ETF Edge

'The global search for yield' is heating up for investors as coronavirus worries grow

Defensive ETFs lead gains as markets rebound from Friday's sell-off

Yield is the new alpha.

That could be the way things are going as investors flock to stable, high-paying plays like utilities and long-term Treasury bonds amid growing concerns about the global coronavirus outbreak, market professionals told CNBC's "ETF Edge." 

The Utilities Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLU), which tracks 28 of the S&P 500's utilities stocks, is up about 7% in 2020, while the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) has climbed nearly 7.5%.

"Yes, we're ... near all-time highs in the S&P 500, but you still see people looking for yield," said Jeff Kilburg, founder and CEO of KKM Financial. "You have seen a long-term attraction in this search for yield, this global search for yield."

Kilburg emphasized that the flight to defensive assets has been long in the making. In the last three years, the XLU and S&P's gains are neck and neck: the XLU is up 41.2% while the S&P is up 41.4%.

As for bonds, "this is the 125th consecutive trading day that the 10-year note's been under 2%," Kilburg said Monday. "So, right here, at 1.53, you've seen a lot of buyers in the TLT," which moves inversely to the 10-year yield.

"You are seeing attracting assets to these two sectors due to the reason that we don't have clarity. The lack of clarity, that's corrosive. And what is that doing? It's attracting assets coming in," Kilburg said. "So, I think this search for yield, this global search for yield, persists."

Jeremy Schwartz, global head of research and executive vice president at WisdomTree Asset Management, offered what he saw as a better way to invest for yield.

"The average dividend-paying stock is twice the yield of the 10-year bond, and it's got better taxation," he said in the same interview. "Very different volatility levels, but I think the growth profile is there."

Schwartz cited his firm's Total Dividend Index, which tracks roughly 1,400 dividend-paying equities. The average yield for that index is just over 3%, about the same as the nearly 3% the utilities ETF currently yields, he said.

"For sure, this bid for yield [and] safety has pushed up all the defensive, low-volatility sectors to, I think, higher valuations. We look at utilities as one of these above-average yielding sectors," Schwartz said. "But where utilities are issuing shares to fund their growth through 2% issuance, the average company's buying back 2%. So, you get a 5% total dividend [with] buybacks versus, like, a 1% [net dividend for utilities]."

That could give investors an advantage as urgency grows around the nearly 21,000 coronavirus cases now on record, though it's "impossible to tell" how long it will take for the market to stabilize if the outbreak slows, said Jeremy Siegel, professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Utilities, bonds rise with investors on the defense amid coronavirus spread

"In the short run, fear and greed, momentum players, they dominate the market sometimes greater than reality," Siegel said in the same "ETF Edge" interview.

"At this point, I look at death rates and say it's not much different from other influenza, but others say that it could get worse. So, I mean, there's been a huge reaction — the shutdown in travel — and obviously that affects entertainment and airlines, and that fear can keep on generating and then who knows?" Siegel said. "In two or three weeks we can say it's relatively contained, death rates are low, not much more than others, and then we'll get a relief rally from that. But it's impossible to tell how long that will take."

The XLU was flat and TLT slid in early Tuesday trading.