Inverse and leveraged ETFs

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Inverse and leveraged ETFs (Exchange-traded funds)[note 1] describes several ETF structures which are intended to provide returns in excess of an equivalent ETF benchmark. The purpose of this article is to explain why these ETFs are not intended for long-term investments.


There are 3 structures:[1]

  • Leveraged ETFs seek to deliver multiples of the performance of the index or benchmark they track.
  • Inverse ETFs (also called "short" funds) seek to deliver the opposite of the performance of the index or benchmark they track.
  • Leveraged inverse ETFs (also known as "ultra short" funds) seek to achieve a return that is a multiple of the inverse performance of the underlying index.

Here are several example ETF descriptions:

  • ProShares Ultra S&P500 seeks daily investment results, before fees and expenses, that correspond to two times (2x) the daily performance of the S&P 500®.[2]
  • ProShares Ultra UltraShort S&P500 seeks daily investment results, before fees and expenses, that correspond to two times the inverse (-2x) of the daily performance of the S&P 500®.[3]
  • Direxion Emerging Markets Bear 3X ETF seeks daily investment results, before fees and expenses, of 300% of the inverse (or opposite) of the performance of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.[4]

Let's look at the 3rd example fund provider, Direxion. Notice that Direxion itself[5] says these funds are for "short-term trading." This is not a detail or a pro forma disclaimer - it is explicitly displayed in the figure below.

Direxion ETF Fund Categories


The first category, "Long Term Investment" contains 3 ETFs which match a benchmark. The second category contains 2 leveraged ETFs ("3X") and is titled "Short Term Trading" which is a warning sign that these ETFs will perform differently than those intended for long-term investments. The link "Are Direxion Shares ETFs for you?" is an additional warning sign, as there would be no reason to ask this question if these ETFs performed similarly to ETFs intended for long-term investments.

Brokerages typically require customers to sign a special disclaimer in order to open a margin account. Everyone understands that using leverage in the form of a margin account is taking on a big risk, the risk of losing more than your total investment. It is a mistake to think you can get essentially similar results, more conveniently and without the risk of losing more than your investment, simply by using an inverse or leveraged ETF.

Anyone thinking of using an inverse or leveraged ETF needs to read and understand the fund company's factsheets and prospectus, which disclose the issues in language varying from veiled to clear.

Comparison between "daily" and "long-term" results

Now, let's illustrate how big the difference is between "daily" and long-term results.

The word "daily" means exactly what it says, and it is not a minor detail. Some investors think they see interesting theoretical possibilities for using leverage in long-term investing. If so, they should not think that over long periods of time they can get double the return of the S&P 500 simply by investing in a 2X leveraged S&P 500 ETF.

"Daily" is not a technicality. These products double or triple the long or short index for a single day, so if you are someone who trades in and out of positions on a daily basis, they actually do pretty much what you'd expect. Not so over long periods, and the difference can be huge. We are not talking about a few percent, we are not talking about expense-ratio-sized differences.

There's no secret about any of this and no dispute about it. The ETF companies disclose it fairly clearly in the factsheets, such as "This leveraged ETF seeks a return that is -300% the return of its benchmark index for a single day. The fund should not be expected to provide three times the return of the benchmark’s cumulative return for periods greater than a day (Direxion), and "Due to the compounding of daily returns, ProShares' returns over periods other than one day will likely differ in amount and possibly direction from the target return for the same period" (ProShares).

But they don't go out of their way to show you the potential impact. Let's ask: "How much is that in dollars?" which is quantified in the following sections.

"Will likely differ in amount"

"Differ in amount" means that the "2X" fund might not deliver twice the return of the index. For example, ProShares Ultra S&P 500 ETF, SSO began in 6/2007. $10,000 invested in the Vanguard 500 Index fund would have gained a total of $6,966 in total return since that time (6/20/2006 to 12/31/2013). Did the Ultra fund earn twice that ($13,932)?

Comparison of ProShares Ultra S&P 500 (SSO) to Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)

It did not. It earned $6,097, which is less than the Vanguard 500 Index fund earnings. The 2X ETF earned less than the straight, unleveraged, direct investment.

"And possibly differ in direction"

This is a veiled way of saying that over periods of more than a day, your ETF could go down even when the inverse or leveraged index it is tied to goes up. This is why ProShares says "Investors should monitor their holdings consistent with their strategies, as frequently as daily."

We will illustrated with a deliberately-picked and unusual period of time (12/31/2007 to 12/31/2010), but it is a valid illustration of the effect of volatility drag on a leveraged ETF. Before showing the results, here is a question.

Over this time period, an investment of $10,000 in Vanguard 500 Index fund lost $846. Knowing this, which of these three investments do you think did the best over that time period?

a) Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX)
b) ProShares Ultra S&P (SSO), "two times (2x) the daily performance of the S&P 500"
c) ProShares UltraShort S&P (SDS), "two times the inverse (-2x) of the daily performance of the S&P 500."

The answer is (a). If you reasoned that since the S&P 500 lost money, an ETF that shorts the S&P ought to have made money, you fell into the trap.

  • The Vanguard 500 index fund lost $846.
  • ProShares Ultra S&P (SSO), the 2X ETF for the same index lost. But it didn't lose just twice as much as VFINX, it lost over four times as much-- $4,050.
  • ProShares UltraShort S&P (SDS), the 2X short ETF (-2X, gains if benchmark drops) which should have earned a profit, lost even more--$4,595.

That's right- heads you lose, tails you lose. Over that time period you could have been right about the direction of the S&P but still lost money.

And this isn't just a matter of a few percent, a minor detail, or an expense ratio difference. The loss is more than 4.8 times the amount of an unleveraged direct investment.[note 2]

Comparison of ProShares Ultra S&P (SSO), ProShares Ultra S&P 500 (SDS) and Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)


In short, the providers' warnings are perfectly true. These ETFs are for single-day or very-short-term "trading," speculating, gambling only. They are no good for long-term investing. Regardless of what you might or might not think about the possible usefulness of a long-term leveraged position achieved by using margin, leveraged and inverse ETFs are a completely different thing and do not give even remotely comparable results.

An opposing point of view

An article in the Journal of Indexes, authored by Joanne Hill and George Foster, both of ProShares, note that "it is likely that leveraged and inverse ETFs are commonly being utilized as short-term tactical trading tools" but state that, nevertheless, by applying certain rebalancing strategies, "leveraged and inverse funds have been and can be used successfully for periods longer than one day." The article, "Understanding Returns of Leveraged and Inverse Funds", [6] gives a detailed analysis of how volatility affects inverse and leveraged ETFs.

See also


  1. Leveraging is also called gearing. Leveraged ETFs and Geared ETFs mean the same thing.
  2. The loss is 4.8 times = 4050/846 for the 2X ETF, 5.4 times = 4,595/846 for the short -2X ETF.


External links