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Portfolio Hedging Strategies Against Fresh Stock Bear Market Lows

InvestorEducation / Stocks Bear Market May 15, 2009 - 05:25 PM GMT

By: Andy_Sutton


Diamond Rated - Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleWhile it may seem rather inappropriate to talk about hedging strategies while the markets are retracing at least a portion of 2008’s devastating plunge, common sense continues to support the position that the worst is yet to come. Granted, focus has shifted to ‘less bad’ economic data and the anointing of government spending as the elixir that will return the American economy to prosperity. Yes, that whole “We’re going to spend our way to prosperity” mantra is once again in play. Make no mistake about it; what we are witnessing right now will be viewed years from now as the biggest suckers rally in history – so far.

That said, now is the time to start talking about protecting portfolios from the next move down. The techniques below were used either singly or in tandem to drastically limit losses in our client portfolios during the 2008 liquidation. Some of these strategies have been sold to the investing public as ten feet tall and bulletproof, but don’t work out too well unless the intricacies are understood. And still others are exceedingly complicated to execute and rely on a preponderance of difficult predictive successes to be beneficial.

Flight to Cash and Equivalents

This move is an obvious one and constitutes either a partial or total exit from the market in question and the capitalization of whatever gains/losses existed to that point. Depending on the type of account you’re dealing with you will have a taxable event. Under many circumstances, it may be detrimental to sell out of the market. This can especially be the case if you are one of those folks who have invested in a dividend-producing portfolio and need the income from those investments for living expenses. Obviously, people in this position don’t want to see their portfolio go down in value, but can’t necessarily afford to sell those assets either.

In terms of the average investor, this is undoubtedly the easiest hedge to execute with the opportunity costs being commissions, possible tax consequences, and the forfeited gains if you’re wrong.

Going Short the Market

Shorting shares and/or indexes is one way investors will choose to hedge portfolios during times when they believe markets will head lower. Let’s use the DJIA as an example.

Let’s say that an extremely prescient (and lucky) trader identified the last major top in the Dow Jones on 5/19/2008 at 13,028.16. That day he shorted 100 shares of DIA at a price of $130.23 for a total of $13,023 with a $10 commission. So our trader has $13,013 in his pocket, knowing he’ll have to cover those shares at some point. Let’s assume once again that our trader gets lucky and picks the precise bottom on 3/6/2009 with the DIA at $66.23 and decides to cover. He buys 100 shares for $6,633 ($10 commission) and has $6,380 as his gain.

Obviously, this is a best-case scenario, and ironically enough, this is often how many investment ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes are presented. The following is the flip side of shorting the market.

In this scenario, our trader, having seen his brokerage account drop by 25% since the beginning of 2008 decides to short DIA on 10/22/08. He is scared to death of a further decline. He shorts 100 shares at a price of $84.59 on the DIA, pays the same $10 commission and has $8,449.00 in his pocket. Unfortunately, he has picked a short-term bottom and the market rallies substantially immediately after he takes his position and our trader is scared into covering on 11/4/08 at $95.19. Including commissions, his short position just cost him a quick $1,080 – in just 9 trading days.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we can easily point out that our trader would have been much better off waiting a few more weeks to cover. He would not have lost anything, and in fact would have helped his portfolio.

The take-home point here is that shorting is not for the faint of heart. You’d best have a solid understanding of market behavior and fundamentals before even considering short-selling shares. As we learned above, the risk to the trader is unlimited. Lets say the DJIA would have gone all the way back up to its 2007 high after our trader shorted on 10/22/2008. He’d have been out over $5,700. In shorting, the rewards are finite (a stock can only go so close to zero) whereas the risks are theoretically infinite.

For the average investor, shorting shares is difficult in that you must pledge the balance of your account as collateral in case your bet goes bad. This nullifies the ‘qualified’ status of IRAs therefore IRA custodians will not extend margin privileges to IRA accounts. Standard brokerage accounts may be used to short stocks and such an account could be used to hedge other investments. While this strategy may bear occasional fruit, it is not for everyone, particularly those with short time horizons or a low appetite for risk.

Inverse Funds – Not what they’re cracked up to be?

Before beginning this segment, a few things must be said. For those who read this column regularly, you know that I rarely use specific companies or funds in these discussions, and tend to stick to sectors, fundamentals, and macroeconomic conditions. However, in this article, specific examples are going to be used to illustrate the points made and to show investors how these funds don’t always perform the way they’d expect. This is not to imply that there is an attempt to deceive on the part of the fund sponsors, but rather a misunderstanding by the investing public of the stated objectives of these funds.

Dow Jones UltraShort Profund (DXD) - The stated objective of this fund is as follows:

The Fund seeks daily investment results, before fees and expenses that correspond to twice (200%) the inverse (opposite) of the daily performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Let’s use a couple of hypothetical examples to illustrate how a leveraged inverse fund works. We enter our position when the DOW is at 10,000 and the price of DXD is $100/share. For the purposes of the example, we’re going to forget about the expense ratio. While the expenses must be considered, they are not necessary to make our point.

So over the course of our hypothetical 10-day trading period, the DJIA lost 8.28%. Conventional wisdom would have expected DXD to come in at a 16.57% gain. However, it only returned 14.44% (before expenses). Granted, this is not a big difference, but when you start putting it in the context of a million dollar investment you’re talking about some serious money.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s use DOG, which is the non-leveraged inverse ETF for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and see what happens.


The performance of the non-leveraged inverse ETF wasn’t quite as bad as it netted 7.64% (before expenses) when compared to an 8.28% loss in the Dow Jones Industrials Average.

