I recently came upon a Seeking Alpha article by Alliance Bernstein titled Structured Notes: Read the Fine Print. The article expressed a fairly negative and, in my opinion, inaccurate view of structured investing based on an analysis of one structured note in particular. As an experienced structurer and trader prior to founding Exceed Investments, I'd like to help set the record straight.
The article analyzes a 5-year 28% buffered note on the S&P 500 as an example. While they do not share a link to the terms, the note is similar to, if not exactly the same, as this note.
First, let's briefly consider what a structured note is and discuss its purpose. Structured notes are an example of what I call "defined outcome" investments, which are options-based strategies that allow investors to shape a risk/ reward exposure to fit their personal objectives. In these strategies, market participation levels are preset. Therefore, the targeted downside participation is known in advance, as is the upside potential.
A defined outcome investment can be built to introduce risk, reduce risk, or modify it - in this case, the 28% buffered note offers S&P exposure with a material level of downside protection, which I will refer to as downside "insurance" in this article. Performance at maturity, assuming no default of the issuer, looks like this (X axis is Adjusted S&P 500 return; Y axis is the Note return):
An investor may be interested in this product if they are risk-averse but still want to participate in equity markets (e.g., an executive who is retiring in 5 years from now and can't take a big hit over the next 5 years). The "insurance policy" of this note will cover up to 28% of downside "damage" 5 years from now - e.g., market down 28%, investor loses 0, market down 40%, investor loses 12%.
As in all insurance policies, a premium needs to be paid - in this case, the investor loses all dividends of the S&P 500.
Over 5 years, those lost dividends amount to about 12% in a reasonable model scenario (2% annual dividend rate, assumed reinvestment at a compounded 8%). Is 28% of potential downside insurance worth giving up 12% of dividend upside, while still participating in the price appreciation of the S&P 500? There's no right answer to that question as it depends on an individual's needs and perspectives.
As mentioned, I found a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations (e.g., expense levels, liquidity) in the article but will focus on the main items which I found to be flawed. To summarize:
Greater detail follows:
In conclusion, while I acknowledge that Structured Notes have issues (I cover them in detail at the end of this white paper), which is what drove me to found Exceed Investments in the first place, this article does not treat them fairly. Ultimately, the referenced note provides a very defined risk / reward exposure to the S&P 500, providing a level of downside protection that may be deemed appropriate and/or may resonate for a subset of investors.
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Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.