Is Shorting UVXY, TVIX, or VXX the Perfect Trade?

Updated: Oct 3rd, 2016 | Vance Harwood

The charts for long volatility Exchange Traded Products (ETP) like Barclays’s VXX, VelocityShares’ TVIX, and PowerShares’ UVXY are astonishing.



I’m not aware of any other widely available securities that have declined like these.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Why would anyone invest in these perennial losers?
  2. Why doesn’t everyone on the planet short these funds?

It turns out that there are reasonable reasons to buy these funds, and some people make money doing it. And a lot of people short these funds; it’s a crowded trade—to the point where it’s sometimes not possible to borrow the shares to short them.

It’s not easy money either way.

Risks of a Short Position

  • Unlike a short position in most equities fear is not your friend when you are short a volatility fund. When the market gets scared the equity declines are scary, deep, and fast—and volatility spikes up dramatically.
  • One characteristic of a short position is that its leverage moves against you if you’re wrong. When you first open a short position a 10% gain in the stock you shorted will cost you 10% of your position’s value, but the next 10% gain in the security will increase your loss by 12.2%. This increase in leverage increases rapidly if the security moves strongly against you. See this post for more information on this phenomenon.
  • Typically (75%+ of the time) the prices of long volatility funds like VXX, UVXY, and TVIX are battered by contango , but when the market tanks they turn into beasts.  First of all the VIX futures that these funds are based on spike up, second the VIX future’s term structure goes into a configuration called backwardation—which boosts the ETP’s returns, and the 2x funds often experience a compounding effect  that boosts their returns past their 2X benchmark.
  • Long volatility funds have not existed all that long, the first one was introduced in 2009, so we don’t have actual data for the earlier bear markets, but we do have historical data for the 2011 correction, where UVXY’s value went up 550% in a few months. In my simulation of UVXY’s prices that goes back to 2004, I show that that the prices of UVXY would have gone up 15X in the 2008/2009 crash.  Now you can see why some people are interested in going long with these funds.
  • In addition to the risks of typical market corrections and bear markets, a short volatility position is also vulnerable to a Black Swan type event. A major geopolitical event, natural disaster, or terrorist attack could cause a very large, essentially instantaneous jump, in the volatility funds.  The record one-day VIX jump so far was a 59% jump in February 2007, but in this post I postulate that a 100% one-day jump in the VIX is not out of the question. The VIX futures that underlie the volatility ETPs don’t track the VIX moves directly, typically the mix of futures used moves around 45% of the VIX’s percentage move, but with the 2X leveraged funds that still gives a 90% daily jump in their prices.  If an event like this happens when the market is closed there will be no chance for protective measures like stop loss orders to execute.  Even if the event happened during market hours conditions would be chaotic, and the market would likely shut down quickly.

If I haven’t managed to scare you off by now, the next section discusses specifics of initiating a short trade.


The Trade

  • These securities are always in the “hard to borrow” category, so it’s very likely at least a phone call to your broker will be required to create a short position. It’s also very likely you’ll have to pay an ongoing fee to borrow the shares.  Plan on the annualized fee being at least 7%.
  • You’ll need to have margin capability setup in a taxable account. Short selling is not allowed in retirement accounts like IRAs or 401Ks.
  • You’ll need extra cash / marginable securities in your account as margin. There are two different amounts required (which can vary by broker and by security), one to initiate the trade and another to maintain your position. The initial percentage will always be greater than or equal to the maintenance position.  Leveraged funds like UVXY and TVIX require extra margin.  The chart below shows Charles Schwab’s requirements for shorting ETFs as of 2-Oct-2016.


  •  If your trade moves against you to the point that you don’t meet the maintenance requirements you’ll get a margin call from your broker. Not a fun thing. You have two choices at that point, either add more money / marginable securities to your account or reduce your short position by buying back some of the security.  Don’t expect your broker to be patient.

