My little blog here may be mostly known for the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. But I’m surprised how many people share my other passion: options trading. Both here on the blog and at FinCon last weekend lots of fans of the blog asked me when I’m going to write something about derivatives again. Wait no more! I have been thinking about this one for a while; it’s another cautionary tale about markets going haywire and unsuspecting and unsophisticated investors are caught in between. And then they realize the “safe” and “conservative” strategy marketed by their financial adviser can blow up in their face!
The Wall Street Journal came out with a pretty detailed article (subscribers only) a few weeks ago, but the story has been around for a while. See, for example, on WealthManagement.com or SeekingAlpha.com. And this time it’s not some obscure small shop in Florida that got into trouble. No, it’s one of the big fish: UBS! Their so-called “Yield Enhancement Strategy (YES),” marketed as a conservative and low-risk strategy to risk-averse investors with mostly bonds in their portfolio, racked up heavy losses late last year. Well, at least people weren’t completely wiped out like the poor sobs in the OptionSellers mess. But a purported 20% loss (about $1b) is still a hard pill to swallow for investors that were told that this is completely safe. Sure, if you were 100% invested in the S&P500 last year and lost 20%, then yeah at least you knew what you’re getting into. But for the average mom-and-pop muni bond investor, a 20% loss is pretty epic. And not in a good way!
Of course, looking at the low-yield environment right now – in some places we even have a negative-yield environment – I don’t blame investors for shopping around for higher yields. But be aware of the charlatans. If they tell you that higher yields come with no side effects run away! There is always a catch with a higher yield! Even if it’s your trusted personal wealth advisor at a shop as famous as UBS!!! This yield enhancement strategy involved a risky options trading strategy. With 5x leverage! And most of the investors didn’t even know what they were getting into unless they had read the pages with the fine print! So, let’s do a post-mortem for this strategy. What were they doing and how and why did this go so horribly wrong?
Right around the time when I wrote my options selling update a few weeks ago was when everyone in the option seller circles talked about the blowup of OptionSellers.com. Option Sellers, LLC was a Tampa, Florida based Registered Investment Adviser and CTA (Commodity Trading Adviser). They managed money for 290 clients. Considering the minimum investment was $250,000 and most investors likely had more money with them, I’d surmise that they were managing around $150m. On November 15, 2018, they informed their investors that not only was all their money lost but that clients would likely owe more money. Wow, let that sink in: they had a loss of more than 100% and clients are left with debts they have to cover now! Bad news for the clients who invested all their money with OptionSellers!
A failure of a small obscure adviser probably would have stayed under the radar but the co-founder published a tearful apology video, confessing that all customer accounts were wiped out “by a rogue wave.” The movie was since taken down – probably the lawyers didn’t like the idea of this kind of mea culpa so much – but it’s still available on YouTube. The story went viral (or at least as viral as something as obscure as options trading can go) and was then picked up even by the national news media, including the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and many others.
Quite intriguingly, their strategy imploded over the span of just a few trading days. And just to be sure, this wasn’t fraud a la Bernie Madoff but investors actually lost their money “fair and square” if there is such a thing. Is this something all option sellers should worry about? Yes, if you are as reckless as Option Sellers. If you had bothered to check what these clowns were doing it was clear that this debacle was all but unavoidable. Let’s take a look at what they did and the five obvious mistakes that lead to the meltdown…
Note that I didn’t say “screwed” but skewed. Well, it wouldn’t have made a difference because today’s post is about how we get screwed by skewness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The other day I asked myself why would anyone buy lottery tickets? The return profile is atrocious! The average payout is probably only about 50% of the money raised. In a hypothetical lottery with a one in a million chance for a $500,000 prize and a ticket price of $1.00, your expected return is -50% in one week, which means essentially -100% compounded over a year. The standard deviation is $500, so 50,000% relative to the $1 investment. And that’s on a weekly basis, which translates into over 360,000% annualized. What’s worse, that jackpot payout is usually stretched over many years or decades with a much lower lump-sum payment. And it’s subject to income taxes, so the after-tax return is even bleaker! If Vanguard or Fidelity or Schwab offered a mutual fund with return stats like that everybody involved would be facing federal indictments!
Then why not invest the lottery ticket money in stocks? No one can tell me that they’re afraid of equity risk (about 10-15% annualized) when they buy lottery tickets with 360,000% annualized risk. Nowadays you can buy stocks or equity mutual funds in very small amounts. Our 529 account has a $25 minimum investment and you can buy single stocks on Robinhood. Then what’s the appeal of a lottery? In one word: Skewness, see the Wikipedia definition. In particular, positive skewness!
Positive Skewness means that the likelihood of large positive outliers is much higher than that of large negative outliers. Case in point, a lottery ticket: Your worst return is -$1, or whatever the price of the lottery ticket may be. The largest positive outlier might be in the hundreds of millions. Continue reading “We are so skewed!”→