| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Feb 12 Leveraged exchange-traded
funds, originally viewed as tools for fast-moving day traders,
are showing up more frequently as buy-and-hold investments in
Mom and Pop portfolios, thanks to the advisers who are putting
These funds, which exist across several asset classes,
magnify the moves of their underlying indexes by delivering
twice or three times their return. Some had a particularly good
showing in 2013, when the Standard & Poor's 500 index
rose almost 30 percent. The Direxion Daily S&P 500 Bull 3x
Shares ETF, for example, gained 118.9 percent in 2013,
more than triple the S&P 500's gains.
Advisers like New York-based Matt Blank have taken note.
Many of his clients have been holding the ProShares UltraShort
20+ Year Treasury ETF for a while, some more than six
months. He has used that ETF, which aims to deliver twice the
reverse of the Barclays Capital 20+ Year U.S. Treasury Index,
for what he calls an "insurance policy" in case the fixed-income
portion of his clients' portfolios sinks. That fund is up about
5.3 percent from a year ago, but it hit a year-to-date low last
Monday, after tumbling 7.7 percent from two weeks prior. The
fund is now down 9.5 percent year-to-date.
The number of registered investment advisers using leveraged
and inverse ETFs - instruments that seek to deliver the opposite
return of an index - has increased roughly 15 to 20 percent over
the last year, according to Michael Eschmann, who heads product
development at Direxion Shares, a Newton, Massachusetts-based
ETF issuer with some 51 of the funds. Typically, advisers like
this work with clients who do not day trade, and who would hold
the ETFs in their clients' portfolios for far longer than the
minutes or hours the Wall Street trader typically holds a
Eschmann said starting in late summer of last year he began
getting calls "pretty frequently" from investors inquiring about
longer holding periods.
That raises some concerns among those who fear that unwary
investors could get slammed if they are sitting in a leveraged
ETF at the wrong time.
"I think the warning about 'be careful when you're playing
with matches' is appropriate here," said Joel Dickson, a senior
investment strategist at Vanguard. "There's still a huge
misunderstanding and gap in knowledge" among many investors.
Leveraged ETFs do magnify their index movements on a daily
basis, but not necessarily over the long term, which can really
foul up investors who buy at the wrong time or fail to sell.
That is because these funds magnify losses as well as gains, and
over time, that can push investors into a hole that is hard to
climb out of.
A fund that goes up 30 percent one day and down 30 percent
the next day ends up almost 10 percent below its starting price,
for example. If it starts by going down 30 percent on the first
day, it would have to go up roughly 42 percent to get back to
its starting price. That compounding effect often results in the
failure of leveraged ETFs to track their indexes over longer
Consider this example: The VelocityShares 3x Long Natural
Gas ETN tracks three times the daily returns of the S&P
GSCI Natural Gas Index Excess Return Index, an index
that was very volatile in late January. That volatility produced
sharp swings in the ETF.
The fund shot up 32.2 percent on Wednesday, Jan. 29, then
fell back down 27.9 percent the next day. The next week, the
fund rose 21.7 percent on Tuesday, Feb. 4, and then fell back 11
percent the next day.
But the peculiarities of compounding meant the tracking did
not hold over the long term. Between Jan. 27 and Feb. 7, the
fund lost 7.7 percent while the underlying index showed a gain
of 2.1 percent.
To be sure, holding on to the wrong ETF for the long term
could really hurt. In 2013, the Credit Suisse VelocityShares
Daily 2x VIX Short-Term ETN dropped roughly 92 percent
in what was a low-volatility year. The fund seeks to deliver
twice the daily return of the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures
Index, a measure of volatility.
HOLDING FOR LONGER
As far back as 2009, regulators were warning individual
investors about holding leveraged ETFs. Wall Street's
self-regulator, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, put
out an investor alert about use of leveraged ETFs by
But in less-volatile periods like 2013, the funds can turn
in outsized returns and that has attracted more RIAs, Eschmann
"Much more frequently people are calling up and saying,
'hey, I thought I couldn't hold these things, but now it's up
50, 60 percent year-to-date,'" he said.
Bethesda, Maryland-based ProShares, which has roughly $27
billion in assets of the $33 billion leveraged and inverse ETF
market, said more than 70 percent of its ETFs outperformed their
stated daily objective over the entire 2013 calendar year.
"If you filter out the noise day to day ... and catch it
right, it's very easy to sit through a day or two when the
market moves against you," Blank said.
He said he sees his fellow advisers approaching these ETFs
more strategically than in the past. "There has to be some sort
of methodology, otherwise they really can be very hazardous to
Many of the largest brokerages, such as Merrill Lynch and
Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, still do not allow their
advisers to trade leveraged or inverse ETFs on their platforms
because of concerns that individual investors do not fully
understand the risks.
The way the multiplier affects long-term returns is "still
the biggest part the retail investor doesn't understand," said
Overland Park, Kansas-based independent adviser Brad Stratton.
He had clients who lost money holding leveraged ETFs for as long
as six months during the volatile and bearish 2007-2008 period,
and now he is reluctant to follow the long-term strategy.
Stratton, who uses the ProShares Ultra S&P 500 and
its inverse ProShares UltraShort S&P 500 ETFs, said he
now prefers to keep his clients in the funds for no more than a
week to 10 days.
That may be a while in the eyes of a Wall Street trader, but
it is hardly the buy-and-hold strategy of a longer-term