For many investors, options are an important tool for hedging. If done right, just a small position in options can help manage an investor's portfolio risk. Others use options as a speculative tool, buying calls and puts to bet on the direction of an individual security or market (calls increase in value when a security rises; puts increase in value when a security declines).
Puts, in particular, are in high demand today with the U.S. stock market in a bear market. By buying puts on an ETF they own, an investor can offset some of the losses they’d experience if that ETF were to decline.
However, options have a cost (called a premium), so that protection doesn’t come for free. They’re only suitable for investors who are willing to bear that cost in return for the protection that options can provide.
In any case, options provide the ability to make more sophisticated bets on markets. While it’s not something that's useful to everyone, options trading does appeal to many.
Large AUM Doesn't Mean Liquid Options
Just as with individual stocks, options are available in the ETF world. Most exchange-traded products have options available to trade, but not all of them are liquid.
A seldom-traded ETF will naturally have an illiquid options market, if it has one at all. On the other hand, a popular ETF will tend to have a liquid options market, but not always.
Take the iShares Core S&P Mid-Cap ETF (IJH), for example. It's the largest midcap ETF, with a massive $57 billion in assets. Yet its options market is tiny, with a total open interest of a paltry 8,447 contracts, according to Bloomberg data. (Each 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.)
The smaller, but still sizable, SPDR S&P Midcap 400 ETF Trust (MDY), with $17 billion in assets, has a more active options market, with open interest of 21,498.
Yet it's still a stretch to call MDY's options liquid when compared against some other ETFs.
Midcap ETFs simply isn’t an area where options traders are focused; thus, a vibrant options market hasn't developed there. Most of the $74 billion in IJH and MDY is likely long-term money that has little need for options trading.
Deepest Options Market
Midcaps aside, there are plenty of other exchange-traded funds with robust options markets. Unsurprisingly, the world's largest and most popular ETF in the world, the $358 billion SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), is among those.
SPY is, in fact, the ETF with the deepest options market in the world. Currently, there are an incredible 18.4 million options contracts outstanding on the fund—also called open interest. Bid/ask spreads on SPY options are often no more than a penny wide, minimizing transaction costs for those who want to hedge or speculate on the S&P 500.
Here are the top five ETFs with the most liquid options. (For full list of the top 20, see the table at the end of the article.)
|Fund||Ticker||AUM ($million)||Open Interest|
|SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust||SPY||357,975||18,350,856|
|Invesco QQQ Trust Series 1||QQQ||167,390||10,401,326|
|iShares Russell 2000 ETF||IWM||52,552||7,275,251|
|iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF||HYG||14,205||6,520,730|
|iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF||EEM||25,717||5,538,970|
Even though SPY is the largest ETF with the most liquid options market, that correlation doesn't always hold true. There are many big funds with illiquid or even nonexistent options markets.
Take the $258 billion Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO). The second largest ETF by assets only has total options open interest of 78,420. That's nothing for a fund of that size. Compared with SPY, bid/ask spreads for VOO options are huge, making the fund a poor choice for options traders.
Some ETFs Punching Above Their Weight
After SPY, the Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ) currently has the deepest and most liquid options market based on open interest. The fund boasts total open interest of 10.4 million contracts, ahead of No. 3 on the list, the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), with open interest of 7.3 million contracts.
Then there are also a number of ETFs on the list punching well above their weight. Those include the iShares China Large-Cap ETF (FXI), the iShares MSCI Canada ETF (EWC) and the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK).
These ETFs have some of the most liquid options markets, even though they don't have a tremendous amount of assets. FXI, for example, only has AUM of $5.5 billion, while EWC has $3.6 billion and ARKK has $9.9 billion. That suggests these funds are popular with short-term traders.
Top 20 ETFs With The Most Liquid Options
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