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Volatility-Linked Products - Complexity Risk Strikes Again

Posted by Jack Duval

Feb 6, 2018 10:41:24 AM

This blog post continues a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.  Our previous posts can be read here, here, and here.

The VIX S&P 500 volatility index ripped higher by 115 percent yesterday.  This effectively destroyed most, if not all, inverse VIX ETPs.

Common sense will inform that if an index increases by more than 100 percent, an investment vehicle designed to give the opposite (inverse) performance should decline to zero.  (In most cases, if an investment doesn't use leverage, a potential loss is limited to 100 percent.)

Indeed, experience is now bearing this out.

VelocityShares Inverse VIX Short Term ETNs (XIV)

The XIV ETN halted trading yesterday and fund manager Credit Suisse is almost certain to close the fund.

The prospectus language allows Credit Suisse to shutter the fund if the Intraday Indicative Value is equal to or less than 20 percent of the prior day's Closing Indicative Value (among other reasons).  That has happened.

Table 1: XIV Indicative Value

XIV - Indicative Value.gif

Source: Bloomberg

The XIV Indicative Value collapsed from 108.37 to 4.22, a 96 percent decline, and well under the 20 percent threshold.

The difference in the XIV price and indicative value was widening over the past few days of the market selloff, and then blew out yesterday.

Chart 1: XIV Price and Indicative Value

XIV Price v. XIV Indicative Value Chart.gif

Source: Bloomberg

Unfortunately, a significant amount of hot money had been flowing into this ETN due to it's returns over the past few years.  The XIV market cap was just off its all-time high, at $1.48B yesterday.

Chart 2: XIV Historical Market Cap

XIV Market Cap Chart.gif

Source: Bloomberg

A Bitter Irony

In a classic example of complexity risk, investors who bought the XIV at the close yesterday (thinking that the VIX had risen too far, too fast), will be wiped out, just like longer term holders.

As of this writing at 10:20am, the XIV is down 31 percent, meaning that those buyers would have been directionally correct, but will suffer virtually complete losses anyway with no chance to get out.

Suitability and Supervision of Volatility-Linked Products

For years, investors have been seeing their principal destroyed as unknowing advisors bought and held inverse and leveraged ETPs.  Indeed, the XIV prospectus (PS-16) gives this warning:

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 9.16.52 AM.png

Advisors putting their clients into inverse and leveraged ETPs should have known about the risks of long-term holding and the risk of complete overnight ruin.

Likewise, firms that allowed their advisors to sell these products should have implemented special training for them.  Furthermore, specific policies and procedures should have been written to insure these products were only utilized in speculative accounts, and for sophisticated investors, who were aware of, and accepted the risk of, total loss.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products, XIV, VelocityShares Inverse Short Term ETN

Volatility-Linked Products - Bank of America Strategic Return Notes

Posted by Jack Duval

Dec 1, 2017 10:07:27 AM

This blog post continues a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.

In this post, I examine the Bank of America Strategic Return Notes Linked to the Investable Volatility Index (“SRNs”), which were issued on November 23, 2010 and matured on November 27, 2015.

The SRNs were supposed to offer investors exposure to a volatility index over a five-year period.  However, due to high upfront and ongoing annual fees and the negative roll yield (previously discussed here and here), the investment resulted in almost a complete loss.

What is remarkable is that anyone who understood volatility products and negative roll yield would have known this ex-ante, that is, before the product was brought to market.  This is an example of how complexity risk manifests itself in investments, the people who created the investment didn’t understand it.

Disclosures, Negative Roll Yield, and Principal Destruction

The SRN Pricing Supplement lists the two percent upfront fee and the 0.75% annual internal fee as costs but does not mention the negative roll yield as a cost.  This is remarkable given that the negative roll yield is the primary cost of the strategy as it was to be implemented.

There was one disclosure in the SRN Pricing Supplement (on page 14) which addressed the negative roll yield (however, the phrase “negative roll yield” was not used):[1]

If the level of forward implied volatility is higher in the more distant S&P 500 Index options expirations months than it is in the nearer expiration months, then the level of the Index could be adversely affected as the Index positions are rebalanced daily to maintain a constant maturity.  The rebalancing involves increasing exposure to more distant forward implied volatility and decreasing exposure to more near-term forward implied volatility which may decrease the payment you receive at maturity or upon exchange.  Historically, the more distant expiration months have typically had a higher level of forward implied volatility than the nearer expiration months.

