Monthly Momentum Strategy (ETF Sector Rotation Strategy In EEM, SPY, And TLT)

This article presents an ETF rotation strategy. Sector rotation is popular and this is not without merit. The idea is to be in the sector that shows the best recent momentum. Today we present an ETF momentum rotation trading strategy based on monthly data in EEM, SPY, and TLT.

In this short article, we give an example of a very easy and simple ETF rotation strategy among SPY (S&P 500), TLT (Treasury bonds), and EEM (MSCI Emerging Markets) that has worked pretty well over the last two decades. It has beaten “buy and hold” with lower drawdowns. That was until 2022, which was a very bad year for the strategy.

Momentum and sector rotation in ETFs (TLT, SPY, and EEM)

SPY is an ETF that tracks the S&P 500, TLT tracks the 20-year Treasury bonds, while EEM tracks the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

Why did we choose these three ETFs?

SPY was chosen because it’s the most important stock index on the planet. The S&P 500 is, by far, the most followed stock index on the planet.

The EEM was chosen because it’s one of the markets that correlate less with the SPY. Emerging markets often go their own ways compared to the stock markets of the Western world.

Lastly, TLT was included because it’s a “safe haven”. When the stock markets turn ugly, many seek refuge in the safe harbor of US long-term Treasury bonds.


That’s the theory. Does it hold up in practice?

Our sector rotation strategy in TLT, SPY, and EEM shows solid results

Yes, the theory held up pretty well in the backtest we did over two decades. This is what we did (trading rules and settings):

Trading Rules

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This is all there is to it. It can hardly get any simpler than that. This is a strategy that requires 10 minutes of work per month!

Obviously, this strategy is best performed in a tax-deferred account because of the frequent rotation among the ETFs.

Without slippage and taxes the equity curves look like this in Excel:

Momentum strategy EEM, TLT, and SPY
The momentum strategy in SPY, EEM, and TLT performs pretty well. The left axis is accumulated returns.

The strategy outperforms all the other ETF’s, despite underperforming SPY in both 2018 and 2019. The chart above is in percent, ie not compounded equity.

How did the strategy perform lately during the Covid-19?

In January 2020 it was long EEM for a 4.14% loss. For February, March, and April 2020, the rotation strategy was long TLT. May and June were long SPY. The total return for 2020 is 17.1%.

The strategy works reasonably well for quarterly rebalancing also, but not very well for anything shorter than monthly.

Out of sample

If you invested 100 000 on the first day of 2003, the strategy has compounded pretty well, until it hit a wall in 2022:

The chart above shows 100 000 reinvested (compounded) monthly.

The entry and exit are done at the close of each month and commissions and slippage are not included. The CAGR was a pretty respective 14% (before 2022) and the max drawdown was 22% – both trading performance metrics are substantially better than for SPY alone. After 2022 the CAGR fell to 8% and max drawdown increased to 42%. Ouch.

Rotation code for Amibroker

The above strategy can easily be coded in Amibroker and you can order the ETF momentum sector rotation strategy plus about 80+ other strategies among our free trading strategies:

ETF rotation strategy – conclusion:

The ETF rotation strategy we presented in this article has performed very well. The question is: will it continue to do so? We believe so. This has worked for many decades and looks likely to continue, but there are no guarantees, of course.


– What is the ETF rotation strategy, and how does it differ from traditional sector rotation strategies?

The ETF rotation strategy involves monthly rotation among SPY (S&P 500), TLT (Treasury bonds), and EEM (MSCI Emerging Markets) based on their recent performance. It differs from traditional sector rotation by focusing on specific ETFs rather than broader market sectors.

– How does the ETF rotation strategy work in practice?

The strategy involves ranking SPY, EEM, and TLT based on their previous month’s performance and going long on the best-performing ETF. This position is held for one month, and the process is repeated. It’s a simple strategy that requires minimal monthly effort.

– What are the key considerations for investors interested in the ETF rotation strategy?

Investors should consider the historical performance, drawdowns, and recent challenges faced by the strategy, such as the impact on CAGR and drawdown after 2022. Additionally, understanding the strategy’s simplicity and ease of implementation is crucial before making investment decisions.

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