The impressive ETF boom that has unfolded over the last several years has been the result of a number of attractive features of the exchange-traded structure relative to traditional mutual funds. In addition to considerably lower expenses, intraday liquidity and enticing tax breaks have fueled interest in ETPs, which now number nearly 1,500 in the U.S. and over $1 trillion in assets. As ETFs have become more targeted and specialized, they have allowed all types of investors to gain exposure to securities and strategies that were previously hard-to-reach [see Free Report: How To Pick The Right ETF Every Time].
Just as ETFs have democratized commodities, so too have they brought another previously hard-to-access asset class within reach. As evidenced by huge inflows and a surge in the number of product offerings, more and more investors are embracing volatility exposure as an effective tool. Perhaps the most popular volatility index is the VIX, or the Chicago Board Options Exchange Market Volatility Index, which measures the implied volatility of S&P 500 index options. The VIX was introduced in 1993 by Duke University’s Professor Robert Whaley, and is a hypothetical measure of volatility based on metrics involving options trades and expectations of stock market volatility over the next 30 day period. As such, investors obviously cannot invest directly in a volatility index such as the VIX. But financial innovations of recent years have created opportunities for tapping into this asset class; futures on the VIX began trading back in 2004, and the first VIX-linked options debuted in 2006. More recently, ETNs linked to VIX-related indexes popped up, and have multiplied in recent weeks and months [see also Low Volatility ETFdb Portfolio].
The appeal of exposure to volatility through VIX futures contracts is generally related to the strong inverse correlation with stock markets. Also known as the “fear index,” the VIX tends to climb when anxiety over the short-term outlook for equity market spikes and fall when markets push higher. As such, exposure to the VIX can be an effective hedging tool for various strategies or a way to bet on turmoil in U.S. equity markets. A great example comes from the May 6th “flash crash” in 2010 where the popular VIX ETN surged over 35% intraday as markets went into a furious downward spiral. Most investors use these funds for short term exposure, as they are subject to hefty price swings, but as the ETF space expands, so too do the strategies that follow the fear index [see Volatility ETFs: How And How Not To Use].
Short-Term VIX ETNs
It is important to note that none of the options, futures, or ETNs linked to the VIX offer exposure to the actual changes in the spot price of the index. Instead, short-term VIX ETNS, which generally establish long positions in the first and second month VIX contracts on a rolling basis, will often move in line with the spot VIX–at least in the short term. Because the market for VIX futures contracts is often contangoed and sloping steeply upward in the short term, the “roll yield” incurred by a short term strategy can be significant. Currently, there are two short-term VIX ETNs:
- iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX): The first VIX ETN to hit the market, VXX has become the most popular option for short-term investors seeking out volatility exposure. With average daily trading volumes topping 14 million, it’s also quite evident that this product has become a favorite among speculators and active traders alike.
- VIX Short-Term ETN (VIIX): This VelocityShares fund is set up very similarly to that of VXX. VIIX, however tracks a slightly different index, as it is linked to the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index Excess Return; the iPath product profiled above is linked to the total return version of the same index, resulting in minor performance differences.
- VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (VIXY): This innovative offering from ProShares allows investors to tap into volatility futures without incurring the nuances associated with ETNs such as credit risk. On the other hand, the ETF structure may expose investors to potential tracking error as well as unfavorable tax treatment [see also 101 ETF Lessons Every Financial Advisor Should Learn].
Mid-Term VIX ETNs
These ETNs offer investors the opportunity to invest in contracts that are several months out, as opposed to the first and second month futures that are offered by short-term VIX funds. As a result, mid-term VIX ETNs are generally less sensitive to changes in the spot VIX, but also less vulnerable to the impact of contango in futures markets [see also VelocityShares Debuts Its Lineup Of VIX ETNs].
- iPath S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures ETN (VXZ): This product offers returns based on rolling long positions in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh month VIX contracts. While VXZ may seem very similar to its short-term counterpart, the risk/return profile is actually very different; this ETN should exhibit less volatility than VXX and its focus on longer-dated contracts somewhat mitigates the impact of contango.
- VIX Medium-Term ETN (VIIZ): Similar as the short-term products, this offering from VelocityShares tracks a slightly different version than its iPath counterpart; VIIZ is linked to the S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures Index Excess Return, while VXZ tracks the total return version of the same benchmark.
- VIX Mid-Term Futures ETF (VIXM): Once again, ProShares offers an ETF alternative which focuses on mid-term VIX futures, giving those wary of ETNs a viable option.
Leveraged VIX ETNs
Just as there are ETFs offering leveraged exposure to many popular stock and bond indexes, it is now possible for investors to establish amplified daily exposure to VIX-related indexes. By adding leverage to an asset class that often shows big price swings, the result is an extremely volatile security [see The Ultimate Guide To Leveraged ETFs].