Managing a Short Position

  • If you hold a short position it’s critical that you have an exit plan. A few people might have a small enough position and enough margin to weather even the darkest bear markets, but most people won’t have the capital or the temperament to hang in there.  Emotionally it is very difficult to close out a short volatility position with a large loss, not only has your timing been bad, there’s also the near certainty that eventually contango will wear these funds back to levels that would be profitable for you. On the other hand, not having an exit plan raises the very real possibility that your broker will be the one closing out your position, likely at the worst possible time.
  • I haven’t looked extensively at protective strategies, but one thing to look at would be to buy out-of-the-money calls at strike prices much higher than the current trading value of the securities. That way you can limit or mitigate your maximum loss, even during a Black Swan. Essentially you’re buying an insurance policy with a high deductible.  It wouldn’t be cheap because the options would likely be expensive and usually expire worthless, but the peace of mind might very well be worth the cost.
  • One harsh reality of a short position is that while you are exposed to potentially very large losses the best case profit you can realize from your initial position is limited to 100%. For example, if you sell short $1000 worth of VXX your maximum profit can’t be more than $1000 because VXX can’t drop below zero.  And even with the ravages of contango VXX’s split adjusted price will never get all the way to zero.  As the security you short drops in value the percentage leverage of your position drops also, eventually approaching zero.
  • If your short has been successful at some point you’ll need to short additional shares to get your leverage and additional profit potential back up.  I quantify this leverage with a simple formula: Leverage =  P/Po   where P is the current price and Po is the price you initially shorted at. Let’s say you are comfortable with a leverage factor between 1 and 0.7.  If it drops to .7 then you would short enough shares to bring your leverage back to 1. So if you were initially short 100 shares at $10, you have a maximum profit potential of $1000 at that point…  If the price has dropped to $7, then your maximum additional profit has dropped to $700 and your leverage has dropped to 0.7.  To get your leverage and additional profit potential back to 1.0 and $1000 your need to short an additional $300 worth of shares (~43 shares).

Alternatives to a Short Position

There are some alternatives strategies that address some of the risks and restrictions of taking a short position.   Of course, they introduce their own limitations, risks, and restrictions.

  • ProShares’s SVXY and VelocityShares’ XIV and ZIV are inverse volatility ETPs that avoid the variable leverage and unconstrained loss aspects of a short position and are allowed in retirement accounts. In exchange for solving those problems, you pick up path dependency and volatility drag.  See these posts:  How Does XIV Work?, How Does SVXY Work?, Ten Questions About Short Selling  for more information.
  • Options are available for UVXY and VXX. Instead of going short on these ETPs you can buy or sell puts and calls. Buying puts eliminates the potential for an unconstrained loss, but the premiums are steep.  No easy money here either. One additional caveat, because of their frequent reverse splits longer term options will likely become “adjusted” options that have the number of shares they control changed and track a modified version of the security price. This happens in conjunction with the reverse splits.  Theoretically, no value is lost, but by all accounts these options become less liquid and the bid/ask prices widen. These options are American style, so with long positions you’ll always have the ability to exercise them, but caution is warranted.  For more on this see UVXY Reverse Splits.

Seller Beware

  I’ve had direct contact with people that have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on both sides of these trades.  Honestly, I think considerably more is lost on the long side, but the blowouts on the short side tend to be quick and vicious.  Most rookies get greedy and risk being blown out by even a mild correction. If you can manage to hold (and rebalance) your short position long enough it’s a rational trade—but that’s a big if.

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The Cost of Contango—It’s Not the Daily Roll

Updated: Sep 27th, 2016 | Vance Harwood

It’s well known that long volatility Exchange Traded Products (ETPs) like VXX, UVXY, and TVIX often experience devastating losses during market quiet spells—even when the value of the VIX is staying relatively stable.   These heavy losses occur when the VIX futures that underlie these funds are in a price/time arrangement called contango.   The chart below shows an example of VIX futures in a contango configuration.


The blue dots show the prices of various futures and the horizontal scale indicates the month of expiration.  The horizontal green line shows the current VIX price— also known as the “spot” price.  You can’t tell it from the chart, but in this example the leftmost future has 4 days until expiration.  At expiration, a VIX future’s value will be very close to the VIX spot price.

When futures are in contango the longer the future has until expiration the higher its price.

If you were to take a time lapse video of this chart over time with a stable VIX you would see the blue dots moving down the blue line, eventually intersecting with the green VIX line at expiration.

Volatility Exchange Traded Funds Roll Futures

In contrast to VIX futures contracts, volatility ETPs don’t expire; instead, they hold a mix of VIX futures (the two leftmost ones for VXX, UVXY, and TVIX) that’s adjusted every day in order to keep the average time to expiration of the portfolio at 30 days.  In this daily transaction some of the leftmost, next to expire futures (I’ll call them M1), are sold and longer dated futures (M2) are purchased.   In futures parlance, this is called a “roll.”  When the M1 futures expire all the M2 futures become M1 and the roll process starts selling the futures with that expiration date rather than accumulating them.