Now let’s apply a real-world example from earlier this year and watch what develops:

On February 9th, 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 8270.87. The Ultrashort DOW ETF (DXD) closed at $58.07 that same day. Now, shortly before close on 5/13/2009, the Dow Jones Industrials Average is at 8274.05, while DXD is at $51.33 – a difference of $6.74 from the 2/9/09 price. Conventional logic would have surmised the DXD prices would be within a few cents given the trivial difference in DOW levels. For comparison, the non-leveraged ETF (DOG) closed at $71.82 on 2/9/2009 and sits at $68.60 shortly before the close on 5/13/2009 – a difference of $3.22. Conventional logic would have also expected the price of DOG to be very similar. What is going on here?

Here’s what. It is all in the objective of the fund. Remember how it mentioned the daily performance? These funds track the index on a day-by-day basis, but as time goes on, the tracking becomes more and more sloppy. Volatility enhances this condition as was evidenced in our 10-day hypothetical study from above.

It is due to the fickle nature of mathematics that a 10% drop followed by a 10% gain doesn’t put you back where you started. This is where the inverse funds fail to protect portfolios in the longer-term. Now, if prices always moved in straight lines, the inverse funds would do fine. Obviously prices don’t behave that way. The above analysis should not be construed as an indictment of the DOG and DXD inverse funds, but rather suggests they only be used with a clear understanding of their objectives.  Furthermore it must be realized that you might not get quite the level of protection you anticipated even if you’re right and the market goes down but takes a lazy path to get there.

For the average investor, inverse funds are an easy way to ‘short’ the market without actually taking the full risk of shorting. Think of it this way: if you invest in an inverse fund and the fund goes to zero, you’ve lost only your initial investment. Your actual risk is known going in. A second plus is that inverse funds may be bought in non-marginable accounts like IRAs. The major drawback, outlined above, is that you may not get the performance you expected for your buck – particularly over extended periods of time.

Using Options to Hedge Portfolios

Another potential strategy for hedging portfolios is through the use of options. We have previously discussed covered call writing for the purposes of generating income, but this week’s topic varies considerably and requires looking at things from a totally different perspective. This discussion focuses on using options for protection ONLY – not for day trading or other speculative activities.

While this is not intended to be a primer on options trading and involves prerequisite knowledge, there are some important concepts that must be highlighted when using options for hedging purposes. For most average investors, hedging with options involves the purchase of put options, which can be done from many types of accounts. However, individual brokers have their own restrictions on what can and cannot be done in particular types of accounts.

Time – Options are good for a specified period of time and after such time has passed expire worthless. Even in the month (or sometimes more) before their witching (expiration), options begin to degrade in value and investors find that they’re not doing their job in terms of protecting the portfolio. Options have ‘sweet spots’ and if you’re going to use them to protect a portfolio you’d better be able to align the option’s sweet spot with the period when the market’s decline will be most dramatic. Otherwise you’re not getting the full benefit of the option and your portfolio isn’t being protected. This is no easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

Strike Price – In the case of the Dow Jones Industrials Average, put options could be purchased on DIA.  If you feel the decline will last 6 months and start today, you’d look at options that expire 11/2009 or beyond. In the case of DIA, 12/2009 put options are available. Now you must decide how far you think the market will fall. Buying an option with a strike price that is too low may result in it staying out of the money in which case you might not get the full performance; especially if the decline is not as steep as you anticipated. Buy an option at a strike price that is too close to the current price of DIA and you’re going to pay a hefty premium for the option. If your prediction ends up being right that won’t be an issue, but if you are wrong, you just wasted a lot of your money.

Know Your Portfolio - A common mistake of investors who use options for hedging is that they buy the wrong option. It is imperative to understand the components of the portfolio that you’re trying to protect. For example, hedging a portfolio of junior gold mining stocks with Dow Jones Industrials Average puts is probably not a great idea. While the junior gold stocks may trace the DJIA to a certain extent there are plenty of times when such is not the case. Using a simple statistical correlation study between your portfolio’s value and the value of different market indexes can help you identify which markets your portfolio tends to track and you can then hedge more effectively.

The major benefit of buying options is that you’re taking a known level of risk. Your outlay for the option and related commissions is the extent of your risk. If you are wrong and the market moves up your option will expire worthless and you lose your initial investment only. It must be noted that this defined risk does not apply when one is writing uncovered (naked) options. These types of activities are extraordinarily risky and are highly inadvisable merely for hedging purposes.

In conclusion, there are many other factors that play into hedging and would require a dissertation to elucidate all of them to proper justice. Each investor must consider their own objectives and risk tolerance and should also consult a qualified advisor before implementing any investment strategy.

The important thing to take away from this discussion is that if done properly, hedging can provide relative comfort during periods of market mayhem such as we just witnessed last year. However, if undertaken without a solid understanding of both the benefits and detriments of the hedging methodology you choose to employ, not only will you not enjoy comfort, you’re quite likely to be a regular in the antacid aisle at your local pharmacy as well.

Improper hedging techniques and use of hedging vehicles are some common mistakes investors make. Consider taking a look at our free report about 7 additional mistakes investors make – and how to avoid them. To get your copy click the following link:

By Andy Sutton

Andy Sutton holds a MBA with Honors in Economics from Moravian College and is a member of Omicron Delta Epsilon International Honor Society in Economics. His firm, Sutton & Associates, LLC currently provides financial planning services to a growing book of clients using a conservative approach aimed at accumulating high quality, income producing assets while providing protection against a falling dollar. For more information visit

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