Since then we have seen the imposition of yet another rule. In an attempt to protect financial stocks, the SEC has prohibited short sales of shares of certain financial companies. The list of protected financial companies has now expanded to over 900.
While many of the ProShares ultra short ETFs continued to trade in a manner that is decently tracking the action in the underlying index they are shorting, the Ultra Short Financial ETF (SKF) ran into huge problems.
After getting hammered on Thursday and Friday of last week, SKF barely opened on Monday. It was almost noon before it started trading in earnest. Remember, Monday was the day when the well-known Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLF) fell over 8%. SKF should have jumped 16%. By the end of the day, though, SKF hadn't come anywhere near that gain.
What was going on? Did the shorting ban affect SKF?
ProShares does not actually short the market. Instead, they use multiple financial instruments, in an attempt to mimic the inverse performance of the underlying index. Per the prospectus, those instruments are:
- Futures contracts and options on futures contracts
- Swap agreements
- Forward contracts
- Options on securities and stock indexes and investments covering such positions
ProShares announced on Monday that "Short Financials ProShares (SEF) and UltraShort Financials ProShares (SKF) are not expected to accept orders from Authorized Participants to create shares until further notice". In other words, shares would not be created for those who wished to buy the ETF.
The problem seems to have been hidden a layer deeper than the ProShares ETF itself. As stated above, ProShares enters into swap agreements. This means we need to consider the actions of the counterparties to those swaps. With the government instituting a ban on shorting financials, what happens when the counterparties suddenly find themselves unable to short the market? Everything grinds to a halt.
That's what we saw on Monday. It seems that by Tuesday, they have sorted things out. There are numerous ways to institute a short position without actually breaking the no-shorting rule. It appears that ProShares may have shifted the mix of financial instruments they are using. It is also likely that their swap counterparties have also moved to what can be called "synthetic shorting" using a mix of options, for example. In any case, SKF did deliver about twice the inverse of the performance of XLF.
As one of the articles mentioned below says, the government's unpredictable actions are the ultimate counterparty risk. In the meantime, SKF seems to be soldiering on. Given the unfavorable reception the Paulson plan received in Congress today, SKF will hopefully continue to do its job delivering solid upside as the financial sector weakens again.
I highly recommend the following excellent articles if you wish to go into further detail:
Proshares and Rydex inverse funds supposedly unaffected
Proshares biggest counterparty risk is US Government
Ultra ETFs and Counterparty Risk
The Synthetic Version of Shorting
Disclosure: long SKF