The Comprehensive Guide to Leveraged ETFs: Pros, Cons, and Strategies


If you’re considering investing in leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs), it’s essential to understand their mechanics, risks, and potential rewards. This comprehensive guide delves deep into leveraged ETFs, explaining what they are, how they work, and the strategies involved. From the benefits and drawbacks to real-world examples and expert insights, this article provides all you need to know about these unique investment vehicles.

What is a leveraged ETF?

A leveraged exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a specialized investment vehicle that utilizes financial derivatives and borrowed capital to amplify the returns of an underlying index or asset. While traditional ETFs aim to replicate the performance of their underlying index on a one-to-one basis, leveraged ETFs target a higher ratio, such as 2:1 or 3:1. In essence, they offer the potential for magnified gains but also carry increased risks.

Leveraged ETFs are available for a wide range of indexes, including well-known ones like the Nasdaq 100 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA).

How leveraged ETFs work

Leveraged ETFs work by employing financial instruments like futures contracts and options, along with borrowed capital, to enhance the impact of price movements in the underlying index or asset. To illustrate, let’s consider an ETF tracking the S&P 500 Index.

1. Traditional ETFs: When the S&P 500 rises by 1%, a traditional ETF tracking it typically experiences a 1% increase. This one-to-one relationship mirrors the index’s performance.

2. Leveraged ETFs: In contrast, a leveraged ETF linked to the S&P 500 might aim for a 2:1 ratio. This means that if the S&P 500 gains 1%, the leveraged ETF strives to achieve a 2% gain. Similarly, a 3:1 leveraged ETF would seek a 3% gain in response to a 1% increase in the index.

While this amplification of gains can be enticing, it’s crucial to understand that leverage works both ways. If the underlying index experiences a 1% decline, a leveraged ETF with a 2:1 ratio would result in a 2% loss.

Why use leverage?

Leverage is employed in the world of investing to potentially maximize returns on capital. By using borrowed funds and financial derivatives, investors can increase their exposure to the market without needing a larger initial investment. This can be particularly attractive for traders aiming to profit from short-term price movements.

However, it’s important to recognize that leverage intensifies not only gains but also losses. The higher the degree of leverage, the greater the potential for both profits and risks.

Pros and cons of leveraged ETFs


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider:

  • Potential for significant gains: Leveraged ETFs offer the opportunity to earn substantial profits when the market or underlying index rises.
  • Diversification: Investors can access a wide variety of assets and sectors through leveraged ETFs, enhancing portfolio diversification.
  • Shorting opportunities: Inverse leveraged ETFs allow investors to profit from declining markets, providing a valuable hedging tool.
  • Increased risk: The use of leverage significantly amplifies the potential for losses, which can exceed the performance of the underlying index.
  • Costs: Leveraged ETFs often come with higher expense ratios and management fees compared to traditional ETFs.
  • Not suitable for long-term investing: Due to their high-risk, high-cost nature, leveraged ETFs are typically not recommended for long-term investment strategies.

How leveraged ETFs amplify returns

Leveraged ETFs achieve their objective of magnifying returns through various mechanisms:

Derivatives usage

Leveraged ETFs commonly utilize derivatives, such as futures contracts and options, to gain exposure to their target index. These derivatives enable the fund to control a more extensive portfolio than the actual assets held. When the underlying index rises, the fund benefits from the leveraged position, aiming for a multiplied return.

Borrowed capital

In addition to derivatives, leveraged ETFs may borrow capital to invest in their chosen assets. This borrowing amplifies the fund’s holdings and can further enhance gains when the market moves favorably. However, the interest costs associated with borrowed capital can erode returns, especially in volatile markets.

Daily reset

Leveraged ETFs typically aim to achieve their targeted leverage ratio on a daily basis. This means that the fund resets its leverage at the end of each trading day. While this strategy helps maintain the desired ratio in the short term, it can lead to tracking errors and deviations from the intended leverage over extended periods.

Compounding effects

Over time, the compounding effects of daily resetting can cause leveraged ETF returns to differ significantly from those of the underlying index. This compounding can work for or against investors, depending on market conditions and the fund’s performance.

The costs of investing in leveraged ETFs

Investing in leveraged ETFs comes with specific costs and considerations:

Expense ratios

Leveraged ETFs typically have higher expense ratios compared to traditional ETFs. These expenses cover the fund’s operational costs, including management fees, trading expenses, and administrative fees. The higher expense ratios can eat into the fund’s returns, particularly in periods of low market volatility.

Trading costs

Due to their daily resetting strategy, leveraged ETFs may incur frequent trading costs, including bid-ask spreads and commissions. Traders should be aware of these costs, as they can impact short-term returns.

Interest costs

When leveraged ETFs borrow capital to enhance their positions, they must pay interest on the borrowed funds. This interest expense can erode returns, especially during extended periods of borrowing. It’s essential to consider these costs when evaluating the potential returns of a leveraged ETF.

