How to Hedge Your Portfolio

August 5, 2021
Using S&P 500® put options for adding downside protection for your entire portfolio.

Hedging strategies are designed to reduce the impact of short-term corrections in asset prices. For example, if you wanted to hedge a long stock position, you could buy a put option or establish a collar on that stock.

One challenge is that such strategies work for single stock positions. But what if you're trying to reduce the risk of an entire portfolio?

A well-diversified portfolio generally consists of multiple asset classes with many positions. If you wanted to hedge the equity portion of your portfolio, you'd have to hedge every equity position—which would be extremely costly.

Here, we'll look at how to deploy a portfolio hedge with a focus on S&P 500® Index ($SPX) put options. It's important to understand that portfolio hedging is a fairly advanced topic, so investors considering this strategy should have experience using options and be familiar with the trade-offs they involve. 

How do you value a hedge?

Effectiveness and cost are the two most important considerations when setting up a hedge.

A portfolio hedge would be considered effective if its value holds relatively steady in the face of dropping asset prices. If we're trying to hedge an equity portfolio against a market sell-off, we would expect the hedge to appreciate in value so that it offsets the drop in equity prices.

As for cost, how much would you be willing to pay to hedge your entire portfolio for a certain period of time? That may depend on what you think the market might do in the near future. For example, if you strongly believe the stock market will fall 5%–8% over the next three months, an effective hedging strategy that costs less than 5% of your total portfolio's value may be worth consideration.

Why are S&P 500 put options a good choice?

Finding a single financial product to hedge your entire portfolio in all its uniqueness could be a challenge. But if you have a well-diversified equity portfolio, S&P 500 ($SPX) put options could do the job.

Options on the S&P 500 Index are considered "1256 contracts" under tax law and offer the following benefits:

  • Favorable tax treatment: Many broad-based index options qualify for 60% long-term/40% short-term capital gains treatment—meaning 60% of your gains are taxed at the lower long-term capital gains rate, while just 40% is taxed as regular income. Other broad-based index options that qualify include those that overlay the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($DJX), Russell 2000 Index ($RUT), and NASDAQ 100 ($NDX).
  • Cash settlement: All index options are cash settled, which makes the position easier to manage around expiration.
  • Leverage: $SPX put options have a 100 multiplier, which provides the potential to offset a substantial decline in the portfolio for a relatively small upfront cost.1 

How do you construct a portfolio hedge?

Let's say you own a $1,000,000 equity portfolio that is highly correlated with the S&P 500 index (assume the beta of the portfolio is 1.0), and you're concerned that the S&P 500 may sell off substantially over the next three months. Now assume you're willing to spend approximately 3% of the total portfolio value—or ~$30,000—to hedge your portfolio over that time (more on this below).

If the SPX is at 4,200 and the Cboe Volatility Index (VIX)—the average implied volatility of SPX options—is at ~16, then the cost of one SPX 4,200 put option that expires in approximately three months would be $11,500 ($115 ask price x 100).

For this example, we're using the at-the-money strike price to obtain immediate downside protection in the event of a sell-off. With the ~3% you've allocated for hedging, you could buy three SPX 4,200-strike put options for $34,500: $115 (ask) x 3 (# of contracts) x 100 (option multiplier) = $34,500 (excluding commissions). Each SPX 4,200 put contract has a nominal value of $420,000 (4,200 x 100 multiplier), so in order to establish a hedge that covers at least $1 million, we would need to purchase three of these contracts: $420,000 (nominal value) x 3 (# of contracts) = $1,260,000.

The table below shows how hedging would affect your portfolio value upon the expiration of the three-month SPX put options.

Portfolio value at expiration of three-month SPX put options

Portfolio value at expiration of three-month SPX put options
Portfolio value at expiration of three-month SPX put options
SPX percentage change Unhedged portfolio percentage change SPX value Value of three SPX 4,200 puts Portfolio value Portfolio value with SPX puts Hedged portfolio percentage change
+5% +5% 4,410 0 $1,013,775 $1,013,775 +1.37%
0% 0% 4,200 0 $965,500 $965,500 -3.40%
-5% -5% 3,990 $63,000 $917,225 $980,225 -1.98%
-10% -10% 3,780 $126,000 $873,000 $994,950 -0.50%
-15% -15% 3,570 $189,000 $824,500 $1,009,675 +0.97%
-20% -20% 3,360 $252,000 $776,000 $1,024,400 +2.44%

As you can see in the example above, not only did the hedged portfolio maintain its value during the various SPX sell-off scenarios, but it actually resulted in a net profit for the overall portfolio in the –15% and –20% scenarios. The net positive change in the hedged portfolio during those scenarios was primarily due to the higher nominal value of the three put contracts discussed above.

Additional considerations:

The perfect hedge doesn't exist, and there's no guarantee that the hedge will perform as planned. Be aware that the effectiveness of hedging your portfolio hinges on its correlation to the S&P 500 index with a beta of 1.0.

  • The above example assumes that the SPX puts are held until expiration (approximately three months), but keep in mind that you can generally sell the puts before they expire if you believe the hedge is no longer necessary. If you do so, you'll likely capture some of the time value remaining in the puts, which would lower the initial 3% hedging cost.
  • If the VIX's level had been higher, the cost to hedge would've been more expensive, given that hedging costs rise in line with increased volatility expectations. Therefore, if you wait for the market to sell-off, there's a high probability that the VIX will move above 16. This would cause three-month at-the-money options to be more expensive, resulting in higher put prices and making the equivalent hedging strategy cost more than ~3%. The converse is also true: If the VIX had been below 16, the equivalent hedge would've cost less than 3%.

Is it worth it?

The hedging strategy presented above provides an efficient way to hedge an entire portfolio, but is the cost worth the benefit? Some investors may take comfort in knowing that the "worst-case scenario" for their portfolio is being down ~3% for the next three months. Others may feel that establishing a short-term hedge is equivalent to timing the market and, therefore, may elect to focus on the long term.

Regardless of your opinion, understand that any portfolio protection, or hedging strategy, comes at a cost. Whether it's worth it or not depends on your view regarding how far and how fast the market could fall and if you would be able to ride out a severe decline.

1With long options, investors may lose 100% of funds invested.

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