations that the country would be next up for a bailout from its eurozone neighbors weighed heavily on Spanish stocks. But EWP has rebounded nicely in the early part of 2010, rewarding any investors who were savvy enough to spot a bargain buy.
Spain's economy certainly isn't clear of trouble just yet; unemployment remains near 20%, and the debt burden continues to swell. But the economy is expected to return to growth in 2011, and successful bond auctions in Spain and Portugal, as well as supportive comments from Japan and China, have helped to improve the outlook for Spanish equity markets [see Three ETFs to Watch If Roubini Is Right About Europe].
iShares MSCI Italy Index Fund (NYSE: EWI ) : +10.7%
Italy hasn't received nearly the attention that the struggling economies of Greece and Ireland have demanded from global investors, but the European country is certainly in dire fiscal straits. Facing unfavorable demographic trends, mounting debts, and a legislative environment not conducive to economic growth, Italian stocks were among the biggest losers in 2010. But much like their Spanish counterparts, Italian stocks have enjoyed a resurgence in the early part of 2011.
Hurdles to long-term sustainable economic growth remain, of course, but the market's relatively strong appetite for European debt has given a boost to the Italy ETF in the short term.
Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF (NYSE: KWT ) +10.9%
Alternative energy companies across the board struggled in 2010, as cash-strapped governments facing fresh pushes for austerity were forced to slash generous subsidies. With many alternative energies still not viable from an economic perspective -- at least not on a stand-alone basis -- the sudden reduction or elimination of government aid was a devastating blow.
The worst performing ETFs of 2010 included a number of alternative energy products, including both broad-based ETFs and those focusing on specific corners of that industry such as wind or solar power. These dogs of 2010 are becoming the stars of 2011, as KWT has surged to start the year, thanks in part to unexpected advances in a couple major solar energy projects in the U.S., including a major solar energy project in Arizona and the clearing of some regulatory and legislative hurdles in a multitude of states [see Solar Energy ETFs Shining Bright in 2011].
iPath Dow Jones UBS Cotton ETN (NYSE: BAL ) +18.0%
Cotton is another commodity that has recently set new all-time highs, as prices have been skyrocketing in recent weeks thanks to strong demand in emerging markets and some supply concerns as well. The supply concerns primarily center around India, where recent revelations have some concerned that the country may fall short of its 2011 target by some two million bales. Ongoing demographic shifts in emerging markets have also fueled a jump in cotton prices; a swelling middle class in the developing world is translating into increased demand for discretionary items, including higher quality clothing.
But some expect that cotton won't remain at elevated price levels for long. Terry Townsend, the executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee, recently predicted a "significant increase in production that will alleviate this tight supply situation."
iPath Dow Jones-UBS Tin ETN (NYSE: JJT ) +12.6%
One of the best performers so far in 2011 is one of the most obscure commodity products available. Tin prices have jumped to record highs in recent weeks thanks to surging demand from emerging markets and concerns about the impact of a new U.S. law on tin exports from central Africa. Some believe that the rally in tin prices still has plenty of room to run; Malaysian Chamber of Mines president Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Ajib Anuar recently predicted that tin prices may climb to $40,000 per tonne in the next five years, up from around $28,000 currently [also see The Top Five Commodity ETFs of 2010].
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