From virtually nowhere, exchange-traded products have grown to over $3 trillion in assets. A small portion of these products are exchange- traded notes (ETNs), but most are exchange-traded funds (ETFs): typically, pools of securities that trade like stocks.
A large amount of ETF assets, in turn, are in funds that track major stock market indexes such as the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ 100, as well as small-company indexes, foreign stock indexes, and so on. These ETFs tend to be low cost and tax eﬃcient, so many supporters of a ﬁduciary standard for advisors (see the article, “What the New Federal Fiduciary Rule Means to Investors” in this issue) believe that the new rules favor ETFs as being in the best interests of many investors. Indeed, one Morningstar analyst has asserted that an estimated $1 trillion of investment assets will shift into ETFs.
Outside the box
However, not every ETF is a low-priced proxy for a major index. As ETFs have proliferated, they’ve spread into what seems to be every nook and cranny an investor might want to explore. For example, there are ETFs that track an energy stock index, ETFs that track exploration and production companies, even ETFs that track crude oil futures. There are ETFs that track speciﬁc foreign currencies, high-yield foreign bonds, certain hedge fund strategies, and so on.
In recent years, leveraged and inverse ETFs have gained popularity. Leveraged ETFs may be known as 2x or 3x ETFs, meaning that they move two or three times as much as the underlying index or commodity price or some other baseline.
Example 1: Ann Benson buys a 2X ETF that tracks the S&P 500. If that index goes up 5%, Ann’s ETF goes up by 10%. If the S&P 500 drops by 5%, Ann’s ETF suﬀers a 10% price drop.
Inverse ETFs move in the opposite direction of their benchmark.
Carl Davis buys an inverse ETF that tracks the NASDAQ 100. If that index goes up 5%, Carl’s ETF goes down by 5%. If the NASDAQ 100 drops by 5%, Carl’s ETF enjoys a 5% price gain.
Some ETFs are both leveraged and inverse. Thus, they move in the opposite direction of the benchmark and those moves are magniﬁed two or three times.
Example 3: Eve Foster buys a 2X inverse ETF on the Russell 2000 index of small company stocks. If that index goes up 5%, Eve’s ETF goes down by 10%. If the Russell 2000 drops by 5%, Eve’s ETF enjoys a 10% price gain.
The preceding examples are simpliﬁed. In the real world, leveraged and inverse ETFs are more complex because these ETFs typically are reset daily. Over time, the results produced may vary widely from expectations.
Example 4: Suppose Eve Foster invests $10,000 in a 2X inverse ETF on the Russell 2000, as in example 3, and the index gains 5% on Monday, from 1100 to 1155. Eve’s 2X inverse ETF falls by 10%, from $10,000 to $9,000.
Now suppose the index falls back to 1100 on Tuesday. That’s a 4.76% drop, from 1155 to 1100, so Eve’s 2X inverse ETF gains twice as much—9.52%—from $9,000 to $9,857. In the two-day period, the underlying index is back to where it started, but Eve’s 2X inverse ETF has lost value.
It’s true that stock market indexes seldom move 5% on a single day. However, moves of 1% or more occur with some frequency, and the principle is the same. Especially if such an ETF is held for an extended time period, the daily resets can cause the result from holding a leveraged or inverse ETF to diverge widely from the performance of the underlying benchmark.
Proceed with caution
Leveraged and inverse ETFs pose risks, but there are reasons that they have grown in popularity. Used astutely, these ETFs might enable you to increase investment returns or hedge certain portfolio risks. If you work with a skilled advisor who is familiar with leveraged and inverse ETFs, you may be able to gain more control over your investments while boosting upside potential.