ETFs With The Most Liquid Options: 2019

Size isn’t everything when it comes to ETF options market liquidity.

sumit
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Senior ETF Analyst
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Reviewed by: Sumit Roy
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Edited by: Sumit Roy

Stocks may be coasting to record highs, but investors are still bracing for volatility. The S&P 500 Index hit a new all-time high last week, but the Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) held stubbornly above 20—a level that in recent years has been associated with turbulent markets.

Though the VIX is down from the heady levels of March, the fact that it refuses to go below 20 suggests that investors are still hedging their bets with options, perhaps anticipating renewed volatility later this year due to the coronavirus or the U.S. presidential election.

The VIX, which measures the “implied volatility” of S&P 500 Index options based on how much investors are willing to pay for them, jumped to nearly 83 in March, its highest level ever. It’s currently hovering around 25.

Implied volatility is a key determinant of an option’s price. A VIX of 25 means that S&P 500 Index options are roughly 40% more expensive than their five- and 10-year averages.

Options Market Active As Ever

Expensive 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 will cost a pretty penny.

The opposite is the case for options sellers. They are receiving a solid premium for writing options contracts.

In any case, high volatility is not a bad thing for the options market—which remains as active as ever—particularly when it comes to ETFs. Below, we look at the 20 ETFs with the most liquid options markets.

SPY Trounces IVV

Just as is perennially the case, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) has the most liquid options market of any ETF or even stock. The world's largest ETF, with $303 billion in assets under management (AUM), currently has 22.7 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. Here are the top five ETFs with the most liquid options. (For full list of the top 20, see table at the end of the story.)

 

TickerFundOpen Interest
SPY SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust22,683,856
SLV iShares Silver Trust8,919,983
QQQ Invesco QQQ Trust8,578,043
IWM iShares Russell 2000 ETF7,430,732
EEM iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF6,909,528

Source: Bloomberg. Data as of Aug. 27, 2020. For the full list, see the table at the end of the article.

 

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 $217 billion iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV). The second largest ETF by assets only has total options open interest of 11,863. 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 Silver Trust (SLV) currently has the deepest and most liquid options market based on open interest. The fund boasts total open interest of 8.9 million contracts, just ahead of No. 3 on the list, the Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ), with open interest of 8.6 million contracts.

The iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) and the Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLF) are a few other behemoths with active options markets.

Then there are also a number of ETFs on the list punching well above their weight. Those include the United States Oil Fund LP (USO), the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP), the iShares China Large-Cap ETF (FXI), the Invesco DB U.S. Dollar Index Bullish Fund (UUP) and the ProShares UltraPro Short QQQ (SQQQ).

These ETFs have some of the most liquid options markets, even though they don't have a tremendous amount of assets. UUP, for example, only has AUM of $417 million, while SQQQ has $1.4 billion and XOP has $2.2 billion. That suggests these funds are popular with short-term traders—not a surprise considering that currencies, oil and the tech-heavy Nasdaq are trader favorites.

Here is a full list of the top 20 ETFs with the most liquid options:

 

TickerFundOpen Interest
SPY SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust22,683,856
SLV iShares Silver Trust8,919,983
QQQ Invesco QQQ Trust8,578,043
IWM iShares Russell 2000 ETF7,430,732
EEM iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF6,909,528
XLF Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund5,567,791
GLD SPDR Gold Trust4,791,982
USO United States Oil Fund LP3,663,653
HYG iShares iBoxx USD High Yield Corporate Bond ETF3,300,724
EFA iShares MSCI EAFE ETF3,187,622
FXI iShares China Large-Cap ETF2,805,143
GDXVanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF2,632,608
EWZ iShares MSCI Brazil ETF2,276,920
XOP SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF1,876,820
XLE Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund1,513,040
VXX iPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short Term Futures ETN1,429,110
TLT iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF1,098,331
LQD iShares iBoxx USD Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF951,260
UUP Invesco DB U.S. Dollar Index Bullish Fund849,948
SQQQ ProShares UltraPro Short QQQ665,314

Source: Bloomberg; data as of Aug. 27, 2020

 

​Email Sumit Roy at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @sumitroy2

Sumit Roy is the senior ETF analyst for etf.com, where he has worked for 13 years. He creates a variety of content for the platform, including news articles, analysis pieces, videos and podcasts.

Before joining etf.com, Sumit was the managing editor and commodities analyst for Hard Assets Investor. In those roles, he was responsible for most of the operations of HAI, a website dedicated to education about commodities investing.

Though he still closely follows the commodities beat, Sumit covers a much broader assortment of topics for etf.com, with a particular focus on stock and bond exchange-traded funds.

He is the host of etf.com’s Talk ETFs, a popular video series that features weekly interviews with thought leaders in the ETF industry. Sumit is also co-host of Exchange Traded Fridays, etf.com’s weekly podcast series.

He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he enjoys climbing the city’s steep hills, playing chess and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.