This explanation does not make it clear that the negative roll yield will be an almost certain daily destroyer of the investor’s principal.  Given the five-year term of the investment, the negative roll yield, coupled with the two percent up-front fee, and the 0.75% annual internal fee are virtually guaranteed to result in a catastrophic loss to the investor.

Of course, that is what happened.  The SRN’s were issued at $10/share and matured at $0.50/share.[2]  A 95 percent loss.  The negative roll yield was costing between four and 12 percent per quarter in 2011.[3]

Complexity Risk

This is a classic example of complexity risk, which I have written about extensively here and here.  Merrill Lynch broker Glen Ringwall was quoted saying:[4]

The roll costs are far larger than we ever understood or were disclosed to us…  This is borderline crooked.

To Mr. Ringwall’s point, if we assume that the negative roll yield was four percent per quarter that equals 16 percent per year.  Apply that over the five-year term of the SRNs and you get an 80 percent decline in principal.  Add the 5.6 percent total term costs from the front-end load and the ongoing management fees and the SRN is programmed to decline by 85.6 percent over its lifetime (assuming no movement in the underlying index).  Put another way, the underlying index would need to have and 85.6 percent return just to break even.

It is hard to believe that anyone associated with the SRNs creation understood these economics.  It appears that the brokers who sold it certainly did not understand.  And I can assure you that not one client who was sold the SRNs understood them.

DIY Client Due Diligence

In fairness, the SRN Annex to the Pricing Supplement did provide these user-friendly explanations what would help clients understand how to calculate the negative roll yield themselves:[5]

 

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 8.16.17 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 8.16.29 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 8.16.45 AM.png

Obviously, no client is working through these equations.

The written and formula disclosures above illustrate the primary point of investment complexity risk:  the more complex an investment is, the more likely it is to behave in ways that are unexpected.

This is the reason why complexity should generally be avoided and even sophisticated institutional investors should have a complexity risk budget to track and limit their exposures.

Supervison

As I have discussed in my previous posts, there are other volatility products such as the iPath VXX ETN trading today that have the same internal negative roll yield dynamics.

Supervisors must be knowledgeable about these investments and how they are not meant to be held longer than one day.  Supervisory policies and procedures should be implemented to insure that any holding periods longer than one day are flagged in exception reports and remedied immediately.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       Strategic Return Notes Pricing Supplement; PS-14.

[2]       Jean Eaglesham, The Wall Street Journal; SEC Readies Case Against Merrill Lynch Over Notes That Lost 95%; Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/sec-readies-case-against-merrill-over-notes-that-lost-95-1466544740; Accessed December 1, 2017.

[3]       Id.

[4]       Id.

[5]       Strategic Return Notes Pricing Supplement; Annex A; A1-2.  I have only produced part of them here.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products, negative roll yield

Volatility-Linked Products - Death By a Thousand Cuts

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 25, 2017 9:11:58 AM

This blog post continues a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.

In my previous blog post, I discussed how volatility-linked ETPs are likely to lead to significant, if not catastrophic, losses if they are used in a buy-and-hold strategy.

In this post, I want to explain the mechanics of how this process works.

Constant Maturity

Most volatility-linked ETPs must, by prospectus, maintain a constant maturity.  For instance, the VXX pricing supplement states:[1]

(The VXX) is linked to the performance of the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures Index TR that is calculated based on the strategy of continuously owning a rolling portfolio of one-month and two-month VIX futures to target a constant weighted average futures maturity of 1 month.

In order to keep the weighted average futures maturity of one month, the two contracts will have to be adjusted on a daily basis.  This necessarily implies buying more of the two-month VIX futures and selling the one-month VIX futures.

Having to keep buying longer dated futures and selling shorter dated futures is what creates losses over time.

Contango

Contango is a term describing the typical futures market curve where longer dated contracts are more expensive than shorter dated contracts, all else being equal.  (The opposite of this is known as “backwardation”, and is rare.)