When the futures are in contango it’s bad news for the price of the ETP’s holding them.  They are buying futures when they are higher on the curve, at a more expensive price, and selling them when they have decayed to a lower price.  Buying high and selling low—not a profitable practice.

The Daily Roll Does Not Reduce the ETP’s Value

There’s a widespread misconception that the roll process itself is the cause of the ETP price erosion—after all, you are buying high and selling low.  But the roll is not the reason the ETP price erodes.

Saying that the roll is the cause is equivalent to saying that selling your old, depreciated car to the dealer and buying a new one is the reason your car dropped in value.   Of course, everyone knows that your car dropped in value as it aged, and this is also the case for VIX futures in contango.  The transactions just shift the depreciation process to a different vehicle.

You might think this is a harmless misunderstanding, and in the grand scheme of things it is trivial, but that doesn’t mean it can’t leave a trail of confusion in its path.

For example, what happens if M1 and M2 stay stable at 17.6 and 18.45 for a couple of days?  If the roll causes decay then we would expect the price of VXX to drop as it sells M1 contracts and buys more expensive M2 contracts—but it doesn’t, as the detailed example later in this post shows.

I used to accept the daily roll explanation for the decay of the long volatility ETPs, but once I did the math it didn’t add up.  The reality is that when the VIX futures are in contango both M1 and M2 tend to drop down towards the VIX price over time.  Given that, it’s not surprising that the long volatility funds that hold these futures tend to drop in price.   The next section shows analytically that the daily roll has nothing to do with the decline—it’s a value-neutral operation.

A Detailed Analysis of VXX’s Cost of Contango

A few years ago I developed a consolidated spreadsheet to organize historic VIX futures data from the CBOE into a single spreadsheet.  Using this spreadsheet I calculated the short (SPVXSTR) and medium term (SPVXMTR) rolling indexes that underlie the various volatility Exchange Traded Products (ETP) like VXX, UVXY, XIV, and ZIV.  The image below shows a small sample comparing my calculations (M1-M2 Short Term Rolling Index) with the official value of the short term index.


The percentage differences between my index and the official index (e.g., -0.000256%) aren’t cumulative and are probably due to rounding.

Once I verified my index calculations I wanted to look at the nemesis of the long volatility funds like VXX and UVXY—yield losses.  These losses, which can be 5% to 10% per month, occur when the CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index (VIX) Futures that underlie these ETPs are more expensive than the market, or “spot” price.

I wanted to quantify this loss with my spreadsheet without the noise of everyday volatility moves, so I left the term structure in contango but held the futures prices constant in my spreadsheet from day to day as an experiment. The results were surprising.


My calculations showed no daily roll costs in the index. The 0.01 upticks in the index are due to Treasury bill interest.  Of course having the futures fixed like this is not a realistic situation—as futures near expiration they usually move closer to the spot price.  But the example proves that the specific roll mechanism specified by the index and followed by ETF issuers does not decrease the value of the index on a day to day basis.

The usual explanation for roll costs, discredited in the sample above, asserts that losses are incurred when funds sell cheaper shorter term contracts and buy more expensive longer term contracts every day as specified by the indexes they follow—a sell low, buy high situation.   A closer look illustrates the flaw in this explanation.   Suppose you have a $10 million position after market close on 19-Oct-12— after the contract rolls. Fractional contracts aren’t supported, so the unused money goes in the cash bucket.


The next table shows the positions at the end of the next day, neglecting transaction costs and interest, and assuming no change in the futures values.


The number of contracts changes, but the total value doesn’t.

There’s no doubt that these indexes lose money when the VIX Futures term structure is in contango—so where do the losses come from?

The chart below shows the real root cause:

Nov / Dec VIX Futures vs VIX
Plotting the actual 2012 November and December VIX futures values during a period of contango vs the CBOE’s VIX®, we see that both contracts decline in value over time, eventually converging with the “spot” VIX price at their expiration. With both sets of contracts held by the long volatility funds generally declining it’s not surprising the overall value drops. Since we are typically looking at term structures over the span of multiple months, the small daily “slide” down the curve isn’t noticeable—especially when obscured by the up and down moves in volatility driven by daily stock market fluctuations.

This analysis also explains why the mid-term volatility index SPVXMTR which holds contracts that are 4 to 7 months out also declines in contango situations, even though 2/3rds of the contracts (M5 & M6) aren’t rolled on a day to day basis.

