ETFs Aren’t Always the Way to Play Exotic Themes

Hilary Kramer

Hilary Kramer is an investment analyst and portfolio manager with 30 years of experience on Wall Street.
investment

With the S&P 500 building a base and the VIX receding once again to historically normal levels, I’m seeing hints of the new market status quo.

Conventional investments have a lot of work ahead of them. For instance, half the members of the elite Dow industrials, including the mighty Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), are 10 percent depressed from their recent peaks.

Dig down and 70 percent of all stocks are in the 20 percent bear market zone. However, except in cases when the fundamentals are seriously impaired, they’ll claw that ground back and reach for fresh records.

But in the meantime, a lot of investors are searching for ways to recover a whole lot faster and start earning profits again.

I get that. It’s a strategy we’ve been deploying in my Turbo Trader service for a few weeks now.

There’s no shame in looking for speed. After all, the average correction takes four months before buy-and-hold investors see their trading account balances start climbing again. And in a world dominated by a fast news cycle, that feels like a lifetime to wait before you’re making money.

However, this probably isn’t the time to pile on more risk to accelerate the process. Remember, the fact that the Fed is on the move means that risk levels throughout the market are already rising along with interest rates.

That’s why high-risk assets are still under pressure. When they do well, they do extremely well. But when they don’t, they go nowhere but down and leave the eager investor further in the hole and forced to grab even higher risks.

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Let’s look at a few of the more exotic high-impact themes people are talking about and weigh the odds that they’ll outperform the old S&P 500 on the way back up.

Still Waiting For That Bitcoin Fund

Let’s start with cryptocurrencies. When stocks faltered early this year, bitcoin seemed like the last asset that was still working.

While there’s still massive potential here, it’s hard for individual investors to thrive in any currency market without taking on a lot of leverage. This raises the odds that any misstep will be fatal.

That’s why I’ve been eager to see the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approve exchange-traded funds (ETF) that pool bitcoin exposure and reduce that risk. Unfortunately, pure plays haven’t made it past the regulators yet.

In the meantime, people looking for a taste of the crypto-revolution have had to chase proxies that hold bitcoin-relevant stocks instead.

They haven’t done well. The biggest, the Amplify Transformational Data Sharing ETF (NASDAQ:BLOK), has only amassed $110 million in assets since launching on Jan. 16.

BLOK has been down 20 percent over its lifetime, primarily because it bet big on a few peripheral bitcoin stocks like Overstock.com (NASDAQ:OSTK), which is down 70 percent this year.

That’s the danger of high-impact/high-risk investing. When you roll well, it’s exhilarating. But when you don’t, the game doesn’t last long.

The other blockchain ETFs have struggled even harder to get market traction. This makes them tricky to recommend unless you’re willing to accept the risk that the sponsoring company may simply decide to exit the business and liquidate the fund.

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The most interesting of these ETFs to me is probably Reality Shares Nasdaq NexGen Economy ETF (NASDAQ:BLCN), which is really more of a global financial technology fund than an explicit crypto play.

While it’s down 15 percent year-to-date, what I like about it is the fact that half of its assets are invested in non-U.S. companies, some of which we can’t easily trade domestically in any form.

If you’re simply looking for exposure to a transforming financial landscape, BLCN is probably the way to go. Otherwise, I’d simply pick one or two stocks like Square (NASDAQ:SQ) or IBM (NYSE:IBM) and skip the exchange-traded fund route entirely.

What About The ‘Green Boom?’

Then there’s the other hot money theme of the year: cannabis. My thoughts on that industry won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this.

I like the peripheral stocks but won’t recommend the headline plays like Canopy Growth (NYSE:CG) or Tilray (NASDAQ:TLRY) until we have proof that they’ve hit bottom.

With that in mind, if you want diversified access to the growers, ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF (NASDAQ:MJ) is the choice. Avoid fringe funds you have to trade over the counter.

No matter how you play the theme, it is important to remember that it will take time to mature. There will be spectacular winners but also a whole lot of losers along the way.

If that’s what you want, buy the fund with the best portfolio and hold on. Those who simply want to get back in the game quickly will probably do better buying blue chip stocks at bargain prices.

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