#VIX

“Simplicity of ETFs” doesn’t always equate to more safety vs “Complexity of CDOs”

Remember how we were told how CDOs and synthetic CDOs were so mathematically complex that only a mythical hermit in the Himalayas could decode them?

Thank god we saw an explosion “as it says on the tin” exchange-traded-funds (ETFs) thrust upon us. So simple. Pick a basket of stocks, indices or commodities and one could get access to a whole range of products under that banner. One might feel that the S&P500 will go up so will look to buy a leveraged product of 2x or 3x to maximise returns. Even better the ETFs were far cheaper fees wise too.

Unfortunately, to hedge the risk of doubling exposure requires liquidity in the derivatives market. When markets panic and start sinking, the ability to keep the product true to its promises becomes quantum leaps harder. The explosion in the spreads on derivatives pricing (delta bleed) of the hedged products puts more downward pressure on the market.

Looking to ETF activity in the market, for the first week of March they comprised 34% of total activity up from 24% in February.

This is why ETF volatility on the downside is so much worse. By its design, an ETF ‘replicates’ the cash index it tracks. If the S&P500 falls by 2%, the S&P500 ETF product is designed to copy it. So it is always lagging, not leading.

Therefore if the market is having a coronavirus based sell-off, what might have been a 4% decline (big but not diabolical) turns into a 7% correction, especially when the leveraged products chime in. They might be small at 2% of the traded ETF market but the additional pressure starts to compound in the non-leveraged product too.

Because the media is so conditioned to compare apples with oranges with these recent declines to those we saw in 1987, 2000 or 2008, periods where relatively tiny levels of ETFs drove volatility, the cash market equity investors can get spooked by the optics of the sell-off which is merely the ETFs/levered ETFs playing catch up. So it can trigger more selling which exacerbates panic under, some might say, false pretences. It starts a chain reaction.

If you wish to learn more about the dynamics of ETF sell-offs please refer to the link here. The CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF provider infamously said,

leveraged ETFs have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.

We are starting to see the evidence emerge. The VIX Index is a calculation designed to produce a measure of constant, 30-day expected volatility of the U.S. stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility.

It is back toward 2008 highs. The spikes are effectively marking the “delta bleed”. This is why we need to keep an eye on the levels of activity in the ETF market potentially accelerating the extent of the market gyrations. Don’t be fooled into thinking ETFs are safe as houses products.

VIX

A reminder on the extra market downside risk created by ETFs

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As a reminder in markets selling off in recent days, please find a report which touches on the extra volatility created by ETFs on the downside that amplifies market sell offs.

An excerpt of the report is as follows;

CEO Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF creator, has made it clear that leveraged ETFs (at present 1.2% of total ETF AUM) have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.” The argument is that the underlying assets that provide the leverage (which tend to have less liquidity) could cause losses very quickly in volatile markets. To put this in perspective we looked at the Direxion Daily Fin Bull 3x (FAS) 3x leverage of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index…The point Mr Fink is driving at is…the average daily return is closer to 10x (in both directions) than the 3x it is seeking to offer. This is post any market meltdown. On a daily basis the minimum and maximum has ended up being -1756x to 1483x of the index return, albeit those extremes driven by the law of small numbers of the return of the underlying index. Which suggests that in a nasty downturn the ETF performance of the leveraged plays could be well outside the expectations of the holders.

The “bigger” point about the FANG sell off

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While the press is waxing lyrical about the unprecedented loss caused by a sell off in FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix & Google) we should note that it overlooks one factor. Before getting to that, to start with the sell off in gross dollar terms it is unsurprising given the already highly inflated value of the base stocks. So if A $500bn market cap Facebook loses 4% it is equivalent to $20bn. On one day FB lost a Fiat Chrysler. It’s math. Let’s not forget that Bitcoin is now worth $165bn but let’s not let that bubble spoil the party.

The problem that faces financial markets is the advent of ETFs. While stupefyingly simple to understand as an investor it is that same simplicity that breeds complacency. ETFs are simple products that enable investors to pay much lower fund management fees to buy easy to understand baskets- whether coal, gold, oil or FANGs. There are 106 ETF products that own Facebook as a Top 15 holding with that averaging between 5% and 10% of the entire fund.

Yet on the way up things are rosy. It is what happens on the downside that has yet to be fully tested. Around two years ago, CM wrote a report which warned of the risk of ETFs on the downside, especially levered ETFs (i.e. you buy a 2x levered FANG fund which means if FANG stocks go up 5% you theoretically get 2x the return for any given move up or down.

However in times of uncertainty (i.e. heightened risk) the options markets that price risk move magnitudes on the downside vs the upside. Meaning for an ETF to replicate what it proclaims on the brochure becomes much more difficult meaning the fund may under or overshoot the promises. Also in certain markets (e.g. US & Japan) where stocks on the exchange have limit up/down rules on the physical stock, should a market crash ensue, the ETF prices on the theoretical values of stocks that may not have opened for trading. What that means is that the ETF may reflect a market that is 10-15% below where it actually eventually opens. Meaning poor ETF buyers get gouged. However the computer algorithms in the ETF end up chasing, not leading the market which in and of itself creates more panic selling further reducing market confidence. Where a market might have traditionally fallen  3% on a given piece of bad news, ETFs tend to react in ways that might cause a market to retreat 6%. Indeed market volatility is amplified by ETFs.

At the moment market behavior is exceedingly complacent about risk. Before GFC highly complex products like CDOs and CDSs were the rage. 99% had next to no clue how they operated but they found their way into the local government investment portfolios of even small country towns in Australia.

ETFs on the other hand are strikingly simple to grasp but that also means we pay far less attention to the risk that goes with them. That is the bigger worry. People complacently thinking their portfolios are safe as houses may wake up one morning wondering why some flash crash has caused Joe and Joanne Public’s retirement nest egg to get decimated.