Volatility Futures aren’t always in contango.  If the markets are panicky enough the futures contracts get less expense than the VIX index.   The chart below from VIX Central shows the June 10, 2010 situation when the VIX index closed at 36.57.


In this configuration, called backwardation, the long volatility funds have the wind at their backs, every day the futures they hold are sliding up the curve, getting closer to the spot price.

Knowing the real reason for term structure based losses / gains hasn’t changed my volatility investment strategy, but it has removed one source of confusion in understanding the daily moves.

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How Does SVXY Work?

Updated: Aug 23rd, 2016 | Vance Harwood

Just about anyone who’s looked at a multi-year chart for a long volatility fund like Barclays’ VXX has thought about taking the other side of the trade. ProShares’ SVXY is an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) that allows you bet against funds like VXX while avoiding some of the issues associated with a direct short.

To have a good understanding of how SVXY works (full name: ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF) you need to know how it trades, how its value is established, what it tracks, and how ProShares makes money with it.

How does SVXY trade?

  • SVXY trades like a stock.  It can be bought, sold, or sold short anytime the market is open, including pre-market and after-market time periods.  With an average daily volume of 8 million shares its liquidity is excellent and the bid/ask spreads are a few cents.
  • SVXY has options available on it, with five weeks’ worth of Weeklys and strikes in 50 cent increments.
  • Like a stock, SVXY’s shares can be split or reverse split—but unlike VXX (with 4 reverse splits since inception) SVXY has done two 1:2 splits to bring its price down into optimum trading levels. Unlike Barclays VXX, SVXY is not on a hell-ride to zero.
  • SVXY can be traded in most IRAs / Roth IRAs, although your broker will likely require you to electronically sign a waiver that documents the various risks with this security.  Shorting of any security is not allowed in an IRA.

How is SVXY’s value established?

  • Unlike stocks, owning SVXY does not give you a share of a corporation. There are no sales, no quarterly reports, no profit/loss, no PE ratio, and no prospect of ever getting dividends.  Forget about doing fundamental style analysis on SVXY. While you’re at it forget about technical style analysis too, the price of SVXY is not driven by its supply and demand—it is a small tail on the medium sized VIX futures dog, which itself is dominated by SPX options (notional value > $100 billion).
  • The value of SVXY is set by the market, but it’s closely tied to the daily percentage moves of the inverse of an index (S&P VIX Short-Term Futurestm) that manages a hypothetical portfolio containing VIX futures contracts with two different expirations. Every day the index methodology specifies a new mix of VIX futures in the portfolio. On a daily basis SVXY moves in the opposite direction of the index, so for example, if the index (ticker SPVXSPID) moves up 0.3%, then SVXY will move down precisely 0.3%. This post has more information on how the index itself works. The index is maintained by S&P Dow Jones Indices.
  • As is the case with all Exchange Traded Funds, SVXY’s theoretical share value is just the dollar value of the securities and cash that it currently holds divided by the number of shares outstanding. This theorectical value is published every 15 seconds as the “intraday indicative” (IV) value. Yahoo Finance publishes this quote using the ^SVXY-IV ticker. The end of day value is published as the Net Asset Value (NAV).  The NAV is computed at 4:15 ET, not the usual market close time of 4:00 ET, because VIX Futures don’t settle until 4:15.
  • If the trading value of SVXY diverges too much from its IV value wholesalers called Authorized Participants (APs) will normally intervene to reduce that difference. If SVXY is trading enough below the index they start buying large blocks of SVXY—which tends to drive the price up, and if it’s trading above they will short SVXY.  The APs have an agreement with ProShares that allows them to do these restorative maneuvers at a profit, so they are highly motivated to keep SVXY’s tracking in good shape.

What does SVXY track?

  • SVXY makes lemonade out of lemons.  The lemon in this case is the index S&P VIX Short-Term Futurestm that attempts to track the CBOE’s VIX® index—the market’s de facto volatility indicator. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to directly invest in the VIX, so the next best solution is to invest in VIX futures. This “next best” solution turns out to be truly horrible—with average losses of 5% per month. See this post for charts on how this decay factor has varied over time. For more on the cause of these losses see “The Cost of Contango”.
  • This situation sounds like a short sellers dream, but VIX futures occasionally go on a tear, turning the short sellers’ world into something Dante would appreciate.
  • Most of the time (75% to 80%) SVXY is a real money maker, and the rest of the time it is giving up much of its value in a few weeks—drawdowns of 80% are not unheard of. The chart below shows SVXY from 2004 using actual values from October 2011 forward and simulated values before that.

