The Debate On Levered / Inverse ETFs

by: Richard Kang

A down market would do this.  That is, bring out a debate on the benefits of hedge fund-like investing.  With indexing and ETFs, one would think it’s all about gaining exposure to markets (hopefully on the upside) and reducing or eliminating exposure when required as a defensive measure.  You can call that effectively tweaking the asset mix or full out market timing.

However, today’s ETF industry is one that has evolved.  With inverse ETFs, any investor can now literally “build their own hedge fund”.  Shorting and the use of options requires a margin account which is not a big deal but now as long as one can open a trading account of the most basic kind, there’s not much to it to gain short exposure.
So this brings me to an email I received today care of Google Alerts which is a pretty amazing service.  You can basically tell Google to email you when anything new appears on the web related to a specific search.  Of course, for this blog something like “ETF” and “exchange traded fund” would do it.  The bad side to the service is you can easily have a big pile of emails in your inbox.

Anyway, here’s what I received today (right click 'view image' to enlarge image):


So on one side we have Bill Schmick and the other is John Bogle, the latter care of Tom Lydon at ETF Trends.  With Schmick and Bogle, it seems more appropriate to consider this debate as David and Goliath.  Although I understand Bogle’s comments regarding the newly filed Direxion ETFs with 300% market exposure, let’s be real … their appeal will be limited.  There will be no domino effect with new or existing ETF providers following up with leverage of 400% or higher.  If by chance they do, shame!  I’m certain market forces will simply laugh such products off the street.  Let me be clear:  Investors of all types will generally pass on Direxion or anyone else who goes down the path of even higher leverage than what we have seen in the ETF marketplace today.

Is there demand for extreme leverage?  Of course.  Hedge funds play this game all the time.  Part of the basic reasoning is simply to juice the returns of strategies that don’t have the same bang they once did (crowded markets).  But these market participants use the derivative markets where they can better fine tune their required exposures, not simply some multiple of 100. 

And of course, we know the difference between the returns provided from futures markets compared to the “daily return” limitation of levered/inverse ETFs.  Truly sophisticated investors will understand when to use levered/inverse ETFs and when to go to the futures market, swap market or other market for their required exposure needs.  So Bogle’s worries about extreme levered ETFs, I believe are in themselves, extreme.

Schmick, on the other hand, seems quite reasonable in his comments.  Unlike Bogle who might find some degree of the sector ETF universe unnecessary, I would side with Schmick on the benefits of sector ETFs for defensive strategies.  It’s unclear what Bogle would deem as “reasonable” as opposed to “absurd” in sector ETFs but I’d guess that the lineup from HealthShares would be the example given for the latter.  Since assets in this family of ETFs is relatively small, the point is moot.  But whether it’s the exposures provided by HealthShares ETFs or other rather new and esoteric areas like nanotech or cleantech, there are many reasons why investors implement sector based exposures, defensive or otherwise.  I wouldn’t want to take that away from them.  Market forces will take away the undesirables as required.

To reiterate what I’ve said many times before: In today’s highly correlated markets, diversification is the first line of defense but can only get you so far in addition to shifting the asset mix to increased cash holdings when markets decline for a prolonged period.  Sector rotation is one of the few defensive strategies left to investors.  The use of put options as an insurance policy to be bought in extreme up markets is another good one.  The use of inverse ETFs to join in on the momentum on the downside thereafter is good as well.  It would seem that the most classic of index/ETF proponents would want to stick with the strict buy-hold, rigid asset allocation philosphy which is fine.  But not for everyone.

A tough stomach is required in times of distress.  I’d hope that in today’s market (not meant to mean short-term oriented “today”), investors do not make rash decisions and completely overhaul their game plan.  My cynical views on active management and hedge fund performance still lead me to believe that there’s something to be learned from Bogle and those in his camp, including not just Vanguard but DFA.  However, I think that investors, either with or without financial counsel, should consider what degree of non buy-hold thinking applies to their portfolio.  How much deviation from the policy asset mix should be allowed?  What alternative asset classes and strategies should be considered if any, and at what price?

The risk, as I see it, is that much of the most classical portfolio theories and methods we read in textbooks are based on a time when we didn’t have all the information or the tools to properly handle the information.  Today it’s different.  Sure, we have the tools to compute with greater speed and power than the early days of Markowitz and Sharpe.  These tools can even fit in a thin letter size envelope.  But despite all the information out there, it’s tough to manage it effectively so as to lead to a more thoughtful, elegant and even effective portfolio.  Until ETFs came around.

Maybe the new “active management” of investing does not revolve around picking managers but allocating among beta exposures.  That’s what institutions like CalPERS are doing by internalizing passive mandates (by first reducing active exposures where there’s more beta than alpha to be had).  I’m not trying to lead this thought to the “All ETF portfolio” but something rather close to this, with a healthy balance of traditional and alternative exposures, access to developed and developing markets, customized for income requirements and volatility tolerances. 

Clearly, this thought process would seem to be elegant and “true to form” as just described if implemented mainly through ETFs and similar instruments.  15-20 positions might seem like a lot but without passive exposures, a more traditional “old school” portfolio built under the same premises would likely hold a couple of hundred securities at a minimum.  I’m assuming that someone who wanted some inflation indexed bond exposure wouldn’t just buy one bond.  Same with emerging market equities.  Or US small cap.  Or REITs.  Or even non-ETF related possibilities like hedge fund … well, maybe if it was a fund-of-funds but for some investors, even one of these might not be enough.

In my previous blog post  I focused my attention on diversification.  That’s definitely what ETFs are about, despite all the recent product development on narrow sectors and relatively small countries.  But ETFs are first and foremost about innovation.  This is good because it gives anyone access to ideas (water as an asset class), new regions (frontier markets) and a wide variety of capital markets that may not be as easy (logistically, cost wise, etc.) for many investors to reach. 

This is also bad because the risk is that the ETF industry focuses too much on ideas rather than the true economic need for capital to be allocated in that “idea”.  I don’t see the ETF industry going down this latter path similar to the dot-com craze however, as in everything, a healthy balance is all that’s required.  Somewhere between Schmick and Bogle - they likely aren’t even the extremes on the spectrum - is the right balance for each and every investor.  Dictating what’s right and what’s wrong, limiting choice by not allowing for certain products (ETFs, hedge funds or whatever) and thus not allowing investors to choose where they lie on that spectrum in NOT the answer.  ETFs provide choice by allowing access in a meaningful and efficient manner.  The allowance for choice will be dictated by the user as in any market.

Disclosure: None