What Is an Inverse ETF?

An inverse ETF is an exchange-traded fund (ETF) constructed by using various derivatives to profit from a decline in the value of an underlying benchmark. Investing in inverse ETFs is similar to holding various short positions, which involve borrowing securities and selling them with the hope of repurchasing them at a lower price. An inverse ETF is also known as a "Short ETF," or "Bear ETF."

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An Introduction To Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

Inverse ETFs Explained

Many inverse ETFs utilize daily futures contracts to produce their returns. A futures contract is a contract to buy or sell an asset or security at a specific time and price. Futures allow investors to make a bet on the direction of a securities price. Inverse ETFs use of derivatives such as futures allows investors to make a bet that the market will decline. If the market falls, the inverse ETF rises by roughly the same percentage minus fees and commissions from the broker.

Inverse ETFs are not used as long-term investments since the derivative contracts are bought and sold daily by the fund's manager. As a result, there is no way to guarantee that the inverse ETF will match the long-term performance of the index or stocks its tracking. The frequent trading often increases fund expenses whereby inverse ETFs can carry expense ratios of 1% or more.

Key Takeaways

  • An inverse ETF is an exchange-traded fund (ETF) constructed by using various derivatives to profit from a decline in the value of an underlying benchmark.
  • Inverse ETFs allow investors to make money when the market or the underlying index declines.
  • Higher fees exist with inverse ETFs versus traditional ETFs.

Inverse ETFs vs. Short Selling

An advantage of inverse ETFs is that they do not require the investor to hold a margin account as would be the case for investors looking to enter into short positions. A margin account is an account whereby a broker lends money to an investor to trade. Margin is used with shorting since investors borrow the securities, sell them, and buy them back at a lower price to unwind the trade. However, there's the risk that the security rises in value instead of falling and the investor has to buy back the securities at a higher price than the original sale price.

In addition to a margin account, short selling requires a stock loan fee paid to a broker for borrowing the shares necessary to sell short. Stocks with high short interest may result in difficulty finding shares to short, which drives up the cost of short selling. In many cases, the cost of borrowing shares to short can exceed 3% of the borrowed amount.

Inverse ETFs often have expense ratios of less than 2% and can be purchased by anyone with a brokerage account. Despite the expense ratios, it is still easier and less costly for an investor to take a position in an inverse ETF than it is to sell stocks short.

There are several inverse ETFs that can be used to profit from declines in broad market indexes, such as the Russell 2000 or the Nasdaq 100. Also, there are inverse ETFs that focus on specific sectors, such as financials, energy, or consumer staples. Some investors use inverse ETFs to profit from market declines while others use them to hedge their portfolios against falling prices. For example, investors who own an ETF that matches the S&P 500 can hedge declines in the S&P by owning an inverse ETF for the S&P. However, hedging has risks as well. If the S&P rises, investors would have to sell their inverse ETFs since they'll be experiencing losses offsetting any gains in their original S&P investment.

Inverse ETFs are short-term trading instruments that must be timed perfectly for investors to make money. There's a significant risk of losses if investors allocate to much money to inverse ETFs and time their entries and exits poorly.

Double and Triple Inverse Funds

A leveraged ETF is a fund that uses derivatives and debt to magnify the returns of an underlying index. Typically, an ETF's price rises or falls on a one-to-one basis compared to the index it tracks. A leveraged ETF is designed to boost the returns to 2:1 or 3:1 compared to the index.

Leveraged inverse ETFs use the same concept as leveraged products and aim to deliver a magnified return when the market is falling. For example, if the S&P has declined by 2%, a 2Xs leveraged inverse ETF will deliver a 4% return to investors excluding fees and commissions.

Pros

  • Inverse ETFs allow investors to make money when the market or the underlying index declines

  • Inverse ETFs can help investors hedge their investment portfolio

  • There are multiple inverse ETFs for many of the major market indices

Cons

  • Inverse ETFs can lead to losses quickly if investors bet wrong on the market's direction

  • Inverse ETFs held for more than one day can lead to losses

  • Higher fees exist with inverse ETFs versus traditional ETFs

Real World Example of an Inverse ETF

SHProShares Short S&P500 (SH) provides inverse exposure to large and mid-size companies in the S&P 500. It has an expense ratio of .89% and over $1.77 billion in assets under management. The ETF aims to provide a one-day trading bet and is not designed to be held for more than one day.

In December 2018, the S&P declined, and as a result, from December 13, 2018, the SH rose from $29.88 to $33.59 by December 24, 2018. If investors had been in the SH during those days, they would have realized gains.

However, in 2019, the S&P recovered and bounced back whereby the SH traded on January 03, 2019 for $32.12 and fell to $27.35 by April 01, 2019.