SVXY hist Aug16


  • Understand that SVXY does not implement a true short of its tracking index. Instead, it attempts to track the -1X percentage inverse of the index on a daily basis.  To maintain this -1X behaviour the fund must rebalance/reset its investments at the end of each day.  For a detailed example of how this rebalancing works see “How do Leveraged and Inverse ETFs Work?
  • There are some very good reasons for this rebalancing, for example, a true short can only deliver at most a 100% gain and the leverage of a true short is rarely -1X (for more on this see “Ten Questions About Short Selling”. SVXY, on the other hand, is up 600% since its inception and it faithfully delivers a daily percentage move very close to -1X of its index.
  • Detractors of the daily reset approach correctly note that SVXY and funds like it (XIV) can suffer from volatility drag. If the index moves around a lot and then ends up in the same place SVXY will lose value, whereas a true short would not, but as I mentioned earlier, true shorts have other problems.  Even with volatility drag daily reset funds don’t always underperform. If the underlying index is trending down, they can deliver better than -1X cumulative performance. The chart below shows the relative one-year performance of SVXY and a true short starting with $1K invested in January for 2011 through 2016.


How does ProShares make money on SVXY?

  • An Exchange Trade Fund like SVXY must explicitly hold the appropriate securities or equivalent swaps matching the index it tracks. ProShares does a very nice job of providing visibility into those positions. The “Daily Holdings” tab of their website shows how many VIX futures contracts are being held. Because of the -1X nature of the fund, the face value of the VIX futures contracts will be very close to the negative of the net “Other asset / cash” value of the fund.
  • ProShares collects a daily investor fee on SVXY’s assets. The fee is stated as a 0.95 annual fee, but it’s implemented by subtracting 0.95/365 of a percent from each share’s value every calendar day. With current assets at $280 million this fee brings in around $2.5 million per year. That should be enough to be profitable, however I suspect the ProShares’ business model includes revenue from more than just the investor fee.
  • Exchange Traded Funds like SVXY recoup transaction costs in a non-transparent way. Transaction costs are deducted from the fund’s cash balance—resulting in a slow divergence of the fund’s IV value from the theoretical value of the index that it’s tied to. This differs from the approach that Exchange Traded Notes (ETN) use, their theoretical value is directly tied to the moves of the index itself, so the ETN issuers must pay for transaction costs other ways (e.g., out of the annual investor fee, or other explicit fees). In the case of SVXY, this hidden transaction fee has averaged around 0.28% per year.
  • One clue on ProShares’ business model might be contained in this sentence from SVXY’s prospectus:
    “A portion of each VIX Fund’s assets may be held in cash and/or U.S. Treasury securities, agency securities, or other high credit quality short-term fixed-income or similar securities (such as shares of money market funds and collateralized repurchase agreements).”  Agency securities are things like Fannie Mae bonds. The collateralized repurchase agreements category strikes me as a place where ProShares might be getting significantly better than money market rates. With SVXY currently able to invest around $250 million this could be a significant income stream.
  • I’m sure one aspect of SVXY is a headache for ProShares. Its daily reset construction requires its investments to be rebalanced at the end of each day, and the required investments are proportional to the percentage move of the day and the amount of assets held in the fund. SVXY currently holds $280 million in assets, and if SVXY moves down 10% in a day (the record negative daily move is -24%, positive move +18 %) then ProShares must commit an additional $28 million (10% of $280 million) of capital that evening. If SVXY goes down 10% the next day, then another $25 million capital infusion is required.

SVXY won’t be on any worst ETF lists like Barclays’ VXX, but its propensity for dramatic drawdowns (e.g. 69% in the 2015/2016 timeframe) will keep it out of most people’s portfolios. Not many of us can handle the emotional stress of holding on to a position with huge losses—even though the odds support an eventual rebound.

It’s interesting that an investment structurally a winner albeit with occasional setbacks is not as popular as a fund like VXX that’s structurally a loser, but holds out the promise of an occasional big win.

It seems that people would rather bet on a correction, rather than the slow grind of contango.

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Backtests for VelocityShares’ BSWN, LSVX, and XIVH Exchange Traded Notes

Updated: Aug 11th, 2016 | Vance Harwood

I have generated simulated end-of-day close indicative share values (4:15 PM ET) for VelocityShares’ BSWN, LSVX, and XIVH Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs) from March 31st, 2004 through July 14th, 2016.

