Why 3x ETFs Are Riskier Than You Might Think (2024)

Leverage involves borrowing in order to amplify the returns of an investment. This means that potential gains, but also losses, can be increased. A common form of leveraged stock investing involves buying on margin. However, there are also ETF products that already come with leverage built-in, seeking 2x or 3x the returns of the index or sector that they track.

Investors face substantial risks with all leveraged investment vehicles. However, 3x exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are especially risky because they utilize more leverage in an attempt to achieve higher returns. Leveraged ETFs may be useful for short-term trading purposes, but they have significant risks in the long run.

Key Takeaways

  • Triple-leveraged (3x) exchange-traded funds (ETFs) come with considerable risk and are not appropriate for long-term investing.
  • Compounding can cause large losses for 3x ETFs during volatile markets, such as U.S. stocks in the first half of 2020.
  • 3x ETFs get their leverage by using derivatives, which introduce another set of risks.
  • Since they maintain a fixed level of leverage, 3x ETFs eventually face complete collapse if the underlying index declines more than 33% on a single day.
  • Even if none of these potential disasters occur, 3x ETFs have high fees that add up to significant losses in the long run.

Understanding 3x ETFs

As with other leveraged ETFs, 3x ETFs track a wide variety of asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, and commodity futures. The difference is that 3x ETFs apply even greater leverage to try to gain three times the daily or monthly return of their respective underlying indexes. The idea behind 3x ETFs is to take advantage of quick day-to-day movements in financial markets. In the long term, new risks arise.

Because of how leveraged ETFs are constructed, they are only intended for very short holding periods, such as intraday. Over time, their value will tend to decay even if the underlying price movements are favorable.

Compounding and Volatility

Compounding—the cumulative effect of applying gains and losses to a principal amount of capital over time—is a clear risk for 3x ETFs. The process of compounding reinvests an asset's earnings, from either capital gains or interest, to generate additional returns over time. Traders calculate compounding with mathematical formulas, and this process can cause significant gains or losses in leveraged ETFs.

Assume an investor has placed $100 in a triple-leveraged fund. Consider what happens when the price of the benchmark index goes up 5% one day and down 5% on the next trading day. The 3x leveraged fund goes up 15% and down 15% on consecutive days. After the first day of trading, the initial $100 investment is worth $115. The next day after trading closes, the initial investment is now worth $97.75. That represents a loss of 2.25% on an investment that would normally track the benchmark without the use of leverage.

Volatility in a leveraged fund can quickly lead to losses for an investor. Those looking for real-world examples of this phenomenon need look no further than the performance of the S&P 500 and associated 3x ETFs during the first half of 2020. Funds like the ProShares Ultra S&P500 (SSO), which follows the S&P500 with 3x leverage, lost 40% of their value between January and March of that year.

The effect of compounding can often lead to quick temporary gains. However, compounding can also cause permanent losses in volatile markets.

Derivatives

Many 3x ETFs use derivatives—such as futures contracts, swaps, or options—to track the underlying benchmark. Derivatives are investment instruments that consist of agreements between parties. Their value depends on the price of an underlying financial asset. The primary risks associated with trading derivatives are "market," "counterparty," "liquidity," and "interconnection" risks. Investing in 3x ETFs indirectly exposes investors to all of these risks.

Daily Resets and the Constant Leverage Trap

Most leveraged ETFs reset to their underlying benchmark index on a daily basis to maintain a fixed leverage ratio. That is not at all how traditional margin accounts work, and this resetting process results in a situation known as the constant leverage trap.

Given enough time, a security price will eventually decline enough to cause terrible damage or even wipe out highly leveraged investors. The Dow Jones, one of the most stable stock indexes in the world, dropped about 22% on one day in October of 1987. If a 3x Dow ETF had existed then, it would have lost about two-thirds of its value on Black Monday. If the underlying index ever declines by more than 33% on a single day, a 3x ETF would lose everything. The short and fierce bear market in early 2020 should serve as a warning.

High Expense Ratios

Triple-leveraged ETFs also have very high expense ratios, which make them unattractive for long-term investors. All mutual funds and exchange-traded funds charge their shareholders an expense ratio to cover the fund’s total annual operating expenses. The expense ratio is expressed as a percentage of a fund's average net assets, and it can include various operational costs. The expense ratio, which is calculated annually and disclosed in the fund's prospectus and shareholder reports, directly reduces the fund's returns to its shareholders.

Even a small difference in expense ratios can cost investors a substantial amount of money in the long run. 3x ETFs often charge around 1% per year. For example, the ProShares Ultra Pro QQQ, which seeks to triple the daily returns of the NASDAQ 100, has a gross expense ratio of 0.98%.

Compare that with typical stock market index ETFs, which usually have minuscule expense ratios under 0.05%. A yearly loss of 1% amounts to a total loss of more than 26% over 30 years. Even if the leveraged ETF pulled even with the index, it would still lose by a wide margin in the long run because of fees.

What Does It Mean When an ETF Is Leveraged 3x?

An ETF that is leveraged 3x seeks to return three times the return of the index or other benchmark that it tracks. A 3x S&P 500 index ETF, for instance, would return +3% if the S&P rose by 1%. It would also lose 3% if the S&P dropped by 1%.

What Research Is Needed to Trade in Triple Leveraged ETF?

Leveraged ETFs require considerations such as how they are constructed and how often their portfolio is rolled over and rebalanced. For instance, some may use options contracts while others used structured notes. Leveraged ETFs also tend to have relatively high expense ratios, which should be considered.

What Happens If Triple Leveraged ETFs Go to Zero?

