Leveraged ETFs

ETFs have some advantages over other forms of leveraged trading. Here's why.

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Using leverage in investment

The prospect of large gains for a small outlay is investing nirvana. Even the most conservative of investors would love to find that one investment that generates many multiples of its initial sum cost. This is the lure of leveraged trading: it gives outsized exposure for a small upfront sum.

This has real advantages: investors don’t have to tie up as much capital to get the exposure they want or liquidate assets elsewhere to fund their positions. They can back their positions with real conviction, meaning time spent on research goes further.

However, leverage needs to be handled with care. An investor’s hunch many be right and they may make many times their initial investment, but it can also be a quick way to lose cash. As such, investors may need to put parameters around their trading positions, based on how much they can reasonably afford to lose.

Compare platforms to buy ETFs

Table: sorted by promoted deals first
Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Price per trade Frequent trader rate Platform fees Brand description
Fineco
£2.95
£2.95
Zero platform fee
Your first 50 trades are free with Fineco, until 31/12/2020. T&Cs apply.
Fineco Bank is good for share traders and investors looking for a complete platform and wide offer. Capital at risk.
IG
0% commission on US shares, and £3 on UK shares
From £5
£0 - £24 per quarter
IG is good for experienced traders, and offers learning resources for beginners, all with wide access to shares, ETFs and funds. Capital at risk.
eToro Free Stocks
0% commission, no markup, no ticket fee, no management fee
N/A
Withdrawal fee & GDP to USD deposit conversion
Capital at risk. 0% commission but other fees may apply.
Hargreaves Lansdown Fund and Share Account
£11.95
£5.95
No fees
Hargreaves Lansdown is the UK's number one platform for private investors, with the depth of features you'd expect from an established platform. Capital at risk.
Interactive Investor
From £7.99 on the Investor Service Plan
From £7.99 on the Investor Service Plan
No transfer fees or exit fees. £9.99 a month on the Investor Service Plan
Open an ISA, Trading Account or SIPP you will get £100 of free trades to buy or sell any investment (new customers only).
Interactive Investor offers everything most investors need. Its flat fees makes it pricey for small portfolios, but cheap for big ones. Capital at risk.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Minimum deposit Maximum annual fee Price per trade Brand description
Moneyfarm stocks and shares ISA
£1500
0.75%
£0
Hargreaves Lansdown stocks and shares ISA
£100
0.45%
£11.95
Hargreaves Lansdown is the UK's biggest wealth manager. It's got everything you'll need, from beginners to experienced investors. Capital at risk.
Interactive Investor stocks and shares ISA
Any lump sum or £25 a month
£119.88
£7.99
Interactive Investor offers everything most investors need. Its flat fees makes it pricey for small portfolios, but cheap for big ones. Capital at risk.
Saxo Markets stocks and shares ISA
No minimum deposit requirement
0.12%
£8.00
Saxo Markets offers a wide access to a range of stocks, ETFs and funds. Capital at risk.
AJ Bell stocks and shares ISA
£500
0.25%
£9.95
AJ Bell is a good all-rounder for people who to choose between shares, funds, ISAs and pensions. Capital at risk.
Fidelity stocks and shares ISA
£1000 or a regular savings plan from £50
0.35%
£10.00
Fidelity is another good all-rounder, offering a good package at a decent price. Not suited for trading shares. Capital at risk.
Nutmeg stocks and shares ISA
£100
0.75%
£0
Nutmeg offers three types of portfolios. Choose the one that goes with your investment style. Capital at risk.
Legal & General stocks and shares ISA
Legal & General stocks and shares ISA
£100 or £20 a month
0.61%
N/A
Legal & General is a big financial services company which offers insurance, lifetime mortgage, pensions and stocks and shares ISAs. Capital at risk.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Minimum investment Choose from Annual fee Brand description
Moneyfarm Pension
£1,500 (initial investment)
7 funds
0.35%-0.75%
Moneyfarm has pensions that are matched against your risk appetite, goals and planned retirement date. Capital at risk.
AJ Bell Pension
£1,000
Over 2,000 funds
0.05-0.25%
AJ Bell has two different pension options, a self managed pension and one that is managed for you. Capital at risk.
PensionBee Pension
No minimum
7 funds
0.5% - 0.95%
Pension Bee is a newbie in the pension market. It helps consolidate your pension plans into one place. Capital at risk.
Hargreaves Lansdown Pension
£100 or £25 a month
2,500 funds
0-0.45%
Hargreaves Lansdown is the UK's biggest wealth manager. It's got three different retirement options. Capital at risk.
Interactive Investor Pension
Any lump sum or £25 a month
Over 3,000 funds
£10/month
interactive investor is a flat-fee platform, which makes it cost effective for larger portfolios. Capital at risk.
Saxo Markets Pension
Saxo Markets Pension
£10
Over 11,000 funds
No annual fee
Saxo Markets gives flexibility and control over your investment strategy. Capital at risk.
Moneybox Pension
£1
3 funds
0.15% - 0.45% charged monthly
Manage your money with an easy-to-use Moneybox app. Capital at risk.
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All investing should be regarded as longer term. The value of your investments can go up and down, and you may get back less than you invest. Capital is at risk.

