A 6.3 percent unemployment rate remains higher than where many policymakers would like, but the rate is as low as it's been in more than five years. Though the International Monetary Fund has slashed its growth forecast for the U.S. economy to 2 percent this year, that is still better than the 1.9 percent gain the economy registered last year.
"I continue to be bullish on the consumer going forward in the second half of the year and into 2015," said David Bettencourt of ETF Daily News, in an email. "Exceptionally low rates, low inflation and an uptick in jobs will fuel the consumer and the [consumer ETF] XLY. XLY also has a dividend which makes it attractive."
The SPDR Discretionary ETF (XLY), the SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT), and the Vanguard Consumer Discretionary ETF (VCR) have all posted declines this year even as the broader market indexes reached record highs. More specialized ETFs betting on consumer spending, such as the PowerShares Dynamic Media Portfolio (PBS) and PowerShares Dynamic Leisure & Entertainment fund (PEJ), have also turned in lackluster performance.
The approaches these ETFs take to targeting consumer spending is varied.
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XLY, for instance, has media companies including Walt Disney and Comcast in its top 10 holdings with Home Depot, McDonald's and Priceline.com. Vanguard's VCR also has significant exposure to media companies. The sector accounts for roughly 30 percent of both ETFs.
"Some of the media companies—it could be a push to say they are consumer discretionary companies. It's not right or wrong, but some could contest that," said Spencer Bogart, an analyst with ETF.com, though he added that XLY and VCR represent the sector well overall.
XLY is among the editors' picks at ETF.com and has a low 16 basis point expense ratio, among the lowest in the sector.
VCR, the Vanguard ETF, casts a wider net than its rival, holding many more stocks—385 to XLY's 84. VCR's expense ratio is 14 basis points.
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There are slight sector diversions among the two biggest consumer ETFs. VCR has a 17 percent weighting in hotel and entertainment stocks; XLY reports a 1 percent stake in software and IT service.
Both ETFs should do well if consumer confidence continues to slowly, but surely, improve.
That hasn't yet happened in anything resembling a straight line. Recent data released by Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan June sentiment index showed an increase to 82.5, up from a preliminary reading of 81.2 and a May reading of 81.9. That was better than expectations, but still below the April level and the year-ago reading.
"We are cautiously optimistic (about the future)," said Scott Hoyt, an economist at Moody's Economy.com. "The economy should be positioned to move forward more powerfully," in the second half of the year, he said.