The VXX pricing supplement describes contango as follows:[2]

… many of the contracts included in the Indices have historically traded in “contango” markets.  Contango markets are those in which the prices of contracts are higher in the distant delivery months than in the nearer delivery months.  VIX futures have frequently exhibited very high contango in the past, resulting in a significant cost to “roll” the futures.  The existence of contango in the futures markets could result in negative “roll yields”, which could adversely affect the value of the Index underlying your ETNs and, accordingly, decrease the payment you receive at maturity or upon redemption.  (Emphasis added)

Chart 1: VIX Futures Curve[3]

 VIX Volatility Chart.gif

 

Negative Roll Yield

In plain English, by continuously buying longer-term VIX contracts and selling shorter-term VIX contracts the VXX ETN is buying high and selling low every day.  This phenomenon is known as “negative roll yield”.

It is a mathematical certainty that negative roll yield will erode the value of any investment that maintains a constant maturity such as the VXX.  As discussed in my previous post, the longer volatility-linked ETPs are held, the longer their holders are subjected to negative roll yield.

This results in a death by a thousand cuts, one each day.  The certainty of negative roll yield over time is why constant maturity volatility-linked ETPs all head towards zero.  Due to Zeno’s paradox and the magic of reverse splits, they never reach zero.  However, that is cold comfort for anyone who has lost 99.9 percent of their investment.

Supervision

The supervisors of any firm allowing their advisors to trade in volatility-linked ETPs should be well versed in the mechanics of these products.  Clients certainly don't understand these complex products and frequently their advisors do not either.  Their suitability is limited to trading clients who want to speculate on intra-day or one-day changes in the VIX index, and they are unsuitable for a buy-and-hold strategy.

Furthermore, supervisory systems should flag any volatility-linked positions held more than a day.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       Barclays iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN pricing supplement; July 18, 2018; Available at: http://www.ipathetn.com/US/16/en/documentation.app?instrumentId=259118&documentId=6091544;  Accessed October 25, 2017; PS-1.

[2]       Id. at PS-13.

[3]       VIX Volatility Curve; Bloomberg; Accessed October 25, 2017.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products

Volatility-Linked Exchange-Traded Products

Posted by Jack Duval

Oct 20, 2017 8:04:35 AM

This blog post begins a series exploring volatility-linked exchange-traded products.

VXX LT Chart.gif

The VXX has declined from 11,940 to 34.39 (split adjusted).  Source: Bloomberg.

A recent FINRA Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (“AWC”), with Wells Fargo and the issuance of FINRA RN 17-32, highlights the risks of volatility-linked exchange-traded products (“ETPs”).  In particular, using them as part of a buy-and-hold strategy is virtually certain to produce losses.

Wells Fargo AWC

On October 16, 2017, FINRA ordered Wells Fargo to pay $3.4 million in restitution to clients who had been recommended volatility-linked exchange-traded products.  FINRA found that Wells Fargo registered representatives had sold the volatility-linked ETPs without fully understanding their risks and features and that the firm had failed to supervise solicited sales of the products.

The FINRA AWC press release stated:[1]

Certain Wells Fargo representatives mistakenly believed that the products could be used as a long-term hedge on their customers’ equity positions in the event of a market downturn.  In fact, volatility-linked ETPs are generally short-term trading products that degrade significantly over time and should not be used as part of a long-term buy-and-hold investment strategy.

FINRA RN 17-32 – Volatility-Linked Exchange Traded Products

The language in the Wells Fargo AWC press release is echoed in FINRA RN 17-32:[2]

… many volatility-linked ETPs are highly likely to lose value over time.  Accordingly, volatility-linked ETPs may be unsuitable for certain retail investors, particularly those who plan to use them as traditional buy-and-hold investments.

Buy-and-Hold

Using a buy-and-hold strategy with volatility-linked products is almost guaranteed to produce losses for investors.  These products are designed to be traded intra-day or over one day holding periods.  Even relatively short-term holding periods of a week or two can be enough to lock in losses.  Longer holding periods can produce catastrophic losses.

How these losses are built into the structure of volatility-linked ETPs will be explored in my next post.

_________________

Notes:

[1]       FINRA News Release; Available at: http://www.finra.org/newsroom/2017/finra-orders-wells-fargo-broker-dealers-pay-34-million-restitution-and-reminds-firms; Accessed October 19, 2017.

[2]       FINRA RN 17-32; Volatility-Linked Exchange-Traded Products; October 2017; Available at: https://www.finra.org/sites/default/files/notice_doc_file_ref/Regulatory-Notice-17-32.pdf; Accessed October 19, 2017; 1.

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Topics: suitability, supervision, Complex Investments, Complexity Risk, volatility-linked products

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