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Understanding ETNs on VIX Futures

41 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2012 Last revised: 20 May 2012

Carol Alexander

University of Sussex - School of Business, Management and Economics

Dimitris Korovilas

University of Reading - ICMA Centre

Date Written: April 22, 2012


This paper aims to improve transparency in the market for direct, leveraged and inverse exchange-traded notes (ETNs) on VIX futures. The first VIX futures ETNs were issued in 2009. Now there are about 30 of them, with a market cap of about $3 billion and trading volume on some of these products can reach $5 billion per day. Yet volatility trading is highly complex and regulators are rightly concerned that many market participants lack sufficient understanding of the risks they are taking. We recommend that exchanges, market-makers, issuers and potential investors, as well as regulators, read this paper to improve their understanding of these ETNs.

We provide a detailed explanation of the roll yield and convexity effects that drive the returns on VIX futures ETNs, and we track their volatility and assess their performance over an eight-year period starting in March 2004, by replicating their values using daily close VIX futures prices. We explain how ETN issuers can construct almost perfect hedges of their suite of ETNs and control their issue (most ETNs are callable) to make very significant profits under all bootstrapped scenarios. However, market knowledge has precipitated front-running of the issuer’s hedging activities, making profits more difficult to control. Moreover, for hedging the ETNs such large positions must be taken on VIX futures that the ETN market now leads the VIX futures that they are supposed to track. The result has been an evident increase in the volatility of VIX futures since 2009. If this increase in statistical volatility induces an increase in VIX futures implied volatility, a knock-on effect would be higher prices of VIX options whilst S&P options are unaffected.

A previous discussion paper, Alexander and Korovilas (2012), provided incontrovertible evidence that single positions on direct VIX futures ETNs of any maturity – including mid-term and longer-term trackers – could only provide a diversification/hedge of equity exposure during the first few months of a great crisis of similar magnitude to the banking collapse in late 2008. By contrast, the present discussion paper shows that some highly attractive long-term investment vehicles can be simply constructed by holding certain portfolios of VIX futures ETNs. In particular, we introduce a new class of 'roll-yield arbitrage' ETN portfolios which we call ETN2 (because they allocate between direct and inverse VIX futures tracker ETNs) and ETN3 portfolios (that allocate between static and dynamic ETN2). These portfolios have positive exposure to mid-term direct-tracker ETNs and (typically) negative exposure to short-term direct-tracker ETNs (equivalently, positive exposure to short-term inverse-tracker ETNs). Their unique risk and return characteristics make them highly attractive long-term investments, as well as superb diversifiers of stocks, bonds and commodities.

Keywords: VIX Futures, Volatility ETNs, VXX, TVIX, Roll Cost, Exchange-Traded Notes, Hedging, Portfolio Performance

JEL Classification: G11, G15, G23

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Carol and Korovilas, Dimitris, Understanding ETNs on VIX Futures (April 22, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Carol Alexander (Contact Author)

University of Sussex - School of Business, Management and Economics ( email )

Falmer, Brighton BN1 9SL
United Kingdom


Dimitris Korovilas

University of Reading - ICMA Centre ( email )

Whiteknights Park
P.O. Box 242
Reading RG6 6BA
United Kingdom
+44 (0)118 378 8239 (Phone)
+44 (0)118 931 4741 (Fax)

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