The stock market, particularly the financial sector, was feeling the heat during the fall of 2008. Numerous banks, including some of the largest in the country, were on the brink of failure, and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers sent a ripple through the American economy, prompting the Department of the Treasury and Federal Reserve to step in with emergency powers created under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Out of this doom and gloom rose Direxion Daily Financial Bear 3X Shares (NYSEMKT:FAZ), a leveraged ETF that sought to beat the market by betting against the Russell 1000 Financial Securities index. The thought behind it was that as financial companies continued to get slaughtered in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the fund would return three times the losses for investors. Unfortunately, the financial sector hasn't struggled as much, and the funds performance has been miserable pretty much from the beginning:
Inside the index
The Russell 1000 Financial Securities index is made up of a little over 200 companies from various industries in the financial sector. These companies range in size from mega-conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-B) to small investment brokerage Interactive Brokers Group (NYSEMKT:IBKR). The index itself has performed well enough in comparison to the fund, returning 20.6 percent since the November 2008 launch of the ETF.
Why the failure?
It could just be an example of poor market timing on the part of Direxion, which may not have expected TARP to stabilize the markets by early 2009 and therefore preventing systemic losses in the financial sector. Extended damage to the financial sector, as evidenced by the funds early returns, would have been quite a boon for fund owners. However, this would have only been short-term performance, and that is due primarily to the daily reset of the fund.
For example, let's look at how a leveraged fund like this suffers when the market goes back and forth between good and bad days. If the index starts out at a value of $100, and loses 10% in the first day, it is now worth $90. Meanwhile, if this fund is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, it would need to increase in value by 30%, which now makes it worth $130. The next day, the index gains 10% back from its new price, so it is now worth $99. Conversely, this fund needs to lose 30% from its current value, a total of $39, so it is worth $91. So while the index lost 1% over two days -- which investors might think should be good for an inverse leveraged fund -- our hypothetical fund here actually lost 9% over that period. Compound this over many days, or four years, like the fund, and it is easy to see why the fund fell so dramatically.
That makes a bit more sense
Now that we have that out of the way, what exactly does it mean? The chart above is a good indicator of how the fund actually works. During short periods of market turmoil, especially in the financial sector, the fund had massive returns. Like late 2008 and early in 2009 while investors and companies were still figuring out the implications of TARP. Early investors in the fund went for quite a roller coaster ride the first four months until being dropped off a cliff in early March.
FINRA, the group that regulates these sort of things, was prompted by the performance of funds like this to issue a warning to investors , advising them to fully understand leveraged and inverse ETFs, especially as they apply to buy-and-hold investors. While it is all fine and dandy to try and be the inverse of an index on a daily basis, the example I went through above, even over two days, shows exactly how the cumulative effect of the daily reset hampers performance of the fund. I know I don't want to lose 99.5% of my investment, even if it does take four years to do so.
Answer the question already
The answer to the question posed in the title of this article, at least regarding the Direxion Daily Financial Bear 3X Shares ETF, is a resounding yes, but I still think that it has more to do with the operation of the fund. After all, Direxion Daily Financial Bull 3X Shares (NYSEMKT:FAS), a sister fund that is supposed to benefit from rises in the Russell 1000 Financial Securities index, is down a little over 73% from its start on the same day. And that's a fund that is supposed to be really successful -- 3X as much! -- when the index performs well. As mentioned previously, the index itself has gained a little over 20%, so you would expect a return closer to 60%, right?.
The problem lies in the daily nature of the fund, making every gain or loss harder to overcome. While great for short-term investors, or hedge funds that invest differently than you or I, it might just be a better idea to find some great financial stocks that you understand. Leave the leveraged ETFs, and their massive losses, to those investors that move in and out of the market.
Robert Eberhard owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Follow him on Twitter, where he sometimes tweets thoughts about investing. You can also follow his CAPS profile, currently sporting a score in the high 80s, by clicking here.
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