Synthetic exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have gotten a bad rap lately – and with good reason. Regulators and many financial experts believe that synthetic ETFs are too complex for retail investors and that they may not fully understand the counterparty and derivatives risks they are actually taking on.
Many synthetic exchange-traded funds rely on derivatives to generate returns instead of holding or owning the underlying securities as traditional ETFs do. Synthetic ETFs include inverse and leveraged funds. A leveraged ETF is designed to accelerate returns based on the rate of growth of the index being tracked. For example, if the underlying index moves up 3%, a 2x leveraged ETF would move up by 6%.
An inverse ETF does the opposite. It is designed to perform as the inverse of whatever index or benchmark is being tracked. Inverse ETFs funds work by using short selling, derivatives and other techniques involving leverage.
And with leverage, there always comes risk. As reported Nov. 17 by Investment News, Laurence D. Fink, chief executive officer of BlackRock, Inc., is a staunch critic of some exchange-traded funds. In particular, Fink takes issue with ETFs provided by Societe Generale SA.
“If you buy a Lyxor product, you’re an unsecured creditor of SocGen,” said Fink in the Investment News story. Providers of synthetic ETFs should “tell the investor what they actually are. You’re getting a swap. You’re counterparty to the issuer.”
And therein is the problem.
Counterparty risk means there is a chance that the swap provider could go belly up, leaving investors out in the cold. Remember Lehman Brothers? Following Lehman’s collapse in 2008, many investors quickly discovered that their investments were essentially worthless.