Most Shorted ETFs Of 2017

July 20, 2017

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

Ticker Fund Short
Interest
%
XRT SPDR S&P Retail ETF 507.99
DGAZ VelocityShares 3X Inverse Natural Gas ETN 260.09
SVXY ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF 226.97
DWT VelocityShares 3x Inverse Crude Oil ETN 204.76
SMH VanEck Vectors Semiconductor ETF 176.58
XIV VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN 170.19
DSLV VelocityShares 3X Inverse Silver ETN 129.81
DGLD VelocityShares 3X Inverse Gold ETN 118.88
UNG United States Natural Gas Fund LP 106.57
SCO ProShares UltraShort Bloomberg Crude Oil 95.21
XOP SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF 89.41
TVIZ VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX Medium-Term ETN 81.59
VXX iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN 80.95
FXE CurrencyShares Euro Trust 78.56
TVIX VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX Short-Term ETN 68.53

Source: Bloomberg; data as of July 17, 2017

 

15 Most Shorted ETFs (excluding inverse/leveraged)

Ticker Fund Short
Interest
%
XRT SPDR S&P Retail ETF 507.99
SMH VanEck Vectors Semiconductor ETF 176.58
UNG United States Natural Gas Fund LP 106.57
XOP SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF 89.41
VXX iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN 80.95
FXE CurrencyShares Euro Trust 78.56
XBI SPDR S&P BIOTECH ETF 59.43
IMED PureFunds ETFx HealthTech ETF 58.63
DWLV PowerShares DWA Momentum & Low Volatility Rotation Portfolio 57.34
FXY CurrencyShares Japanese Yen Trust 55.53
CTNN iPath Pure Beta Cotton ETN 50.00
EWW iShares MSCI Mexico Capped ETF 48.07
IYR iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF 47.92
ERY Direxion Daily Energy Bear 3X Shares 46.39
OIH VanEck Vectors Oil Services ETF 42.75

Source: Bloomberg; data as of July 17, 2017

Contact Sumit Roy at [email protected]

 

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