  • BSWN VelocityShares VIX Tail Risk ETN
  • LSVX  VelocityShares VIX Variable Long/Short ETN
  • XIVH    VelocityShares VIX Short Volatility Hedged ETN

These simulated ETN histories are useful if you want to backtest various volatility strategies using these funds starting in 2004. The chart below show the simulated values with a logarithmic vertical axis so that you can see a reasonable amount of information for each fund.


For a description of how these funds work, see this post.

The algorithms for generating these ETN’s values are documented in their combined prospectus and the underlying S&P 500 VIX Futures Long/Short Strategy Index methodology.  The short term VIX futures index SPVXSP is used as the base index and all the specific fund indexes are calculated using it.  The respective fund underlying indexes are:

ETN Ticker Underlying Index

I calculate my version of SPVXSP directly from historic VIX futures settlement data. This futures data is available on this CBOE website—in the form of 100+ separate spreadsheets.  To make the calculation of this index tractable I created a master spreadsheet that integrates the futures settlement data into a single sheet.  See this post for more information about that spreadsheet.

My simulated values very closely track the published values of the underlying indexes (less than +-0.01% error) from the December 20, 2005 index inception date through the present, so I have very high confidence in the accuracy of these simulations.

These ETN prices reflect the contribution of 91-day treasury bills on their overall performance.   Thirteen-week Treasuries annualized yields are running around 0.30% in 2016, but in February 2007 they yielded over 5%— things have changed a bit…

I am making these 3 simulation spreadsheets available for purchase, individually, or as a single spreadsheet with all three funds. These spreadsheets do not include the index calculations themselves. The only formulas included are the ones required to go from the underlying index of each fund (e.g. SPVXVHST for XIVH) to the final ETN values including fees.

In addition to the 1.3% annual fee, these funds charge a “Futures Spread Fee” that can change on a daily basis.  There is no historical data available for the fee before the funds’ inception and I have not provided for changing the fee on a daily basis in the spreadsheet.  I have made a guess that this fee will effectively add 0.3% to the overall annual fees.  This guess can be changed for each fund at an overall level in the spreadsheet, however changing it will require regenerating a “seed” value to re calibrate the simulation to the actual IV levels.  Details on how to do that will be included in the readme sheet.

For more information on the spreadsheets see this readme.

If you can’t see the pricing/ purchasing information at the bottom of this post please click this link.

If you purchase the spreadsheet you will be directed to PayPal where you can pay via your PayPal account or a credit card. When you successfully complete the PayPal portion you will be shown a “Return to Six Figure Investing” link. Click on this link to reach the page where can download the spreadsheet.  Please email me [email protected] if you have problems, questions, or requests.  It’s easy to miss the “Return to Six Figure Investing” link.  If you don’t get it / can’t find it please email me and I will reply with the spreadsheets you purchased attached.

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How Do VelocityShares’ BSWN, LSVX, & XIVH Work?

Updated: Aug 7th, 2016 | Vance Harwood

Not Just Long or Short and No Signals

The indexes that power VelocityShares new BSWN, LSVX, and XIVH funds have been live since 2011, but they haven’t been directly accessible via exchange traded products until July 2016.  The goals of these new funds are pretty straightforward, on the long side BSWN & LSVX track upside volatility with some fidelity while minimizing decay costs, while XIVH captures the premium typically available by being short volatility, but with a hedging component to reduce drawdowns during corrections and bear markets.

The technology backbone of these VelocityShares funds is quite simple—and counter-intuitive. Each of these Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs) tracks a mix of both long and short VIX futures. You’d think that the short and long positions would just cancel each other out—but they don’t.

The long positions are managed as a 2X leveraged fund (similar to TVIX), and the short positions as a –1X inverse fund (similar to XIV). Both long and short positions use daily end-of-day rebalancing to keep their daily percentage moves consistent with the moves of their underlying index (short term VIX Futures—SPVXSP) and their leverage factors. By selecting the weights of the long and short positions in these funds VelocityShares positioned them at three different points on the volatility spectrum—ranging from volatility spike catcher all the way to hedged inverse volatility.

The baseline allocations / strategies for these three funds are shown below:

Ticker  2X long % -1X short % Strategy
BSWN 45% 55% Tail Risk  (strong long bias)
LSVX 33.33% 66.67% Long / Short (long bias)
XIVH 10% 90% Hedged short volatility   (strong short bias)

The chart below shows the simulated behavior of the two longish funds against the popular VXX and 2X leveraged UVXY / TVIX.