Leveraged ETF prices tend to decay over time, and triple leverage will tend to decay at a faster rate than 2x leverage. As a result, they can tend toward zero. Before this happens, leveraged ETFs can undertake a reverse stock split, creating higher-priced shares but reducing the number of ETF units outstanding. Ultimately, if the share prices drop low enough and there is no demand for a reverse split, the ETF may be delisted.

The Bottom Line

A leveraged ETF uses derivative contracts to magnify the daily gains of an index or benchmark. These funds can offer high returns, but they also come with high risk and expenses. Funds that offer 3x leverage are particularly risky because they require higher leverage to achieve their returns.

Why 3x ETFs Are Riskier Than You Might Think (2024)

FAQs

Why 3x ETFs Are Riskier Than You Might Think? ›

A leveraged ETF uses derivative contracts to magnify the daily gains of an index or benchmark. These funds can offer high returns, but they also come with high risk and expenses. Funds that offer 3x leverage are particularly risky because they require higher leverage to achieve their returns.

Which is the biggest key risk associated with leveraged ETFs? ›

Market risk

The single biggest risk in ETFs is market risk. Like a mutual fund or a closed-end fund, ETFs are only an investment vehicle—a wrapper for their underlying investment.

Can you lose more money than you invested in a leveraged ETF? ›

No. The most an investor can lose in a Leverage Shares ETP is the entire value of their initial investment plus any reinvested dividends.

Why are leveraged ETFs not good for long term? ›

Leveraged ETFs use various financial instruments such as futures, options and swaps to achieve their leverage. These instruments have associated costs, including transaction costs, bid/ask spreads and management fees. These costs can eat into the returns of the ETF and contribute to its decay.

Are concerns about leveraged ETFs overblown? ›

By some estimates, returns generate up to 74% less rebalancing by leveraged and inverse ETFs once capital flows are taken into account. As a consequence, the potential for these types of products to exacerbate volatility should be much lower than many claim.

Why are 3x leveraged ETFs bad? ›

A leveraged ETF uses derivative contracts to magnify the daily gains of an index or benchmark. These funds can offer high returns, but they also come with high risk and expenses. Funds that offer 3x leverage are particularly risky because they require higher leverage to achieve their returns.

Can 3x leveraged ETF go to zero? ›

This longer-term underperformance results from ill-timed rebalancing and the geometric nature of returns compounding. The author uses the concept of a growth-optimized portfolio to show that highly levered ETFs (3x and inverse ETFs) are likely to converge to zero over longer time horizons.

Can 2x leveraged ETF go to zero? ›

Because they rebalance daily, leveraged ETFs usually never lose all of their value. They can, however, fall toward zero over time. If a leveraged ETF approaches zero, its manager typically liquidates its assets and pays out all remaining holders in cash.

Can I lose all my money with leveraged ETFs? ›

Leveraged ETFs amplify daily returns and can help traders generate outsized returns and hedge against potential losses. A leveraged ETF's amplified daily returns can trigger steep losses in short periods of time, and a leveraged ETF can lose most or all of its value.

Why do leveraged ETFs lose value? ›

Even if the index rises, if the volatility within the year is too high, holding a leveraged ETF can still result in a loss. From the graph, we can see that assuming the index has an annualized return of 0, if the index's volatility is 10%, then the leveraged ETF loses 3%.

What is the most volatile 3x ETF? ›

The Direxion Daily Junior Gold Miners Index Bull 3x Shares (JNUG) and the Direxion Daily Junior Gold Miners Index Bear 3x Shares (JDST) are the two most volatile exchange-traded funds of all. Each has a one-year volatility reading of about 170.

How long can you safely hold a 3x leveraged ETF? ›

Several papers have established that investors who hold these investments for periods longer than a day expose themselves to substantial risk as the holding period returns will deviate from the returns to a leveraged or inverse investment in the index.

What are the pitfalls of leveraged ETFs? ›

Risks and disadvantages of leveraged ETFs
  • Speculative market risk. There is a heightened degree of market risk associated with levered ETFs. ...
  • Not the best choice for long-term Investments. ...
  • High fees. ...
  • Compounding and Volatility Exposure. ...
  • Catastrophic Losses.

What is the point of leveraged ETFs? ›

For professional investors, leveraged ETFs are useful in statistical arbitrage, short-term tactical strategies, and for use as short-term hedges without the need to roll futures. For individual investors, leveraged ETFs are alluring because of the potential for higher returns.

Which leveraged ETF is the biggest? ›

The largest Leveraged ETF is the ProShares UltraPro QQQ TQQQ with $21.60B in assets. In the last trailing year, the best-performing Leveraged ETF was NVDL at 483.62%. The most recent ETF launched in the Leveraged space was the FT Vest U.S. Equity Enhance & Moderate Buffer ETF - April XAPR on 04/19/24.

Why are leveraged funds risky? ›

The use of leverage by a fund will also cause the fund to underperform the compounded return of the underlying index or benchmark in a trendless or flat market. Leveraged funds are considered speculative and should only be used by investors willing and able to absorb potentially significant losses.

What are the risks of a leveraged ETF? ›

Speculative market risk

There is a heightened degree of market risk associated with levered ETFs. Seeking to multiply the daily returns of a benchmark index, meaning both profits and losses are amplified. In the event the market does not provide steady direction, leveraged ETFs often miss out on potential gains.

What is the problem with leveraged ETFs? ›

Abstract. It is well established that holding leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs) over an extended period of time generally results in returns substantially less than the daily multiple might imply. This is due to the compounding problem caused by the volatility of returns.

What is the risk associated with leverage? ›

The biggest risk that arises from high financial leverage occurs when a company's return on ROA does not exceed the interest on the loan, which greatly diminishes a company's return on equity and profitability.

What are the risks of leveraged investing? ›

Market Instability: Leveraged investments are more sensitive to market fluctuations, and losses can build up quickly.

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