Securities Law Prof Blog

Editor: Eric C. Chaffee
Univ. of Toledo College of Law

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

FINRA and SEC Issue Alert on Leveraged and Inverse ETFs

FINRA and the SEC have issued an Investor Alert called Leveraged and Inverse ETFs: Specialized Products with Extra Risks for Buy-and-Hold Investors warning retail investors of the risks associated with investing in these highly complex financial products. This Investor Alert follows a recent FINRA Regulatory Notice reminding securities firms and brokers of their sales practice obligations relating to leveraged and inverse exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

 Traditional ETFs are designed to track an index, such as the S&P 500, or the price of an individual asset. Leveraged ETFs seek to deliver multiples of the performance of the index or benchmark (such as commodities or currencies) they track. Inverse ETFs (also called "short" funds) seek to deliver the opposite of the performance of the index or benchmark they track and are often marketed as a way for investors to profit from, or at least hedge their exposure to, downward moving markets. Both leveraged and inverse ETFs pursue a range of investment strategies through the use of swaps, futures contracts and other derivative instruments.

 Most leveraged and inverse ETFs "reset" daily. This means that they are designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. Their performance over longer periods of time — over weeks, months or years — can differ significantly from the performance (or inverse of the performance) of their underlying index or benchmark during the same period of time. This effect can be magnified in volatile markets. For example, between December 1, 2008, and April 30, 2009, a leveraged ETF seeking to deliver three times the daily return of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index fell 53 percent, while the underlying index actually gained approximately 8 percent. A leveraged inverse ETF seeking to deliver three times the inverse of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index's daily return declined by 90 percent over the same period.

 The SEC and FINRA are advising investors to consider leveraged and inverse ETFs only if they are confident the product can help meet their investment objectives and they are knowledgeable about and comfortable with the risks associated with these specialized ETFs.  

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