- Daily 2x VIX Short-Term ETN (TVIX): This product is a leveraged version of VIIX, as it offers daily 2x leverage to an index comprised of short-term VIX futures contracts. The leveraged VIX products offered by VelocityShares feature a daily reset mechanism, making them similar to the leveraged products offered by ProShares and Direxion. In other words, the daily leverage offered by TVIX and TVIZ will reset to 200% daily, while the exposure for XIV and ZIV will reset to -200% daily.
- Daily 2x VIX Medium-Term ETN (TVIZ): TVIZ is the 2x version of VIIZ, the mid-term volatility index from VelocityShares. While it won’t generally deliver price swings as big as TVIX, this fund is still likely to show big price movements, and is designed primarily for sophisticated traders with a short time horizon.
- Long Enhanced S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures ETN (VZZB): This product is a leveraged version of VXZ, as it offers daily 2x leverage to an index consisting of daily rolling long positions in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh month VIX futures contracts.
- Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (UVXY): This ETF from ProShares offers 2x leveraged exposure to the same index which VIXY is linked to, once again, offering up an alternative to those looking to steer clear of ETNs.
Inverse VIX ETNs
Inverse VIX ETPs are a relatively new introduction, and can be useful for investors looking to bet on a decline in expected equity market volatility. These funds are not suited for buy-and-hold investors, but may offer advantages to seasoned traders who utilize more complex strategies to generate returns [see Everything You Need To Know About Short ETFs].
- Inverse S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (XXV): This inverse VIX fund measures short term contract, and trades under reverse ticker of the original Barclays iPath volatility fund, VXX. The fund offers inverse exposure to the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index Excess Return, which is designed to reflect the returns that are potentially available through an unleveraged investment in short-term futures contracts on the CBOE Volatility Index. Again, this product doesn’t offer leverage in the same manner that daily reset products (such as those from ProShares and Direxion) do; the amplified returns are sought over the life of the underlying debt security.
- Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (XIV): This fund will measure a similar index as XXV and is also a short-term inverse VIX fund. Like the +200% counterpart, this VelocityShares product resets exposure on a daily basis (as does ZIV).
- Daily Inverse VIX Medium-Term ETN (ZIV): VelocityShares also offers an option for inverse exposure to a mid-term VIX index; ZIV should appreciate when stocks jump and will struggle when the VIX is on the rise.
- Invesre S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (IVOP): This iPath ETN offers inverse exposure to an index comprised of daily rolling positions in first and second month VIX futures contracts. Investors should note that IVOP also features an automatic redemption trigger at $10 per share.
- Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (SVXY): This ETF alternative from ProShares offers inverse exposure to the same index which underlies VIXY [see Inverse VIX ETNs: Reviewing All The Options].
Long/Short VIX ETN
Access to the VIX is no longer just limited to the traditional sub-sets–long, inverse, leveraged, etc. UBS offers the E-TRACS Daily Long-Short VIX ETN (XVIX), which is a product that offers exposure to a strategy designed to exploit the nuances of futures-based access to volatility markets. XVIX’s strategy involves establishing a 100% long position in the S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures Index Excess Return with a short 50% position in the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index Excess Return, with daily rebalancing of the long and short positions [see Six Noteworthy ETF Innovations].
The investment thesis behind XVIX focuses on the systematically high risk premium for near-term VIX futures relative to mid-term contracts. By maintaining long exposure to mid-term contracts–those that are between four and seven months from expiration–and short exposure to those contracts nearing expiration, XVIX presents an opportunity to capture some of that risk premium regardless of whether equity market volatility is increasing or decreasing. The fund charges an expense ratio of 0.85%.
The Barclays ETN+ S&P VEQTOR ETN (VQT) is linked to the S&P 500 Dynamic VEQTOR, an index that provides exposure to large cap U.S. equities with an implied volatility hedge by allocating assets to three asset classes: stocks, volatility, and cash. Depending on the magnitude and trend of volatility, the equity allocation maintained by the ETN will shift between 60% (if volatility spikes to more than 45% and an uptrend is detected) and 97.5% (if realized volatility drops to less than 10% and no trend is detected).
Non-VIX Volatility ETN
While the VIX is the popular measure of volatility, there are other volatility indexes available that use their own metrics to track market uncertainty:
- C-Tracks ETN Citi Volatility Index Total Return (CVOL): This ETF tracks the Citi Volatility Index Total Return, which is designed to measure directional exposure to the implied volatility of large cap U.S. stocks. The fund’s methodology combines daily rolling long exposure to the third- and fourth-month futures contracts on the CBOE Volatility Index along with short exposure to the S&P 500 Total Return Index [see also Using ETFs As “Portfolio Insurance”].
Word Of Caution
As the ETF world continues to expand, so too does the complexity of the new products hitting the market. The majority of VIX funds, for example, aren’t designed to be held over the long term and can exhibit significant volatility. Besides the wild price swings, contango in futures markets introduces additional drivers of performance and layers of complexity to the risk/return profiles. Nonethless, the VIX ETPs available to investors can be very powerful tools, facilitating sophisticated trading strategies or serving as effective hedges. But they are complex products, and as such, should be used with caution.
Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.
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