The Best Way to Play the Dow So Far in 2012

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) is the most popular market measure in the country and stands among the world's most followed barometers of global stock markets. But few investors have the inclination to go out and buy 30 individual stocks to track the Dow's moves in their own portfolios.

Fortunately, as Motley Fool managing editor Brian Richards revealed a few months ago, exchange-traded funds give you plenty of ways to invest in the Dow without making things any more complicated than necessary. With the stock market having given up all but a roughly 1% gain for 2012 after a disastrous couple of weeks, now's a good time to see whether all those ETFs are doing their jobs -- or if they're delivering unwanted surprises.

The Dow, and nothing but the Dow
The closest Dow tracker you'll find is the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (NYS: DIA) . Known as the Diamonds for short, this ETF has delivered exactly what you'd expect from looking at its holdings: a low-cost way to buy an entire portfolio of properly weighted Dow stocks in a single investment.

So far, the Diamonds have returned almost 2% for the year, slightly outperforming the change in the Dow itself. The reason: dividends. While the reported figure for the Dow doesn't account for dividend payments, investors who own ETF shares get the full benefit of any payouts the component shares make. So while you'll lose a small amount to fees, you'll still do a good job of tracking the total return of the Dow including dividends over time.

Betting against the Dow
Inverse ETFs let you take a position against a stock or index without using short-selling strategies. The ProShares Short Dow 30 ETF (NYS: DOG) aims to give you returns that are the opposite of the Dow's returns on a daily basis.

Looking at its results, though, the inverse ETF has actually done slightly worse than you'd expect, with a loss of 3%. Some of that may come from its daily tracking, while another part may result from its higher expenses of 0.95% annually.

Making bigger bets
If you want to magnify your exposure, then leveraged ETFs give you double or triple exposure to the Dow or other popular benchmarks. Like inverse ETFs, leveraged ETFs focus on daily returns, so they don't always track well for longer periods of time.

But so far this year, ProShares Dow 30 (NYS: DDM) , which aims to provide twice the daily return of the Dow every day, has actually done a good job of tracking the Dow. Year to date, the bullish leveraged ETF is up nearly 4% -- just about double the total return of the average. Similarly, another ETF that aims to give tripled returns is up more than 5%.

Bearish leveraged ETFs are also available and have tracked in line with their respective benchmarks. ProShares UltraShort Dow 30 (NYS: DXD) has lost 6%, doubling the 3% loss of the regular inverse ETF. Similarly, the triple-short ETF is down 9% on the year.

It's important to remember, though, that these ETFs aren't designed to track long-term Dow performance. They give the appropriate returns on a daily basis quite well in most markets, but beyond that, you have to be careful if you use them for anything other than short-term trading.

It's your option
Finally, the Dow 30 Premium & Dividend Income Fund isn't an ETF but is rather a closed-end fund. The fund trades the same way as an ETF, but its price can vary from the fund's net asset value on a regular basis.

So far, the fund, which uses a call-writing strategy to try to boost income, has managed to match the Dow's return almost perfectly. With a yield of nearly 8%, though, it may be appeal to income-sensitive investors -- even if that income sometimes comes as much from return of capital as from dividend or option-related income.

What's next for the Dow?
In 2012, bulls still rule the day for the Dow. But no one can predict with certainty where the Dow will go next. If you're interested in the Dow and its component stocks, though, then ETFs like these can be an intriguing way to give you the tailored exposure you want.

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At the time this article was published Fool contributorDan Caplingerdoesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter,@DanCaplinger. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Fool has adisclosure policy.

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