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ETF News And Commentary

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ETFs have gained tremendous popularity in recent years due to several advantages that they offer to the investors, including low costs, tax efficiency and transparency. As of the end of February 2012, assets in US listed ETFs totaled approximately $1.2 trillion, up 14% year-over-year (per data from ETF Industry Association).

Most of these funds can be used by the investors very easily and effectively to achieve their investment aims. (Read: A Primer on ETF Investing)

However not all ETFs are straightforward; some of them like the leveraged and inverse ETFs are highly complex financial instruments which should be used only by the professionals who understand them properly. (Read: Understanding Leveraged ETFs)

Leveraged and inverse ETFs, also known as geared ETFs, seek to track a multiple or opposite/opposite multiple of an underlying index. To accomplish their objectives, these ETFs employ various investment strategies through the use of swaps, futures contracts, and other derivative instruments.

These ETFs are designed to achieve their stated performance goal on a daily basis. Over a period longer than one day their performance can differ significantly from their stated daily performance objectives.

To illustrate, let us take the simple hypothetical example of an index with a starting value of 100, and a loss of 10% on Day 1, followed by a gain of 10% on Day 2. 

 

Day 1 Closing Value

Day 2 Closing Value

Net Return

 

Expected Return

 

Difference from Expected Return

Index

90

99

-1

 

 

2x ETF

80

96

-4

-2

-2

3x ETF

70

91

-9

-3

-6

-1x ETF

110

99

-1

1

-2

-2x ETF

120

96

-4

2

-6

-3x ETF

130

91

-9

3

-12

So, at the end of Day 2, the index ended with a loss of 1%, but the leveraged and inverse ETFs lost between 1% and 9%.

Now let us look at the real-world example of the performance S&P 500 and related leveraged and inverse ETFs during 2011. S&P 500 returned 2.11% during the year but all geared ETFs resulted in losses to the investors who held them for the full year.   

S&P 500

(SSO - ETF report) (2x)

(UPRO - ETF report) (3x)

(SH - ETF report) (-1x)

(SDS - ETF report) (-2x)

(SPXU - ETF report) (-3x)

       2.11%

-2.92%

-11.88%

-7.82%

-18.82%

-32.35%

In the above case, if the investors expected the three times leveraged and inverse leveraged ETFs to deliver returns of 6.33% (2.11*3) and -6.33% (2.11*-3) respectively, then they were in for a rude shock, as the funds actually lost 11.88% and 32.35% respectively during the year.

These examples clearly illustrate that such ETFs should not be held as long term investments. They match their stated objective on a “daily basis” but for any other time period, their performance varies significantly mainly due to the compounding factor.

Though compounding can have both favorable and adverse effects on the return; in times of volatility the effects are usually negative. (Read: Three Worst Performing Leveraged ETFs of 2011)

We are not saying that these ETFs should not be used; the question is how they should be used. These investments need to be monitored and rebalanced on a daily basis in order to maintain the desired exposure.

The sponsors of these ETFs disclose all the related risks in the prospectus but how many of the retail investors actually read the prospectus and do their homework before making investments. For such retail investors plain vanilla ETFs are the best investment tools.

Geared ETFs are specialized tools useful for specialized strategies. Professional investors and traders can use them very effectively for short-term trades, either to make bets on the movement of certain types of investments or to hedge a portfolio.

Investors also need to keep in mind that leveraged or inverse ETFs are usually more costly than traditional ETFs. Also since they reset daily, they may be less tax-efficient than traditional ETFs. However unlike other common ways to gain inverse exposure such as short selling, buying put options or selling futures, the maximum loss for geared ETFs is limited to the value of the investments.

 

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