As the commercialization of the Christmas shopping season reveals more of its gaudy glory later this week, here's a way for investors to say, "Bah, humbug," to it all.
A crafty investment firm has devised a new way for traders to bet on the slow decline of the bricks-and-mortar retail industry: an exchange-traded fund designed to profit from drops in the share prices of store chains like Macy's Inc. (M - Get Report) and Office Depot Inc. (ODP - Get Report)
ProShare Advisors LLC, an investment firm specializing in exotic ETFs, has started a "Decline of the Retail Store ETF," which trades like a stock under the ticker " (EMTY - Get Report) ." As in, empty stores. The ETF is designed so that its price goes up whenever an index of bricks-and-mortar retail stocks falls.
Retailers have been hit hard by a drop in consumer spending and a decade-long shift toward online shopping, eroding their creditworthiness and pushing some into default. Companies including J. Crew Group Inc., True Religion Apparel Inc. and Toys "R" Us Inc. defaulted in the third quarter, and others like Under Armour Inc. (UA - Get Report) have had their credit ratings downgraded because of the ongoing industry pressures.
An added stressor for the troubled industry is that big banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM - Get Report) and Citigroup Inc. (C - Get Report) are reducing their loans to retailers, which could make it harder for the companies to refinance debt payments if they don't have the cash when the balance comes due.
"Retail is being profoundly disrupted by shoppers moving online, oversaturated markets and changing consumer behaviors," Michael Sapir, ProShare's CEO, said in a Nov. 16 statement. "Investors are witnessing signs of trouble in the malls."
There's an ETF for almost everything these days, and the latest effort from ProShare comes as fund managers increasingly tailor products to capitalize on specific opportunities created by market shifts or emerging trends. In previous years, for example, the Bethesda, Maryland-based firm has hawked ETFs to bet on phenomena such as plunging oil prices and the end of the bull market in U.S. Treasury bonds.
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ProShare, which markets its funds under the brand ProShares, also rolled out the Long Online/Short Stores ETF -- ticker (CLIX - Get Report) -- that pairs stock positions in online retailers like Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN - Get Report) with bets that pay off when bricks-and-mortar stocks fall. It's essentially a way of doubling down on the likelihood of a secular shopping shift.
A major risk of the new ProShares ETF -- as with many other exotic funds -- is that they obtain their investment exposure through derivatives rather than stocks. Derivatives are privately negotiated investment contracts that are largely unregulated and vulnerable to big losses in the event that the trade's counterparty is unable to pay up or refuses to do so.
The use of derivatives in ETFs is considered so risky by some critics that in late 2015, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a rule that would have limited the practice.
Yet the SEC has taken no action on the proposal, and since taking over in January, President Donald Trump's administration has pushed for looser financial regulation.
Earlier this year the SEC approved an ETF that returns four times any daily gains -- or losses -- in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. The approval was taken as a sign that the agency's leadership may tolerate more risk in financial products than the prior administration would permit, since the 2015 rule would have barred ETFs from using derivatives to produce three or more times the gains on an underlying investment.
So go ahead with the "Bah, humbug" routine.
TheStreet's "Black Friday and Holiday Shopping Survival Guide" series aims to help you, the consumer and the investor, navigate the holiday season, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and everything in between. Through a number stories, videos, graphics and other multimedia elements TheStreet takes a look at the biggest challenges of the season, the winners and losers from the shifting retail environment and much more. Read More about navigating the holiday season.
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Editor's pick: Story originally published on Nov. 22