Decoding Returns in Leveraged ETFs

Decoding Returns in Leveraged ETFs

9 Min.

Leveraged ETFs are investment funds that aim to produce higher returns compared to traditional exchange-traded funds. These funds utilize derivatives to amplify the gains or losses of a benchmark index by two or three times. However, this strategy has a downside. The portfolio of leveraged ETFs needs to be frequently rebalanced, which can result in additional costs for investors. Therefore, experienced investors who are confident with managing their portfolios are advised to control their index exposure and leverage ratio directly rather than through leveraged ETFs.


Discover the intricate world of leveraged ETFs, designed to outperform traditional ETFs in both long and short positions. Tailored for providing exposure to renowned benchmarks such as the S&P 500 Index or the Nasdaq 100, these instruments also navigate specific sectors or industry groups. This discourse delves into the comprehensive realm of leveraged ETFs, unraveling their functionality across favorable and adverse market landscapes.

Evolution of Leveraged ETFs: Unlocking Market Opportunities

Traded akin to stocks on exchanges, ETF shares streamline administrative and transaction costs across a broad investor base. The inaugural leveraged ETFs debuted in the summer of 2006, following a comprehensive six-year assessment by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Functioning as a reflection of an index fund, leveraged ETFs amplify investment exposure by leveraging both the fund's capital and investor equity. Typically maintaining a $2 or $3 exposure to the index for every $1 of investor capital, these funds aim for the future appreciation of investments financed through borrowed capital to surpass the capital's associated costs.

Preserving Asset Value: The Evolution From Closed-End to Open-End Investment Funds

In the pre-ETF era, closed-end funds, the initial stock exchange-listed investment vehicles, grappled with share pricing disparities driven by supply and demand, often deviating from the fund's net asset value (NAV). ETFs revolutionized this landscape by adopting an open-ended structure, allowing flexible creation and redemption of shares. This dynamic setup, while mitigating pricing uncertainties, creates an arbitrage opportunity for management, aligning share prices closely with the underlying NAV.

Notably, even ETFs with limited trading volume exhibit share prices nearly mirroring their NAVs, underscoring the efficacy of this model. It's imperative to acknowledge that while ETFs maintain near-complete investment, the continuous creation and redemption of shares may escalate transaction costs, impacting all fund investors. Despite inherent expenses, many ETFs, especially those tracking indexes, boast significantly lower fees compared to actively managed mutual funds.

Index Dynamics: Leveraged ETFs and Derivative Strategies

In navigating the ebb and flow of share creation and redemption, leveraged ETFs employ derivatives, namely index futures, equity swaps, and index options, to adjust their exposure to the underlying index. A typical portfolio structure involves a substantial cash allocation to short-term securities alongside a smaller yet highly volatile collection of derivatives. This cash reservoir serves to meet financial obligations arising from derivative-related losses.

Adding complexity to the landscape, inverse-leveraged ETFs utilize similar derivatives to achieve short exposure to the underlying ETF or index. These funds thrive on index declines, yielding profits, but incur losses during index upswings.

Daily Rebalancing Dynamics in Leveraged Funds

Sustaining a consistent leverage ratio, typically two or three times proves intricate. Fluctuations in the underlying index prompt adjustments in the leveraged fund's assets, necessitating alterations in total index exposure. Illustratively, with a fund holding $100 million in assets and $200 million in index exposure, a 1% index rise on the first trading day yields $2 million in profits. The fund, now with $102 million in assets, doubles its index exposure to $204 million.

The ongoing maintenance of a stable leverage ratio enables the fund to promptly reinvest trading gains through constant adjustment, termed rebalancing. This mechanism ensures double exposure to the index, irrespective of recent 50% gains or losses. Without this, daily changes in the fund's leverage ratio render returns unpredictable compared to the underlying index. In bear markets, rebalancing a leveraged fund with long exposure poses challenges. Reducing index exposure safeguards against downturns but crystallizes trading losses, diminishing the fund's asset base.

