If you wanted an absolutely horrible investment in 2012, you couldn't have done any better than buying and holding one of the many exchange-traded products that provide exposure to futures contracts linked to the CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX, the market's leading measure of volatility.
The biggest and most popular VIX-related ETP on the market, the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (NYSEArca:VXX) was, conveniently enough, also the worst-performing ETP on the market. Again, if you were truly committed to losing your shirt, you could have wiped out more than three-quarters of your money last year in VXX. In fact, six of the 10 worst-performing ETPs last year were VIX-related.
Of course, as any reasonable person will tell you, securities like VXX aren't "investments" in the classic buy-and-hold sense; rather, they're best used as short-term portfolio insurance of sorts, spiking in value when the market tanks and, as last year made clear, falling deeply into the red when markets are normalizing.
And that's precisely my point.
While the structure of these futures-linked, VIX-related ETPs leaves a lot to be desired in terms of how "negative roll-yield" can voraciously eat up returns over time-even when they're spiking-the fact that VXX and its ilk dominated our 2012 worst-performers list says something about the macroeconomy that investors everywhere should heed.
As an aside, truly adverturesome traders with a bullish outlook and a yearning for exquisitely calibrated ways to secrete dopamine might already be laughing all the way to the bank if only they were shrewd enough to take a position last year in the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short Term ETN (NYSEArca:XIV). After all, that short ETN, which jumps when VXX tanks, catapulted almost 155 percent in all of 2012.
Bottom 10 YTD Performers
iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN
VelocityShares VIX Short Term ETN
ProShares VIX Short-Term
iPath S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures ETN
VelocityShares VIX Mid Term ETN
ProShares VIX Mid-term
iPath Dow Jones-UBS Coffee Total Return ETN
iPath Pure Beta Coffee ETN
iPath Dow Jones-UBS Natural Gas Total Return ETN
Market Vectors Solar Energy
Turning Of The Tide
In any case, things are getting better. Even if you concede the point to the folks at Pimco that the so-called New Normal means that the economy is in for an extended period of subpar growth, it's becoming increasingly clear that it really isn't 2008 anymore.
And I don't say that lightly. It has certainly been an exceedingly dodgy few years.
I'll never forget Sept. 29, 2008, when the Dow Jones industrial average lost 777 points after Congress initially refused to approve the Bush administration's $700 billion request for bank bailout funds. And I hope I never relive that sinking when-will-it-end feeling in the early days of the Obama administration when the stock market plumbed new lows.
Unsettling events kept rolling in, driving home the point that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke sought to emphasize from the first that downturns emanating from the credit markets are the most serious by far, and that time is one of the most crucial variables before the tide turns.
And so it went:the "flash crash" on May 6, 2010, that dealt another blow to the markets, and then the embarrassing debt ceiling negotiations in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2011 that led to the first-ever downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt by Standard & Poor's.
That year ended, ironically, with Treasurys soaring and ETFs focused on T-notes and T-bonds dominating the best-performers list. The point was that investors were still pretty freaked out in 2011. But not anymore.
Equities Shined In 2012
Fast-forward to the end of 2012-a year that financial markets finally heard the European Central Bank declare it would act as a lender of last resort in the eurozone-and an interesting variety of equity funds have replaced Treasurys as the top-performing funds, suggesting people are now taking on risk.
We've written quite a lot in the past few weeks about some of the now-hot-performing sectors, such as housing and the emerging markets.
The top two ETFs in 2012-the iShares Dow Jones U.S. Home Construction Index Fund (NYSEArca:ITB) and the iShares MSCI Turkey Index Fund (NYSEArca:TUR)-returned 78.7 percent and 63.2 percent, respectively.
Top 10 YTD Performers
iShares Dow Jones U.S. Home Construction
iShares MSCI Turkey Investable Market
SPDR S&P Homebuilders
Guggenheim China Real Estate
EGShares India Consumer
Market Vectors Biotech
iShares MSCI Philippines Investable Market
iShares FTSE EPRA/NAREIT Developed Asia
Market Vectors Egypt
PowerShares Dynamic Building & Construction
If the presence of VIX funds on our worst-performers list isn't telling you that markets are tiring of volatility and starting to normalize, you'll just have to keep taking measure of the generally improving stream of economic data, such as the latest U.S. employment report that showed the good-if-not-great creation of 155,000 jobs in the final month of 2012.
I'll go out on a limb here and predict that a year from now, I'll be writing about the plethora of Treasury ETFs that have replaced VIX ETNs on the worst-performers list. For now, I may be onto something
After all, the Pimco25+ Year Zero Coupon U.S. Treasury ETF (NYSEArca:ZROZ), the top-performing ETF in 2011, now finds itself among the bottom dwellers, as our first weekly snapshot of ETF returns showed today.
If my prediction about the fate of funds this year like ZROZ does come true, it will be bad news for doubting Thomases, because by that time, the best part of the bullish head of steam that appears to be forming might be over.
Disclaimer:All data as of 6 a.m. Eastern time the date the article is published. Data is believed to be accurate; however, transient market data is often subject to subsequent revision and correction by the exchanges.
At the time this article was written, the author held no positions in the securities listed. Contact Olly Ludwig at email@example.com.
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