The health-care market already tops $2 trillion, and it just keeps growing. Its expansion continues without regard for the ups and downs of the overall economy, driven by aging baby boomers in the U.S. and an increasingly affluent population worldwide. With health-care investments' long-term prospects looking ever more appealing, new ETFs have arisen, providing increasingly specific and varied ways to invest in this booming market.
Among the more than 20 health-care ETFs currently available, many are broadly based within the health-care market. But others now focus on biotechnology or the pharmaceutical areas, or take an even more granular approach, specializing in cardiac devices or patient-care services.
Of the nine broadly based health care ETFs, most are fairly new. The Health Care Select Sector SPDR
The five health-care biotech ETFs earned lackluster returns in 2006. The PowerShares Dynamic Biotech & Genome
The fund tracks the Dynamic Biotech & Genome Intellidex Index, which uses proprietary methods of stock selection and portfolio construction to identify 30 stocks in the biotechnology and genome industries on a quarterly basis. At the beginning of 2007, the fund had 42% of its assets in small caps, and roughly 55% in mid- and large-cap stocks combined.
The pharmaceutical area offers investors four ETF options. PowerShares Dynamic Pharmaceuticals
Pharmaceutical companies have recently suffered from a number of issues, including patent expirations, the threat of generic drugs, and a dearth of new products in the pipeline. But potential consolidation in the industry could drive overall returns higher.
Narrowly focused options
Five new health-care-focused ETFs, the HealthShares family, were launched in late January 2007. Together, they've sliced this market so thin that it's nearly become translucent. These new funds were created by XShares Advisors LLC of New York, and the indices they follow are aimed at the middle of each of their respective markets, eliminating the whales and minnows. Each index includes 20-25 stocks, so don't expect a widely diversified fund. The HealthShares funds range from the self-explanatory HealthShares Cardio Devices ETF
The funds have a relatively high 0.75% expense ratio, which would be even higher except for a 0.34% waiver. Since these new ETFs could be very volatile, they should be considered a speculative investment. The HealthShares funds do have the advantage of investing in midsized health-care companies, providing investors exposure to some companies that otherwise might not appear in their portfolio unless purchased individually.
Picking stocks in such specialized areas of the health-care industry can involve a great deal of risk and require in-depth knowledge of the companies. The stocks of health-care companies can also experience severe swings in price -- from the approval or denial of a drug or medical device, for example. The Xshares funds could help smooth this wild ride somewhat.
Aging baby boomers and healthcare ETFs could represent a winning combination. The boomers' longevity, desire, and ability to improve their health contributes to the inelastic demand for health-care products. These are all positive and powerful reasons for investing in this sector.
Nonetheless, the health-care sector has yet to sort out the potential impact of a rising Democratic tide in Washington, which could make these funds volatile. Returns in general have not been exciting lately; that could either be a sign of potential or continued pain. For patient investors able to afford the risk of investing in a concentrated sector, this may be fertile ground.
Fool contributor Zoe Van Schyndel lives in Miami and enjoys the sunshine and variety of the Magic City. She does not own any of the funds or stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.