Consider a hypothetical scenario: an index declines by 1% daily for four consecutive days, then rebounds with a 4.1% gain on the fifth day, ultimately restoring its initial value. How does a two-times leveraged ETF tied to this index perform during this period?

DayIndex OpenIndex CloseIndex ReturnETF OpenETF CloseETF Return

At week's end, while the index rebounds, the leveraged ETF lags slightly (-0.2%), attributed to its proportionally smaller asset base requiring an 8.42% gain to revert to the original level. This impact, seemingly minor in the example, escalates over extended durations in highly volatile markets. The magnitude of percentage drops amplifies these differences.

Rebalancing daily is simple mathematically by doubling the daily index return. However, evaluating the effect of fees on portfolio returns is a more complex task that will be explored in the following section.

Performance Evaluation and Fee Structure

In assessing the S&P 500's monthly performance over the last three years, an investor observes an average monthly return of 0.9% with a standard deviation of 2%. Assuming future returns align with this historical average, a two-times leveraged ETF tied to the index is anticipated to deliver double the expected return, accompanied by double the anticipated volatility (i.e., a 1.8% monthly return with a 4% standard deviation). Predominantly, this gain manifests as capital gains rather than dividends. It's crucial to note that the projected 1.8% return is pre-expenses. Leveraged ETFs incur expenses across three categories: management, interest, and transactions.

Exploring Management 

The management expense, articulated in the prospectus, surpasses 1% of the fund's assets, addressing marketing and administration costs. Simultaneously, interest expenses pertain to holding derivative securities, each embedded with a risk-free rate akin to short-term U.S. government securities. Transactions involving these derivatives incur additional expenses.

Financial Dynamics: Unveiling Interest and Transaction Expenses

Identifying and calculating interest and transaction expenses can be challenging, given their subtle impact on fund profitability. An effective approach involves comparing a two-times leveraged small-cap ETF's performance against its underlying index over multiple months, scrutinizing the expected and actual returns variances.

Consider a scenario where a $500 million asset, a two-times leveraged small-cap ETF, utilizes derivatives to simulate $1 billion exposure to the small-cap index, employing a combination of index futures, index options, and equity swaps. A substantial cash position offsets potential declines in derivatives invested in short-term securities to mitigate interest costs. Daily rebalancing adjusts index exposure based on price fluctuations and share creation and redemption obligations.

Over a year, the fund incurs $33 million in expenses:

Interest Expenses$25 million5% of $500 million
Transaction Expenses$3 million0.3% of $1 billion
Management Expenses$5 million1% of $500 million
Total Expenses$33 million

Assuming a 10% index increase to $55, generating $100 million in capital gains and dividends, the fund, after deducting expenses, yields a $67 million gain, translating to a 13.4% return for investors. Conversely, a 10% index decline to $45 results in a $133 million loss, representing a 25% reduction in invested capital. The fund trims exposure to $734 million, twice the investor equity of $367 million, by selling depreciated securities. This simplified example omits the impact of daily rebalancing and the potential influence of extended sequences of superior or inferior daily returns on the fund's holdings and performance.


While leveraged ETFs, like most ETFs, offer user-friendly interfaces, their operational intricacies remain veiled. Ongoing management activities involve constant buying and selling of derivatives to align with a target index exposure, incurring interest and transaction expenses. Daily rebalancing introduces substantial fluctuations in index exposure, making it unattainable for these funds to double the index return over extended periods consistently.

To set realistic performance expectations, it's important to compare an ETF's daily returns with those of its underlying index. For investors adept in leveraged investing with access to underlying derivatives such as index futures, index options, and equity swaps, leveraged ETFs might provide limited value. Proficiently in managing their portfolios, these investors can exercise direct control over index exposure and leverage ratio.

Leveraged Exchange-Traded Fund (LETF)
Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)