Wednesday, June 17, 2009



When so many are selling something so hard – perhaps you should go and long and sell rather than buy.

By Neil George

Over the past few years there’s been movement to convince as many folks as possible to buy and hold Exchange Traded Funds more commonly known by the acronym of ETF.

And seemingly every fund management company has come out of the woodwork with ETFs that are supposed to provide investors with an easy means of investing in just about any particular market sector, index or even themes.

And over the past several months – these supposedly index-linked investment vehicles -have been repackaged and with the permission of US regulators have become more flexible and even managed – so that they’re not even indexed to anything.

And whether an ETF is linked to an index or not – they can of course also supposedly be created to perform at a multiple of what underlying basket of securities or index or even to perform in the opposite direction.

Billions upon billions of dollars have been spent on advertising and pitches to buy into this supposedly new form of investing.

The idea is that rather than having to actually pick out stocks to buy or sell – you can just buy an ETF and have it all done for you.

And as the pitches go – ETFs are really much cheaper than investing in a mutual fund – closed end or open end – because all the managers have to do is put together the ETF based on an index and let the market price them. So, its almost like investing for free.

Again – no wonder that so many investors – even supposed professionals buy and hold ETFs across many markets.

Because if you look at the literature - they’re cheap, easy and the modern way to run a portfolio.

Except that they’re not.

First, let’s look at the core of what makes for an ETF.

An Exchange Traded Fund might have a great name on the outside – but most investors will never ever be able to find out what’s actually inside them.

That’s because the folks that build and run ETFs will only release what’s really in them to the specialist traders that sign on to make markets in them.

While ETFs trade on exchanges and folks think that they’re buying or selling at the net asset values of the moment – the truth can be far and away different.

That’s because throughout the day – few folks actually know what’s inside the ETF’s underlying assets that are embodied what are called “Creation Units”. Each Creation Unit is what is used to deliver an ETF share to the market. And each share of an ETF really is just a share in the underlying real basket of assets.

And those assets can vary widely throughout the trading day and are not usually made up of actual stock shares – but rather a series of options, swaps, forwards and a host of other derived securities that only the specialists and the managers of the ETF know about and in the exact amounts.

Traders in the know love these things because they get to trade against the underlying basket of assets. So, they get to buy, sell, short and everything else that can enable them to arbitrage against the secret baskets of assets behind every ETF.

So, while you might think that you are buying or selling an ETF at the real value of the index that it’s supposed to be linked to – you really will never, ever know for sure.

And when it comes to less than current markets – say for foreign stocks or bonds – not only do you have the uncertainty of the underlying murky mix of derivatives that really back up an ETF – but you also have the uncertainty of what the supposedly basket of assets might be priced at.

In past years – I’ve seen some Asian ETFs trade at premiums and discounts amounting to over 30 percent away from what should be the real market prices.

So, not so easy are they.

But it gets worse.

While the performances of ETFs can track underlying indexes – they often underperform. And when you match up many ETFs against closed-end funds focused on the same or very similar markets ETFs tend to lag.

One prime example can be seen in an past recommendation that worked out quite well for my subscribers years ago in the Brazilian market.

I recommended buying and owning a closed-end fund called The Brazil Fund for years – selling it in 2006. the returns for that fund held for 5 years was just shy of 300 percent. Now if you had been reading my stuff back then and instead of buying my fund recommendation went along with an ETF supposedly tracking the Brazilian market trading as the Brazil iShare – you would have made money – but with less than half of the return of the fund and the market.

This lag in performance is bad enough for non-leveraged ETFs – but it can get even worse for leveraged ETFs and more so for ETFs that supposedly move in an opposite fashion to an underlying index or basket of assets.

Many folks have been sold the bill of goods that if they buy an ETF that’s supposedly short a particular part of the market that they’ll either have a hedge for their portfolio or even better that they just might make a buck if trouble hits.

And over the past year one market in particular that did get hit was of course the collection of US banks.

The ETF that is supposed to track the opposite of the leading index for US banks – the KBW Bank Index is run by ProShares trading under the symbol of SKF.

Over the past year – this index has lost over 63 percent. And how did the short ETF fund do? Perhaps a little gain? Nope.

It lost 50 percent. That’s right – the ETF that’s supposed to trade and be valued in the opposite direction of banks lost almost as much as the index that it was supposed to short.

Or how about when you wanted to trade oil on its recent near term rally over the past few months?

The US Oil ETF fund that’s supposed to track the performance of the underlying price of West Texas Intermediate Crude is pitched as the way to cash in that particular commodity.

So, as crude has nearly doubled since later February – the ETF has lagged big – by nearly 62 percent.

The key for all of the ETFs is that the longer the period of time that you look at their performance – the worse that they match up against their objectives.

If you were to look at any of the above ETFs on any given day – there is the greater propensity for them to track what they’re supposed to track. But as you move out from 1 day to 2 days and so on – the correlation begins to break down very quickly.

The lesson here is that while ETFs can make for great trading fodder for those that understand the real underlying asset mix of the underlying creation shares – there can be money made.

For the rest of us mere mortals – we’d all be better served to steer our portfolios away from the pitches of Wall Street and instead – follow the move by one of the biggest creators of ETFs – Barclays – which earlier this year dumped its ETF fund operations.

Neil George is editor of By George and Stocks That Pay You.

The above is only opinion and does not represent and/or offer to buy or sell any security and/or any financial advice. The opinions contained may not be suitable for all investors who should consult their own financial adviser before making any investment or other decisions. I may own some of these same securities noted in accounts under my control or for my benefit.

Errors/Omissions: I always welcome being called on facts, figures and commentary from readers and look forward to your feedback. I can be reached by email at or or at 01-314-616-3325.