The Long Airline Stock Rally Has Investors Missing This ETF

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

When an exchange-traded fund closes, it's normally out of sight and out of mind. No one out there is pining for the HealthShares Dermatology and Wound Care ETF. But there is one defunct ETF that investors and analysts long for: the Guggenheim Airlines ETF.

Now earnings season brings news of $1 billion stock buybacks at both American Airlines Group Inc. and at United Continental Holdings Inc., the parent company of United Airlines. American also announced its first dividend payment since 1980.

Even amid a string of crises that include the tragic downing of a civilian airliner by separatists in Ukraine, there has been little lasting impact on major financial markets around the world. And while airline stocks retreated recently, after rising on optimism tied to the repurchase plans and record second-quarter profits, they remain well positioned to profit as the global economy recovers, writes Bloomberg TV's Adam Johnson.

The Guggenheim ETF, which had FAA as its ticker -- think Federal Aviation Administration -- closed right in the middle of a 151 percent tear in airline stocks over two and half years. Such a rally inevitably got more investors interested in the notoriously cyclical industry. While there's no no pure-play ETF anymore, there is another fund with a good slug of airline stocks.

It is the SPDR S&P Transportation ETF (XTN), which has a 23 percent allocation to airline stocks. It's returned 43 percent since March, 2013. Investors will also get the stocks of companies such as FedEx Corp. (FDX) and Hertz Global Holdings Inc. (HTZ).

One note of caution: Every stock XTN holds gets equal weight in the portfolio. With 50 percent of assets in small- and mid-caps, it's about twice as volatile as the S&P 500 Index.

FAA was liquidated in March 2013, after it failed to attract big inflows. It had been the only airline ETF left; Direxion closed its airline ETF in 2011 after it attracted only $2 million. Since FAA closed, the NYSE Arca Global Airline Index, which it tracked, is up 61 percent. That's more than double the 28 percent for the S&P 500. And while the news about airplanes recently has been unremittingly tragic, investors tend to take a hard-nosed financial view of the industry's longer-term prospects.

Guggenheim's ETF tracked 25 stocks, including United Airlines (UAL; now United Continental Holdings), Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL), Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) and Alaska Air Group Inc. (ALK). It had $21 million in assets when it closed, more money than 500 ETFs have today. If FAA hadn't been closed, it would have been able to cross the $50 million mark – the approximate amount an ETF needs to be profitable nearly on market performance alone.

There are no airline ETFs in registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It's hard to imagine there won't be another one at some point, though. Murphy’s Law tells us that by the time another one rolls around, the industry will start faltering. It won't matter to Warren Buffett, who has shunned the stocks for 25 years, citing their high fixed costs, strong labor unions and commodity pricing. To him they are just plain "terrible businesses."

More stories from Eric Balchunas:

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Eric Balchunas is an exchange-traded-fund analyst at Bloomberg. More ETF data is available here, and weekly ETF podcasts can be found here.

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