ETFs With The Most Liquid Options Of 2021

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

After months of holding at stubbornly high levels, expectations about volatility are retreating. The Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) traded down to around 15 last Friday, below the year-to-date average of 19.5 and nearly half of 2020’s average of 29.19.

The S&P 500 Index rose for seven straight sessions through Friday, notching record high after record high. Neither hot inflation readings nor the start of the Fed taper could dent the rally, giving investors the sense that it’s clear skies ahead.  

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 last March, its highest level ever. Today, it stands at more typical levels and has been hovering around the 15-17 range lately.

 

VIX

 

Options Market Active As Ever

Implied volatility is a key determinant of an option’s price. Today’s VIX suggests that options at the index level are reasonably priced—neither expensive nor cheap.

Investors use put options to hedge their portfolios against a market decline, while speculators use call options to juice their returns if markets go up. Options can also be combined into much more complicated strategies that use both put and call options.  

On the other side of the market are option sellers, who receive a premium for writing options contracts. One popular strategy is writing “covered calls,” whereby a stock or ETF holder will sell call options on their position. This gives them a little bit of extra return, but at the expense of lost upside if the strike price of the options is exceeded.

In today’s market environment, speculative call options have been in vogue, especially with retail investors, who are buying the options. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average daily options volume in 2021 has been double that of 2019.

SPY Trounces IVV

While a lot of this year’s options activity has taken place in individual stocks, there’s a ton of demand for options on ETFs as well.

In fact, 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 $427 billion in AUM, currently has 20.1 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
SPYSPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust20,086,849
QQQInvesco QQQ Trust9,522,085
IWMiShares Russell 2000 ETF7,712,509
EEMiShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF6,803,063
HYGiShares iBoxx USD High Yield Corporate Bond ETF5,924,657

Source: Bloomberg. Data as of Nov. 5, 2021. 

 

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 26,323. 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 Invesco QQQ Trust (QQQ) currently has the deepest and most liquid options market based on open interest. The fund boasts total open interest of 9.5 million contracts, ahead of No. 3 on the list, the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), with open interest of 7.7 million contracts.

The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM), the iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF (HYG) 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 iPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short Term Futures ETN (VXX) and the KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF (KWEB).

These ETFs have some of the most liquid options markets, even though they don't have a tremendous amount of assets. VXX, for example, only has AUM of $1.1 billion, while USO has $2.8 billion and XOP has $4.2 billion. That suggests these funds are popular with short-term traders.

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

 

TickerFundOpen Interest
SPYSPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust20,086,849
QQQInvesco QQQ Trust9,522,085
IWMiShares Russell 2000 ETF7,712,509
EEMiShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF6,803,063
HYGiShares iBoxx USD High Yield Corporate Bond ETF5,924,657
XLFFinancial Select Sector SPDR Fund5,344,523
SLViShares Silver Trust5,118,887
XLEEnergy Select Sector SPDR Fund3,434,157
EWZiShares MSCI Brazil ETF3,264,123
GDXVanEck Gold Miners ETF3,025,680
FXIiShares China Large Cap ETF2,701,203
GLDSPDR Gold Trust2,650,500
EFAiShares MSCI EAFE ETF2,203,481
TLTiShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF1,801,881
VXXiPath Series B S&P 500 VIX Short Term Futures ETN1,645,047
XOPSPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF1,425,474
ARKKARK Innovation ETF1,221,571
KWEBKraneShares CSI China Internet ETF1,204,170
USOUnited States Oil Fund1,186,648
KRESPDR S&P Regional Banking ETF982,996

Source: Bloomberg. Data as of Nov. 5, 2021.

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.