This simulation shows that the BSWN and LSVX portfolios managed to retain an impressive amount of value ($368 & $1724 respectively) over an eleven year period while the VXX and UVXY/TVIX portfolios withered away to nothing ($2.86, $0.00008) respectively).

The next chart shows the simulated behavior of XIVH compared to the popular XIV and SVXY -1X inverse volatility funds.



Wow, quite a ride—including a peak value of more than $12K for the XIVH portfolio followed by a drawdown to half of that in less than 2 years.

Over this time span, the 2008/2009 bear market was the key differentiator between these two funds. The 2X long allocation of XIVH’s portfolio beautifully protected it during the financial crisis.

The chart below compares the two funds starting immediately after the 2008/2009 bear market.

XIV vs XIVH apr09


When starting in April 2009 XIV/SVXY has better absolute performance, but XIVH’s volatility and drawdown percentages are better. XIVH’s drawdown percentage during the 2011 correction was half of XIV/SVXY’s.

The Trend is Their Friend

 Leveraged funds actually perform better than their leverage factors in trending markets. Consider the example of a hypothetical 2X leveraged fund where the underlying fund goes up 10% a day for three days:

Day Underlying % Underlying Underlying Cumulative % gain 2X leveraged

With daily reset

2X fund

Cumulative % gain

Day 0 100 100
Day 1 +10% 110 10% 120 +20%
Day 2 +10% 121 21% 144 +44%
Day 3 +10% 133.1 33.1% 172.8 +72.8%


Instead of the 66.2% gain you might have expected from the 2X leveraged fund, it went up 72.8%—a 6% bonus. See this post for a real world example of how the 2X long TVIX overachieved in this fashion.

Leveraged funds can also lose less than you’d expect in markets that are moving against them—if the underlying is strongly trending against them the percentage losses in the leveraged funds will be less than the leverage factor would indicate.

Winner Take All

The other key attribute of these funds is a “winner take all” characteristic. If there is a volatility spike the 2X long portion of the portfolio grows rapidly and the inverse portion shrinks rapidly.  Fund allocations (e.g., initially 45% long, 55% short) dynamically shift towards the long side of things during a volatility spike –exactly what you’d like to see happen. Conversely, if volatility is slumping the funds dynamically shift their allocations towards the short side.

Some Reset Required

 There are some downsides to using this long / short technology.  With an unconstrained “winner take all” strategy the losing side of the portfolio shrinks to the point where there’s nothing to build on when the trend reverses—and the trend will always reverse. To address this issue the funds do periodic resets back to their initial weighting factors. However, this resetting introduces another problem—path dependency. Not only does it matter how much VIX futures move in price, it also matters when the VIX futures move relative to the reset schedule of the funds. For example, if a volatility spike occurs right before a reset it can have a significantly different impact on the fund’s value compared to a spike right after a reset.

The funds take a two-tiered approach to mitigate path dependency. Each of the funds is rebalanced back to its target weighting quarterly and there’s a weekly rebalance of a rotating subset of assets within the funds.

Volatility of Volatility is a Drag

Another downside of these funds is that they don’t do well if the values of the underlying VIX Futures are choppy. If VIX futures are up strongly one day, and down sharply the next these funds will suffer—both their trend compounding and their “winner-take-all” strategies take multiple days of trending action to work well. When volatility of volatility is high it drags down the performance of all leveraged funds—both long and short.

Not Great at Black Swans

Volatility spikes that ramp up quickly (e.g., flash crashes, overnight geopolitical / economic surprises) are not captured particularly well by the longish funds (BSWN, LSVX). If these funds are operating close to their target weights then the short side will significantly drag down the performance of the 2X long side during quick volatility jumps.

The short volatility oriented fund, XIVH would be at some risk of termination if a historically unprecedented volatility spike (e.g., VIX spike of >70%) occurred.  These funds terminate if the intraday indicative value drops 80% or more from the previous day’s close.  If this situation occurs the holder would likely receive somewhere between 0% and 20% of their previous day’s holdings in cash (no lower than zero). XIVH would be significantly less likely to terminate than standard inverse volatility funds (e.g., XIV/SVXY) because it maintains a 2X long position also.