Leveraged ETFs as short-term investments

Leveraged ETFs are primarily designed for short-term trading and speculation rather than long-term investing. Several factors contribute to this short-term focus:

Options contracts

Many leveraged ETFs utilize options contracts as part of their strategy. Options contracts have expiration dates, making them more suitable for short-term trading. As these contracts approach expiration, the fund may need to roll them over, incurring additional costs.

Tracking errors

The daily resetting of leverage in leveraged ETFs can lead to tracking errors over time. These errors can cause the fund’s returns to deviate significantly from the intended leverage ratio. For long-term investors, these deviations can impact overall portfolio performance.

Risk management

Given the higher risks associated with leverage, leveraged ETFs are favored by traders who actively manage their positions. Short-term trading allows traders to react quickly to market developments and adjust their positions as needed to mitigate losses or capture gains.

Real-world example of a leveraged ETF

To illustrate the concept of a leveraged ETF in practice, consider the Direxion Daily Financial Bull 3x Shares (FAS) ETF. This leveraged ETF seeks to provide investors with three times the daily return of the Russell 1000 Financial Services index.

Key information about FAS:

  • Expense ratio: 0.99%
  • Top holdings: Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B), Visa (V), JP Morgan Chase (JPM)

Let’s break down how this ETF works:

If an investor allocates $10,000 to FAS, and the stocks tracked by the Russell 1000 Financial Services index increase by 1% on a particular day, FAS aims to deliver a 3% return for that same day. However, if the underlying index experiences a 2% decline, FAS would incur a 6% loss in that period.

This example underscores the potential for both significant gains and substantial losses associated with leveraged ETFs. It’s crucial to approach these investments with a clear understanding of their inherent risks.

Frequently asked questions

Can I hold leveraged ETFs for the long term?

Leveraged ETFs are primarily designed for short-term trading and speculation due to their high-risk nature. They may not be suitable for long-term investment strategies because of the potential for amplified losses over time.

Are there leveraged ETFs that provide inverse exposure to markets?

Yes, there are leveraged inverse ETFs designed to profit when the underlying index or asset declines in value. These inverse leveraged ETFs allow investors to capitalize on bearish market conditions.

How do leveraged ETFs manage risk?

Leveraged ETFs often employ risk management strategies, such as daily resetting of leverage and the use of derivatives. These measures aim to limit the fund’s exposure and reduce the impact of potential losses.

What are the tax implications of investing in leveraged ETFs?

Leveraged ETFs can have complex tax implications due to their daily rebalancing and use of derivatives. Investors should consult with tax professionals to understand the tax treatment of these investments in their specific situations.

Are leveraged ETFs suitable for novice investors?

Leveraged ETFs are generally considered advanced investment vehicles and may not be suitable for novice investors. It’s essential to have a strong understanding of financial markets, leverage, and risk management before considering these investments.

Investing in leveraged ETFs requires careful consideration of your risk tolerance, investment goals, and market outlook. It’s advisable to consult with a financial advisor or conduct thorough research before incorporating leveraged ETFs into your portfolio.

Key takeaways

  • Understanding Leveraged ETFs: Leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are specialized investment vehicles that use financial derivatives and borrowed capital to amplify the returns of an underlying index or asset. They aim to achieve higher returns but also come with increased risks.
  • Mechanics of Leveraged ETFs: Leveraged ETFs employ financial instruments like futures contracts and options, along with borrowed capital, to enhance the impact of price movements in the underlying index. They reset their leverage on a daily basis and use compounding effects.
  • Why Use Leverage: Leverage is used to potentially maximize returns on capital, allowing investors to increase their market exposure without a larger initial investment. However, it intensifies both gains and losses.
  • Pros of Leveraged ETFs: Leveraged ETFs offer the potential for significant gains, provide diversification opportunities, and enable shorting for investors who want to profit from declining markets.
  • Cons of Leveraged ETFs: They come with increased risk due to leverage, have higher expense ratios and costs compared to traditional ETFs, and are typically not suitable for long-term investing.
  • Amplifying Returns: Leveraged ETFs achieve amplified returns through derivatives usage and borrowing capital. Daily resetting and compounding effects play a role in their performance.
  • Costs of Investing: Leveraged ETFs have higher expense ratios, trading costs, and interest costs due to borrowing. Investors should be aware of these expenses when evaluating potential returns.
  • Short-Term Focus: These ETFs are primarily designed for short-term trading and speculation. Options contracts and tracking errors make them more suitable for short-term investors.
  • Real-World Example: An example provided in the article is the Direxion Daily Financial Bull 3x Shares (FAS) ETF, which aims to deliver three times the daily return of the Russell 1000 Financial Services index.
  • Frequently Asked Questions: The article answers common questions about leveraged ETFs, including their suitability for long-term investment, availability of inverse leveraged ETFs, risk management, tax implications, and suitability for novice investors.
View article sources
  1. Risk-Return Dynamics Using Leveraged ETF Options – East Tennessee State University
  2. Leveraged ETFs: The Trojan Horse Has Passed the Margin-Rule Gates – Seattle University School of Law
  3. The Pros and Cons of ETFs – SuperMoney
  4. What are ETFs? A Comprehensive Guide to Exchange Traded Funds – SuperMoney