Yet despite their popularity, the leveraged and inverse ETF space is surrounded by controversy. Many believe these products should be outright banned due to their volatile nature. Some even consider them tools for gamblers, as they point to the tremendous losses that some of these products have seen.
To be sure, the unsavory reputation that leveraged and inverse ETFs have received isn't completely unwarranted. The aforementioned UWTI and NUGT are both down more than 99.4% since inception―a breathtakingly horrible return by any measure (Can An ETF Go To Zero?).
Returns For UWTI & NUGT Since Inception
But that doesn't mean they haven't done exactly what they were designed to do, which is provide 3x-daily leveraged exposure to the indexes they track. This is a bet that oil and gold will go up. For UWTI, that means 3x exposure to front-month crude oil futures, and for NUGT, it means 3x exposure to a basket of gold miner equities.
They key word is “daily”―these products only promise to deliver 3x the return of their underlying index over a one-day period. Over longer-term periods, the pattern of returns between the index and the products can deviate significantly due to the effects of daily rebalancing.
To illustrate this effect, consider a hypothetical example where oil is trading at $100/barrel and UWTI is trading at $20.
If oil rises by 10% to $110 on the next day, UWTI will increase by 3x that amount, or 30%, to $26.
However, if oil declines to where it was at $100 on the following day―a loss of 9.1%―UWTI will drop 27.3% to $18.91. That translates to a two-day loss of 5.5% for UWTI even though oil is simply back to where it began.
For ETPs tied to volatile flat-to-down-trending areas of the market—such as oil and other commodities—this rebalancing effect has a detrimental effect on returns over time.
For very-short-term traders, that's not a concern. They can use these ETPs to trade in and out of the market in an attempt to capture quick gains that will be close to 3x the index.
It's the longer-term and retail traders—who often don't know how these products work—who end up disappointed or devastated.
Does that mean these products should be banned? Not necessarily. In any case, more investor education is needed, particularly for retail investors who are heavy users of leveraged and inverse ETPs.