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VIX ETFs: The Facts and Risks

Key Points

  • The VIX is known as the "fear index" and may spike during market turmoil.
  • Investors can't own the VIX directly—they can only buy futures contracts.
  • Because of the impact of contango, VIX futures portfolios often underperform the VIX.

 
Investors often worry about market volatility—especially the kind of big negative moves seen during the credit crisis of 2008 or throughout 2018. It's natural to look for investments that increase in value when markets decline in order to get some downside protection, which is why some investors start looking toward the VIX®, a volatility index published by the Chicago Board Options Exchange1. You can't buy the VIX itself, though, and the exchange-traded products that use VIX futures have some big risks that investors should understand before buying.

What is the VIX?

The name VIX is an abbreviation for "volatility index." Its actual calculation is complicated, but the basic goal is to measure how much volatility investors expect to see in the S&P 500® Index over the next 30 days, based on prices of S&P 500 Index options. When options traders think the stock market is likely to be calm, the VIX is low; when they expect big swings in the market, the VIX goes up.

VIX index value over time

Source: CSIA calculation based on Morningstar Direct data, as of April 30, 2019.

During times of high market turmoil, the VIX has tended to rise. The chart above shows the VIX index moved steadily higher as the market approached the peak of the late 1990s technology bubble, calmed down during the steady growth period of 2003-2007,  spiked during the 2008 credit crisis and in the latter half of 2011, and saw increases in early and late 2018. Because of this pattern of behavior, the VIX is sometimes referred to as the "fear index "—when market participants are worried about the market, the VIX tends to rise.

Investors who see the VIX having increased sharply while the market went down might be tempted to seek an investment in the VIX as a source of potential protection during market volatility. If only it were so simple!

Accessing the VIX through futures contracts

Like all indexes, the VIX is not something you can buy directly. Moreover, unlike a stock index such as the S&P 500, you can't even buy a basket of underlying components to mimic the VIX. Instead, the only way investors can access the VIX is through futures contracts.

A futures contract is an agreement to deliver something at a certain point in the future, for a price that's agreed upon in the present. The first futures contracts were for commodities such as wheat and corn, and they're available for many commodities now, including oil and natural gas.

Index futures, such as those tied to the value of an index like the S&P 500 or the VIX, do not involve actual delivery of anything when the futures contract matures. Instead, they use a cash delivery tied to the value of the index on the delivery date.

The risks of VIX futures

The potential problem, as with any futures contract, is contango—that is, when the futures price for something is higher than its current price. For instance, if VIX is at 15 today, and a one-month VIX futures contract is trading at 16, then the VIX futures market is in contango.

Why is this a problem? Well, imagine that your goal is to always have a certain part of your portfolio invested in VIX futures. If the futures contracts are always more expensive than the current VIX level, then you pay a premium every time you buy futures. You're essentially buying high and selling low, which erodes the value of your investment over time.

VIX futures and contango in action

The contango problem isn't purely academic; VIX futures contracts have often been more expensive than the VIX index. According to Bloomberg, in 79 of the past 90 months dating back to November 2011, the three-month VIX futures contract was above the VIX level. You can see the effect in action in the chart below.

Value of $10,000 invested in VIX or VIX futures

Source: CSIA calculation based on Morningstar Direct data, as of April 30, 2019. The example is hypothetical and provided for illustrative purposes only.

In this figure, you can see what $10,000 would be worth if it had been invested in the VIX itself (which, as mentioned earlier, is impossible), a portfolio of short-term VIX futures contracts or a portfolio of medium-term VIX futures contracts. These portfolios are based on actual exchange-traded funds that buy VIX futures contracts.

As you can see, since July 2016 the futures contracts have lagged significantly behind the value of the VIX index. By the end of the period, the value of $10,000 hypothetically invested in the VIX itself would have risen to $11,000 while the portfolios of VIX futures contracts were worth $1,600 to $4,500. Had an investor actually been able to buy the VIX, the investment would have made some money, but the actual investable instruments based on VIX lost significant amounts of money.

Just because an investment has VIX in its name doesn't mean that it will move in line with the VIX index. Furthermore, as the charts show, the VIX itself can be extremely volatile—the index lost 48% of its value between December 2018 and April 2019. Investors cannot buy VIX, and even if they could, it would be an investment with a great deal of risk.

1. The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index® (VIX®) reflects a market estimate of future volatility. VIX is constructed using the implied volatilities of a wide range of S&P 500 index options. This volatility is meant to be forward-looking and is calculated from both calls and puts.

 

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Important Disclosures:

Investors should consider carefully information contained in the prospectus, including investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. You can request a prospectus by calling Schwab at 800-435-4000. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Some specialized exchange-traded funds can be subject to additional market risks. Investment returns will fluctuate and are subject to market volatility, so that an investor's shares, when redeemed or sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost.

Commodity-related products, including futures, carry a high level of risk and are not suitable for all investors. Commodity-related products may be extremely volatile, illiquid and can be significantly affected by underlying commodity prices, world events, import controls, worldwide competition, government regulations, and economic conditions, regardless of the length of time shares are held. Investments in commodity-related products may subject the fund to significantly greater volatility than investments in traditional securities and involve substantial risks, including risk of loss of a significant portion of their principal value. Commodity-related products are also subject to unique tax implications such as additional tax forms and potentially higher tax rates on certain ETFs.

Charles Schwab Investment Advisory (CSIA) is a team of investment professionals focused on rigorous investment manager research. Clients can find CSIA's top picks for Schwab OneSource mutual funds and ETFs in the Schwab Mutual Fund OneSource Select List® and the Schwab ETF Select List™.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers are obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to show actual investments or to be reflective of results you should expect to attain.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The S&P 500® Index is a market-capitalization weighted index that consists of 500 widely traded stocks chosen for market size, liquidity, and industry group representation.

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses and cannot be invested in directly.

Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc. (“CSIA”) is an affiliate of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (“Schwab”).

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