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What are Leveraged ETFs?

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Leveraged ETFs are exchange-traded funds that are structured to amplify the daily returns of an underlying index. They combine the convenience of ETFs with the leverage typically associated with more complex financial products.

How leverage in ETFs Works

Leverage, also known as gearing, is used by traders and investors to increase potential returns. This is done by increasing the exposure of a portfolio to an asset. If 100% of a portfolio is invested in an asset, and the asset’s value increases 3% in a day, then the portfolio’s value also increases 3%.

Now, if 200% of the value of the portfolio was invested in the same asset, it would generate a return equal to 6% of the portfolio’s value. To open a position worth more than the value of a portfolio, debt, margin, or derivatives are used. All three methods essentially entail borrowing capital while using existing capital as collateral.

If a fund has exposure worth twice its assets, it is said to be 2X or 200% leveraged. Financial products can be leveraged anywhere from 1X to 50X, but leveraged ETF gearing typically only ranges from 1.25X to 5X.

Standard ETFs vs Leveraged ETFs

ETFs are portfolios of securities that are themselves listed like ordinary shares. The vast majority of ETFs invest in a basket of securities to track the performance of index. The basket is therefore structured to mirror the index.

Leveraged ETFs are quite different, and don’t simply hold a portfolio of securities. To amplify returns, leveraged ETFs either use derivatives, or debt to increase the exposure to the index. Using debt and derivatives introduces new costs and risks to the fund.

Standard ETFs are predominantly passive investing vehicles. They make passive, long term investing accessible to investors with little investing knowledge or capital. Leveraged ETFs are a departure from this type of investing and are more suitable for active trading and hedging.

Daily returns vs long term returns

An important aspect of leveraged ETFs is the way they track an index. In order to generate returns equal to a specific multiplier of the index return, the fund must be rebalanced each day. But this means the returns will only be equal, or very close, to the multiplier of the index returns each day. Over longer periods, the amplified returns will compound.

Let’s consider as an example an ETF that is designed to return three times the return of the S&P500 index. If the index is up 1% on a given day, the fund should be up 3% for the day. Likewise, if the index is down 2% on a given day, the fund will be down around 6%. But, if the index is up 10% in a given month or year, the fund is unlikely to be up 30% for the same period. This is a result of the compounding of leveraged returns.

During strong bull markets, positive returns will compound, and the total return may be greater than expected. However, during bear markets and volatile periods, the return is likely to be significantly worse than expected.

Leveraged ETF costs

The expense ratio of an ETF reflects the management fees and operational costs for the fund. It is expressed as a percentage of the fund’s NAV that is paid by shareholders each year. The fee is spread across the entire year by adjusting the NAV a tiny amount each day.

The expense ratio for leveraged funds is substantially higher than it is for standard ETFs. Most funds that track the S&P500 charge less than 0.1%, while leveraged versions of the same fund charge around 1%. The higher fees reflect borrowing costs and the fact that the fund needs to be rebalanced each day.

In addition, there may be other ‘hidden costs’ that are priced into the derivative contracts used to increase exposure. These costs are not deducted from the NAV but may act as a drag on performance.

Alternatives to leveraged ETFs

There are several other ways to leverage your exposure to an index, each with its own advantages and drawbacks:

  • A margined account is a stock trading account that gives you buying power worth more than the capital in your account.
  • You can use your portfolio, or other assets, as collateral to borrow capital to increase buying power.
  • You can use derivatives like futures, CFDs (contracts for difference) or options.

Some of these alternatives are cheaper than leveraged ETFs but cannot be traded with a regular stock trading account.

Examples of Leveraged ETFs

Not all ETF issuers manage leveraged funds. In fact, just three companies issue most of the ETFs on the market – ProShares, iPath, and Direxion.

The ProShares UltraPro QQQ fund (TQQQ) is designed to return 3X the daily returns of the Nasdaq 100 composite index. As of September 2020, this was the largest US-listed leveraged fund with assets under management of $8.9 billion. This fund has an expense ratio of 0.95%.

The largest fund that generates leveraged returns based in the S&P500 index is the ProShares Ultra S&P ETF (SSO) This fund generates 2X the daily returns of the index and has an expense ratio of 0.92%.

The ProShares UltraShort S&P 500 fund (SDS) is a popular vehicle for shorting the S&P index. It generates 2X the inverse return of the index and has an expense ratio of 0.89%. You can learn more about inverse ETFs here.

Bond investors can speculate on interest rate changes with leveraged and inverse leveraged ETFs. The Direxion Daily 20-Year Treasury Bull (TMF) seeks to return 3X the return of the NYSE 20 Year Plus Treasury Bond Index. The Direxion Daily 20-Year Treasury Bear ETF (TMV) returns 3X the inverse of returns from the same index. These funds charge 1.09 and 1.02% respectively.

Advantages of leveraged ETFs

• Leveraged ETFs are the easiest way to increase exposure to an index using a regular trading account. You do not need a margin account or a derivative trading account to trade them.
• They can be used to speculate on short term price movements.
• Leveraged inverse ETFs can be used to hedge market exposure over short periods of time.

Disadvantages of Leveraged ETFs

• Negative returns can compound very quickly. This makes leveraged ETFs very risky over periods longer than a day or two.
• Capital gains realized over short periods of time may be subject to higher tax rates.
• The expense ratios of leveraged ETFs are significantly higher than they are for standard ETFs.

Conclusion

Leveraged ETFs are useful for short term speculation and hedging. Although they are more expensive than regular funds, the costs can be justified over short periods. However, they do need to be treated with caution as they come with significant risks.

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Richard Bowman is a writer, analyst and investor based in Cape Town, South Africa. He has over 18 years’ experience in asset management, stockbroking, financial media and systematic trading. Richard combines fundamental, quantitative and technical analysis with a dash of common sense.

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