For millennia, people have found ways to use the world's resources for their personal benefit and for the good of their communities. Investing in the businesses that use those methods to discover and obtain natural resources gives you a chance to share in their profits, and many stocks in the various industries that focus on resources have given investors lucrative returns.
All too often, though, investors drill down on only one particular type of natural resource. Although using that strategy can magnify your returns if you happen to pick the hot commodity of the moment, it can shut you out if you happen to pick the worst commodity of the bunch. One relatively new exchange-traded fund, however, makes it a lot easier to get broad exposure to a wide variety of natural resources.
Gunning for riches
The FlexShares Morningstar Global Upstream Natural Resources ETF is quite a mouthful to say, but the ETF has made a big splash over its short history, which began just over a year ago. Since then, the ETF has attracted more than $500 million in assets, a huge accomplishment in an environment in which many new ETFs are struggling to survive and even some longtime players have decided to close up shop for some of their less popular funds.
Certainly, there was no shortage of ETFs, mutual funds, and other investments focusing on natural resources before the FlexShares ETF came along. Yet what helps FlexShares stand apart from its peers is an attribute that's the original basis for the creation of ETFs in the first place: diversification.
Going beyond the giants
Most natural-resources-oriented funds limit themselves to a particular type of resource. For instance, with the price of oil having skyrocketed from the $20 per barrel level as recently as early 2002 to its recent close around $90, energy ETFs have gained greatly in popularity. Similarly, higher prices of gold and other precious metals have revived the mining industry, with even rising costs of production proving insufficient to deter new activity in mining.
Admittedly, these areas have produced immense profits for investors. The emergence of unconventional production techniques like hydraulic fracturing has opened the door to a whole new set of small companies that have come almost out of nowhere to become important players in the field. Although Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) and other refiners have had to navigate treacherous market conditions over the years, new production has given them more supply with which to produce refined products that are in high demand. And with Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX) tapping into both industrial demand for copper and investor interest in gold, it and other mining leaders have rewarded shareholders both recently and over the years.
But rather than stopping there, the FlexShares ETF includes categories of stocks that other natural resources funds leave out. Companies that produce fertilizer, agricultural chemicals, and farm products make up nearly a third of the portfolio, with Monsanto and PotashCorp (NYSE: POT) among the top five holdings. With the rising importance of water resources, the ETF has chosen Aqua America (NYSE: WTR) and several other water utilities to take advantage of future growth in the industry. You'll even find Weyerhaeuser (NYSE: WY) representing the forest products industry, emphasizing that renewable resources like timber will remain essential to the world's sustainability both for the goods they allow people to make as well as for their environmental importance.
Why you should stay natural
With financial assets requiring support from central banks and policymakers around the world, confidence in their ability to hold value is particularly low. By contrast, although the value of natural resources depends on demand that can diminish during slow economic times, investment interest has represented an ever-increasing share of that demand. With a diversified play like the FlexShares ETF, you'll know you have full exposure to the entire universe of natural resources plays while retaining the opportunity to earn nice returns as more investors recognize their true value.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool owns shares of Weyerhaeuser and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Aqua America and creating a synthetic covered call position on Monsanto. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.