No Signals Need Apply

Most volatility funds that aren’t just pure long or short plays rely on algorithms to monitor market parameters (e.g., VIX moving averages) and then generate signals that cause allocations to be shifted.  I’ve listed some of these funds and the parameters they monitor.

Tickers Parameters Monitored
VQT, PHDG S&P 500 volatility, VIX 5 & 20-day moving averages, Fund losses
VQTS S&P 500 volatility, VIX Futures Term Structure
XVZ VIX term structure (VIX/VXV)
VIXH VIX Future absolute prices

BSWN, LSVX, and XIVH and two other VelocityShares funds (TRSK and SPXH) do not make allocations based on signals, nor do they rely on any characteristics outside the underlying short term futures themselves. They don’t shift allocations based on the term structure between short and medium-term VIX Futures, VIX term structure, VIX volatility or S&P 500 historic volatility.

I think this self-sufficiency is a significant advantage.  The volatility landscape is relatively young, with VIX futures only trading since 2004. The interplay between VIX futures of various expirations, the VIX, and equity markets has evolved over time and I don’t see any indication those relationships have stopped shifting.  By avoiding linkages to these factors BSWN, LSVX, and XIVH should exhibit more consistent behavior over time compared to the other strategy funds.  But to be clear, they do have their dependencies—specifically the trendiness and volatility of the underlying short term VIX futures index.

Complicated Fee Structure 

The issuer of these ETNs, the Swiss bank UBS, has levied a complex transaction fee in addition to the annual fee (1.3%).  The “Futures Spread Fee” captures some of the costs associated with the daily rebalancing of the funds’ long and short positions.  I’m guessing this fee will increase the annual costs associated with owning these funds by around 0.3%.

Low Volume and Low Asset Base 

Initially these funds will have low volumes and relatively low asset levels.  This naturally leads to concerns about liquidity.  In reality, the liquidity of all Exchange Traded Products is critically dependent on the nature of the underlying securities they track.  If the underlying index of an ETP is based on small-cap stocks in a 3rd world country then great care is required for all but the smallest trades, however in the case of these VelocityShares ETPs, their underlying is short term VIX futures—which are high volume, very liquid securities. As a result, traders will find that with a little care they can make large purchases or sales without significantly shifting the prices of these funds. For more information and suggestions on trading low volume funds see Evaluating ETP liquidity and Trading Low Volume ETPs.

Hedging Hurdle—How Much Decay?

Funds that are effectively long volatility are attractive candidates for hedging equity portfolios because volatility reliably spikes up when stocks plummet. Unfortunately when the market isn’t panicking long volatility positions often decay quickly. One approach to get around this decay is to apply these hedges only during high-risk times. However, corrections / bear markets are notoriously difficult to predict—if crystal balls were that good there’d be no need for hedging. Since BSWN and LSVX’s decay rates are relatively low holding them all the time becomes a viable option.

The chart below shows historical monthly decay rates.

This simulation shows that the decay of VelocityShares’ BSWN and LSVX would have been dramatically lower than TVIX/UVXY and VXX during relatively quiet markets—BSWN decaying mostly in the 1% to 2% per month range and LSVX running in the -1% to +1%  range.

How Much Oomph do BSWN and LSVX Have?

While low ongoing losses are very important for any potential hedge strategy it’s also important to know how much these funds will likely jump when a volatility event occurs.  This jump data helps establish the required “hedge ratio”—the percentage of a portfolio’s assets that should be held in a long volatility fund to compensate for the losses in the rest of the portfolio during a market correction / crash.

The chart below shows the peak percentage increases in VIX, UVXY, VXX, BSWN, and LSVX during some historical volatility spikes—some of which lasted months, others a day or two.

Multi-day Vol Bumps


Not surprisingly, in the jump category UVXY is the top performer for investible securities, with VXX coming in second most of the time. BSWN and LSVX perform very well during longer, more severe events—not a bad characteristic to have.

Traversing the Volatility Landscape 

Volatility investing has been a minefield for investors. If you’re long volatility you expose yourself to devastating decay losses if your timing isn’t perfect. Alternately if you’re short volatility you risk being blown up by vicious volatility spikes.

VelocityShares’ long/short strategy funds allow us to mitigate risk on both sides of the spectrum using a technology that doesn’t rely on backtested volatility signals or VIX future term structure assumptions. The indexes the BSWN, LSVX, and XIVH funds are based on have been published since 2011 and have performed appropriately through a wide range of market conditions.  I expect them to continue doing their jobs well.



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