Leveraged ETFs Are Designed to Lose Money Over the Long-Term

You Were Never Supposed to Buy and Hold a Leveraged ETF

Don't Buy and Hold Leveraged ETFs
Leveraged ETFs are meant to be trading tools for professionals or wealthy investors who make bets lasting one day or less. They were not designed to be buy and hold investments. Due to the way they are structured, it is possible to be right and still lose money if you continue to hold them for weeks, months, or longer. Getty Images News

Over the past few years, I've become increasing concerned about the number of times I've seen inexperienced investors buy leveraged ETFs within their personal portfolios.  These specially created financial products - and that is precisely what they are, products designed to be sold to speculators and traders for the profit of their sponsors as they were never intended to be held by retail investors for the long-term - have been twisted into something that individuals are buying or trading without any comprehension of the underlying mechanics; how they actually work.

 That's dangerous because many leveraged ETFs are not structured like ordinary ETFs.  They are meant to be held for a maximum period of a single trading day.  Beyond that point, the longer you own it the probabilities become higher and higher that you'll lose money as a result of the structure employed.

Here's how it works: An ordinary ETF is just that - an exchange traded fund.  It's a pooled mutual fund that owns an underlying basket of securities or other assets, most often common stocks.  That basket trades under its own ticker symbol throughout the ordinary trading day the same way shares of Johnson & Johnson or Coca-Cola do.  From time to time, the net asset value (the value of the underlying securities) may deviate from the market price but, on the whole, the performance should equal the underlying performance over long periods of time minus the expense ratio.  Simple enough.

With a leveraged ETF, on top of the (usually modest) asset management feesfrictional expenses such as trading costs, and custody fees, you have the interest expense of the debt used to achieve the actual leverage (or, if it is a mechanism other than debt, the cost of whatever that happens to be; e.g., derivatives might be employed, instead).

 That means that every moment, of every day, interest expense or its effective equivalent is reducing the value of the portfolio.  For a leveraged ETF - let's pick one of the most recognized names such as the UltraPro QQQ [TQQQ], which leverages the S&P 500 index 3-to-1 - this means even if the market goes sideways, the ETF shares are destined to lose money; a reality that is exacerbated by the fact that the portfolio rebalances daily.

 That last part might seem trivial but if you are particularly good with math, you'll have already understood the implications: Even if the market ends up increasing in value, and even if you are leveraged 3x on that increase, the combination of daily rebalancing and how it harms you during periods of high volatility, plus expenses, plus interest costs means that it is possible, perhaps even likely, that you will lose money, anyway.  To put it bluntly: You could be right, the market could increase, and you could still lose money; maybe even a lot of money.

All of this is spelled out in the mutual fund prospectus for these leveraged ETFs but no matter how many times regulators, financial advisors, registered investment advisors, academics, professionals, or industry insiders point out the importance of reading it, it seems like only a handful ever bother to do the work.  I've seen real people take their real, hard-earned money and use it to buy ETFs such as TQQQ, sitting on it like they would a buy and hold blue chip stock, which is almost mathematically bound to end up being disastrous for them more times than not.  In some cases, even when I've explained to them the dangers, they've nodded their head and continued to hold anyway until finally, months or years later, throwing in the towel once the inevitable losses materialize.

 It's become like clockwork now.

For whom, precisely, are these leveraged ETFs designed?  What types of people or institutions should consider buying or selling them?  In the end, the answer becomes clear when you understand that they aren't meant for investment at all.  Investment proper, such as owning companies and collecting dividends or lending money and collecting interest income, is necessary for the functioning of the real economy.  The purpose of leveraging a stock market benchmark, such as the S&P 500, by 300% and then resetting it every day is a way to gamble without risking the dangers of directly employing margin debt.  You can take the long side (bet that it will increase) or the short side (bet that it will decrease) as both have their own respective ticker symbols.  The ETFs are meant for those with deep pockets, who can afford to take the outsized risk, and who are willing to bet that stocks will go up or down on any given day; who know that they are engaged in an extremely short-term marketing timing activity that is entirely inappropriate for a vast majority of society.

What is the takeaway of all of this for new investors?  To put it in the clearest possible terms:

  • You have no business, under practically any set of circumstances, to have any sort of leveraged ETF in your portfolio.
  • You have no business, under practically any set of circumstances, should you make the mistake of buying such a leveraged ETF for speculative purposes, to hold onto it for more than a few minutes or hours; certainly not more than a single trading day.  These instruments are internally constructed to lose money the longer you hold them so don't fall for the illusion they are like stocks or bonds.  For each day they sit on your books, the more dangerous they grow.  You cannot convert what is meant to be a gambling tool into an investment opportunity; at least not in this case.

Unless you are a professional, dump the leveraged ETFs immediately.  You're playing in a sandbox you likely don't understand and you will suffer for it.  You likely will lose your wealth and you will have no one but yourself to blame.  That may sound rather "line in the sand" but this is one of those areas where there is not room for disagreement among reasonable people and I'm trying to save you from the fate suffered by people like this and this.  There is no reason to behave this way so stop trying to be clever and be content to enjoy the riches that long-term investing can bring you.