What is a Leveraged ETF?

Leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETF) use financial derivatives and debt to magnify the returns from an underlying index or asset. Most ETFs deliver the performance of an index on a one-to-one basis. Leveraged ETFs, in contrast, may raise that to 2:1 or 3:1. That means that if the underlying asset goes up 10%, the investor gets 20%, but the same is true on the downside.

Leveraged ETFs are available for most indexes, such as the S&P 500 or Nasdaq 100 Index. They are also available on commodities and currencies. It is also possible to get leveraged ETFs on market volatility – the Vix index or ‘fear’ gauge.

There are also leveraged inverse ETFs. Inverse ETFs make money when the index or asset is falling and leveraged inverse ETFs magnify those gains. They are useful when an investor is strongly negative on the index or asset. A leveraged inverse S&P 500 ETF, for example, would have made a lot of money in March when stock markets lost around a third of their value. However, it would have struggled as equity markets rebounded.

Potential for gains (and losses)

If the underlying asset goes in an investor’s favour, they can make many times their money. Taking the example of a position with 3:1 leverage: if an investor wants £30,000 worth of exposure, they will make an upfront investment of £10,000 in a 3x leveraged ETF.

If the index rises 25%, the trader makes £10,000 x 75%, leaving them with £17,500. Had they been in a normal ETF, they would have had to put in £30,000 upfront to make the same £7,500 return. However, the opposite is also true. If the index falls 25%, the trader loses 75% of his initial investment – leaving him with just £2,500. If they had put £10,000 in normal ETF, they would still have had £7,500.

How does this compare to margin trading?

For margin trading, the potential gains are far greater, as are the potential losses. If an investor wants the same £30,000 worth of exposure, with a margin level of 5% they will only have to make an initial investment of £1,500. If the current share price is £100, they are holding the equivalent of 300 shares.

If those shares rise to £150, the trader makes £50 x 300 or £15,000 – ten times their original investment. However, had the trade gone against them, their losses could have been much more severe. If the share price for the company fell to £50, the investor would have lost £15,000 and would have to find another £13,500. If they decided to keep the position open, the broker may ask for further margin payments.

Why ETFs over other leveraged options?

There are other options for investors who like to super-charge their investments. Investors can use contracts for differences, for example. ETFs have a number of advantages over other forms of leveraged trading:

  • Investors can’t lose more than they put in. With contracts for differences, investors can lose many multiples of their initial investment if the trade goes against them. With leveraged ETFs, an investor can lose all their initial investment, but no more. As such, it can be a good starting point for more sophisticated leveraged trading strategies.
  • There are no margin requirements. With other forms of leveraged trading, investors need to put up an initial amount (known as margin). Margin requirements will vary from broker to broker and from asset class to asset class but will typically be less than 10% of the overall exposure.
    If a position starts losing money, an investor may be required to top up these margin payments. Equally, the broker may wind up the trade if the margin call exceeds a person’s available funds or sell other positions they hold. With ETFs, there are no margin requirements.
  • They will be less volatile. Anyone who introduces leverage into their investments must be prepared for a more volatile ride. However, leveraged ETFs generally behave in a more predictable way than other forms of leveraged trading, making it easier to keep track of the associated risks.

How does the leverage work?

Leveraged ETFs will typically use derivatives to achieve the extra exposure to a particular index or asset. These may be index futures, equity swaps, or index options. These derivatives have a cost and therefore leveraged ETFs tend to be more expensive than normal ETFs. A typical expense ratio may be 0.5% rather than 0.1%. A leveraged index fund will also need to include cash invested in short-term securities to meet any financial obligations that arise from losses on the derivatives.

Key risks for trading leveraged ETFs

Leveraged ETFs are more complex than normal ETFs. The use of derivatives invariably brings in additional risks, such as counterparty risks for the providers of the derivatives and collateral risks should the derivatives provider go bust.

As it stands many of these ETFs are small and expensive relative to other ETFs. They tend to be used by traders rather than investors, which means they don’t have the widespread appeal that drives assets towards mainstream ETFs. This means dealing spreads can be wider and they are less liquid than conventional ETFs. There is also less choice, with leveraged ETFs only available on mainstream equity indices, commodities and currency pairs.

Leveraged trading requires an appetite for risk, but leveraged ETFs can be a gateway in to more sophisticated leveraged trading strategies. Because an investor cannot lose more than their initial investment, they can use leveraged ETFs to hone their trading skills and get to know the market before moving onto to higher risk/higher reward options. It can help investors develop a trading style and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

In summary

Leveraged ETFs offer an exciting means to magnify your returns or take high conviction positions in certain assets. This can deliver higher returns for a small upfront cost. However, they always need to be employed with care – losses are magnified in the same way as gains. There is always the potential for unexpected events to derail even the most well-planned trading strategy – the Covid-19 outbreak is a good example. Investors need to understand how much they can afford to lose as well as looking at how much they might make.

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