Alternative ETFs: Understanding VIX ETFs

VIX ETFs exist, but they actually track VIX futures indexes, which creates challenges.

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The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX index) attracts traders and investors because it often spikes way up when US equity markets plunge. Known as the fear gauge, the VIX index reflects the market's short-term outlook for stock price volatility as derived from options prices on the S&P 500.

The challenge is that investors just can't access the VIX index. Period.

VIX ETFs exist, but they actually track VIX futures indexes, which creates 2 big challenges:

  1. VIX ETFs don't reflect the VIX index
    By any measure, VIX futures indexes—and therefore VIX ETFs—do a lousy job emulating the VIX index. The VIX index is truly uninvestable, and over periods of a month or a year, the return pattern of VIX ETFs will differ radically from that of the VIX index.
  2. VIX ETFs tend to lose money—significant money—in the long run
    VIX ETFs are at the mercy of the VIX futures curve, which they rely upon for their exposure. Because the typical state of the curve is upsloping (in contango), VIX ETFs see their positions decay over time. Decay in their exposure leaves them with less money to roll into the next futures contract when the current one expires. The process then repeats itself, leading to massive double-digit losses over the course of a typical year. These funds almost always lose money long term.

In it for a minute

In the real world, traders stay in VIX ETFs for 1 day, not 1 year. VIX ETFs are emphatically short-term tactical tools used by traders. Products like VXX, an exchange-traded note (ETN), are incredibly liquid, often trading more than their total assets under management, or AUM, in 1 or 2 days of trading. Traders speculate with VIX ETFs because they offer the best (or least-worst) means to get at the VIX index in the very short run. So-called "short-term" VIX ETFs offer better 1-day sensitivity to the VIX index then do "midterm" VIX ETFs.

It's a wrap

VIX ETFs aren't ETFs in the strictest sense. They come in ETN or commodity pool structures, not as traditional mutual funds. ETNs carry the counterparty risk (usually low) of the issuing banks, while commodity pools issue K-1's at tax time.

VIX ETFs come in other flavors than the pure-play described above. VIX overlay ETFs hold broad equity positions and an overlay of VIX futures exposure. They aim to limit downside equity risk but either bear or try to minimize the high cost of long-term VIX futures exposure.

So in conclusion, if you're looking to get exposure to VIX for a couple of days, there are products out there for you, but perhaps more than any other corner of the ETF market—buyer beware!

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