Andrey Dashkov: Bigger, faster, better. That’s the turbocharged investment we all want. Readers who pay close attention to our portfolio will notice that we don’t hold leveraged ETFs—those with “2x” or “inverse” or “ultra” in their names, which some investors mistake for “better.”
Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are a great tool for many portfolios. They allow investors to profit from movements in a huge variety of assets grouped by industry, geography, presence in a certain index, or other criteria. You can find ETFs tracking automobile producers, cotton futures, or cows.
For our purposes, ETFs make it easier to diversify within a certain group of companies—easier because you don’t have to buy them individually. You buy the ETF and leave it to its managers to balance the portfolio when needed.
We have several ETFs in the Money Forever portfolio, and they have served us well so far. They expose us to several universes, such as international stocks, foreign dividend-paying companies, convertible securities, and others.
Why Turbocharged Isn’t Always Better
So, if we think the underlying index or asset class will move in our favor, why wouldn’t we opt for the turbocharged version—the versions that use leverage (credit) to achieve gains two times higher?
First, because we’re very cautious about volatility, and leveraged ETFs are designed to be less stable than the underlying assets. Second, there is a trick to leveraged ETFs that can make your investment in them stink even if the underlying index or asset does well.
Before we get to the details, let me pose two questions:
- If the S&P 500 goes up by 5% over several days, how much would a 2x leveraged ETF based on the index earn?
- If the S&P 500 goes up and down, then rises, and after a while ends up flat, will our ETF end up flat too?
If you answer 10% to the first question, you may be correct, and that’s the caveat: you won’t be correct 100% of the time. You can’t just multiply an index’s total gain by the ETF’s factor to gauge how much you’ll earn, because leveraged ETFs track daily gains, not total ones.
To show how that works, here’s a brief example that will also answer question number two.
|Day #||Index Price||Daily Return||ETF Price|
What you’re looking at here is a hypothetical index with a value of 1,900 at the beginning of our period. It goes up and down for four days, and then is back to 1,900 by the end of day 4. There is also an ETF that starts with a price of $100 and doubles the daily gains of the index.On the first day, the index goes down to 1,800 for a daily loss of 5.26%. This forces the daily loss of the ETF to be 10.53% (including rounding error), and the resulting price of the ETF is $89.47. The next day the index is up 3.89%, forcing the ETF to grow by 7.78%, to $96.43, and so on.