Options are cheap. Investors are paying almost the least they've ever had to for options on stocks and ETFs as volatility levels dip into record-low territory.
Case in point is the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), which measures the "implied volatility" of S&P 500 Index options based on how much investors are willing to pay for them. The VIX is at rock-bottom levels.
According to the Chicago Board Options Exchange, out of all the days the VIX has fallen below 10 in its history, nearly half of those instances have taken place in 2017. A level of "10" on the VIX is rarely broken, but that has been a routine occurrence this year.
Seldom Been Cheaper To Use Options
Cheap options are either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. For investors looking to hedge their portfolios against a market decline using put options, or for speculators interested in betting on more gains in the stock market using call options, it's seldom been cheaper to do so.
The opposite is the case for options sellers. They aren't getting much in the way of a premium for writing options contracts.
In any case, low volatility is certainly not a knock on the options market—which remains as active as ever—particularly when it comes to exchange-traded funds. Below, we look at the 15 ETFs with the most liquid options markets.
SPY Trounces IVV
Just as was the case last year, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) has the most liquid options market of any ETF or even stock. The world's largest exchange-traded fund, with $237 billion in assets under management (AUM), currently has 17.8 million options contracts outstanding—also called “open interest” (each options contract gives the owner the right to 100 shares of the underlying ETF; the right to buy in the case of calls; and the right to sell in the case of puts).
Bid/ask spreads on SPY options are often no more than a penny wide, minimizing transaction costs for those who want to hedge or speculate on the S&P 500.
Even though SPY is the largest ETF and has the most liquid options market, that correlation doesn't always hold true. There are plenty of big funds with illiquid or even nonexistent options markets.
Take the $119 billion iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV). The second-largest ETF by assets only has total options open interest of 2,640. That's nothing for a fund of that size. Bid/ask spreads for IVV options are huge, making the fund a poor choice for options traders.
Some ETFs Punching Above Their Weight
After SPY, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) has the most deep and liquid options market. The fund boasts total open interest of 6.6 million contracts, just a hair above No. 3 on the list, the PowerShares QQQ Trust (QQQ), with open interest of 6.5 million contracts.
Then there's also a number of ETFs on the list that are punching well above their weight. Those include the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX), the United States Oil Fund (USO), the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP), the iShares MSCI Brazil Capped ETF (EWZ), the VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX) and the iShares China Large-Cap ETF (FXI).
These ETFs have some of the most liquid options markets, even though they don't have a tremendous amount of assets. VXX, for example, only has AUM of $1 billion, while XOP has $2 billion in assets. That suggests these funds are popular with short-term traders—not a surprise considering that the VIX, oil, Brazil, gold miners and China are among the most volatile areas of the markets.
For a full list of the top 15 ETFs with the most liquid options, see the table below:
|SPY||SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust||17,771,528|
|EEM||iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF||6,635,087|
|QQQ||PowerShares QQQ Trust||6,488,055|
|IWM||iShares Russell 2000 ETF||4,529,522|
|XLF||Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund||3,886,407|
|VXX||iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN||3,484,288|
|USO||United States Oil Fund LP||3,502,854|
|GLD||SPDR Gold Trust||2,942,741|
|EFA||iShares MSCI EAFE ETF||2,541,963|
|XOP||SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF||2,385,889|
|EWZ||iShares MSCI Brazil Capped ETF||2,198,495|
|GDX||VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF||2,162,377|
|HYG||iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF||1,660,590|
|FXI||iShares China Large-Cap ETF||2,071,668|
|SLV||iShares Silver Trust||1,680,438|
Source: Bloomberg. Data as of Monday, June 19
Contact Sumit Roy at [email protected].