Most Shorted ETFs Of 2017

Investors are betting heavily against these exchange-traded funds.

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Reviewed by: Sumit Roy
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Edited by: Sumit Roy

Short selling is as old as the stock market. “Shorting” is the process of borrowing a security, selling it immediately, and then buying it back at a later date―preferably at a lower price. If done correctly, shorting is way to profit from a decline in the price of a stock.

Of course, a short position doesn't always work out according to plan. If a stock you shorted increases in price instead, you'll have to buy it back at a higher price than you sold it at, resulting in losses. Theoretically, there's no limit to how big those losses can be, because there's no limit to how high a stock's price can climb.

That's in contrast to a stock bought normally, where "zero" is the limit on the downside.

Risky Trading Strategy

Given the nature of short selling, which requires a margin account and consistent monitoring of the position, it's typically only done by active traders with a high risk tolerance. Still, it's a popular method of betting against a security, whether it be a stock or even an ETF.

Indeed, short selling is often done in the exchange-traded fun world, where traders have placed tens of billions of dollars worth of short sales on various ETFs.

Sometimes these short positions are hedges or part of a pair trade made by sophisticated investors. But in many cases, they are outright bearish bets against an ETF in expectation that prices will decline.

Short Interest Percentage

Just as with stocks, certain ETFs are more widely shorted than others. For example, the world's largest ETF, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), is a popular vehicle for active traders. Thus, it's unsurprising to see it has a pretty decent amount of short interest, equal to 16% of its shares outstanding.

Compare that to the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) or the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO), two ETFs targeting the same S&P 500 index, but that tend to be held by long-term investors. Short interest in those funds is equal to less than 1% of their shares outstanding.

When short interest is high, it signals that traders are expecting a fall in the price of an ETF. SPY's short interest probably doesn't indicate much, because it's such a widely traded ETF that's used for all manner of purposes, but in other cases, high short interest could tell us more.

 

Most Shorted ETF

Take the SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT). Its short interest is equal to a whopping 508% of its shares outstanding. In other words, nearly 20 million shares of XRT are short, but only 4 million shares are outstanding (it's possible to have a short interest greater than 100% because shares can be continually borrowed and shorted, indefinitely).

Retail is clearly a place where traders are making big, aggressive bearish bets amid the widely publicized woes affecting the brick-and-mortar retail industry. That's probably what prompted ProShares to recently announce it was planning to launch two inverse ETFs that short brick-and-mortar retailers.

Inverse ETFs are another way to bet against areas of the financial markets. These ETFs take on the underlying short positions so traders can effectively "go short" by "going long" these products. It's a simpler process for those who don't want to (or can't) do the shorting themselves.

Shorting Inverse ETFs?

Aside from XRT, there are another nine products where the short interest percentage is above 100%. Ironically, many of these are inverse ETFs themselves. For instance, the VelocityShares 3x Inverse Natural Gas ETN (DGAZ) and the VelocityShares 3x Inverse Crude Oil ETN (DWT) both have short interest percentages above 200%.

On the surface, that is puzzling. Why would anyone short an inverse product?

It makes sense when you consider that inverse products―and especially leveraged, inverse products―suffer from performance drag due to periodic rebalancing (usually daily).

For some volatile products, that performance drag can be crippling. Take DGAZ; it's down a whopping 90% since its inception.

But it's not just the perennially poor performers that traders are shorting. At No. 3 on the most-shorted list is the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (SVXY), an inverse fund that shorts VIX futures. SVXY has nearly doubled this year and is up 1,500% since its inception.

Anyone shorting it recently has been getting killed, though that could change should volatility suddenly spike.

 

More Highly Shorted ETFs

Other interesting names with large short positions include the VanEck Vectors Semiconductor ETF (SMH), the United States Natural Gas Fund (UNG), the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP), the CurrencyShares Euro Trust (FXE), the SPDR S&P Biotech ETF (XBI), the PureFunds ETFx HealthTech ETF (IMED), the iPath Pure Beta Cotton ETN (CTNN), the iShares MSCI Mexico Capped ETF (EWW) and the iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF (IYR).

For a full list of the most-shorted ETFs, see the tables below.

 

15 Most Shorted ETFs

TickerFundShort
Interest
%
XRTSPDR S&P Retail ETF507.99
DGAZVelocityShares 3X Inverse Natural Gas ETN260.09
SVXYProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF226.97
DWTVelocityShares 3x Inverse Crude Oil ETN204.76
SMHVanEck Vectors Semiconductor ETF176.58
XIVVelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN170.19
DSLVVelocityShares 3X Inverse Silver ETN129.81
DGLDVelocityShares 3X Inverse Gold ETN118.88
UNGUnited States Natural Gas Fund LP106.57
SCOProShares UltraShort Bloomberg Crude Oil95.21
XOPSPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF89.41
TVIZVelocityShares Daily 2x VIX Medium-Term ETN81.59
VXXiPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN80.95
FXECurrencyShares Euro Trust78.56
TVIXVelocityShares Daily 2x VIX Short-Term ETN68.53

Source: Bloomberg; data as of July 17, 2017

 

15 Most Shorted ETFs (excluding inverse/leveraged)

TickerFundShort
Interest
%
XRTSPDR S&P Retail ETF507.99
SMHVanEck Vectors Semiconductor ETF176.58
UNGUnited States Natural Gas Fund LP106.57
XOPSPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF89.41
VXXiPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN80.95
FXECurrencyShares Euro Trust78.56
XBISPDR S&P BIOTECH ETF59.43
IMEDPureFunds ETFx HealthTech ETF58.63
DWLVPowerShares DWA Momentum & Low Volatility Rotation Portfolio57.34
FXYCurrencyShares Japanese Yen Trust55.53
CTNNiPath Pure Beta Cotton ETN50.00
EWWiShares MSCI Mexico Capped ETF48.07
IYRiShares U.S. Real Estate ETF47.92
ERYDirexion Daily Energy Bear 3X Shares46.39
OIHVanEck Vectors Oil Services ETF42.75

Source: Bloomberg; data as of July 17, 2017

Contact Sumit Roy at [email protected]

 

Sumit Roy is the senior ETF analyst for etf.com, where he's worked for 12 years. Before joining the company, Roy was the managing editor and commodities analyst for Hard Assets Investor. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he enjoys climbing the city’s steep hills, playing pickleball and snowboarding.