Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Barclays Suspends Creation Units for VXX

 Earlier today, Barclays announced the suspension of issuance of new creation units as well as sales from inventory for two of its ETNs: the iPath Series B S&P 500® VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX); and the iPath Pure Beta Crude Oil ETN (OIL).  VXX is the premier VIX-based ETP and has been the most popular subject on this blog for the past 13 years.  It was the first VIX ETP to launch back on January 30, 2009 (along with VXZ) and remains the flagship product in the volatility space, averaging 70 million shares traded per day and regularly placing among the top five ETPs in terms of both share volume and options volume.

While the news from Barclays was a surprise, it was not unprecedented.  Credit Suisse suspended creation units in TVIX (a +2x version of VXX) twice: once in dramatic fashion in February 2012; and again in July 2020, when the product was delisted and moved to the pink sheets to trade under the TVIXF ticker.

The first time around, on February 21, 2012, there was not a VIX spike, per se, that triggered the event.  Instead, it was the general popularity of the product and the size of holdings in the TVIX note (ETNs are an unsecured debt note) that concerned the bank.  Credit Suisse acknowledged that the TVIX note violated the bank’s risk management rules related to the “internal limits on the size of the ETNs” and thus triggered the suspension of creation units.

The second time around, on July 12, 2020, the record volatility spike associated with the onset of the pandemic caused the size of the TVIX note to be roughly half of the size of the bank.  As a result, Credit Suisse concluded that the risk of continuing with this product was too high, so they decided to exit the ETN business, stop issuing new creation units and delist nine ETNs.

In both 2012 and 2020, the absence of new creation units led to a supply shortage and a large premium in the market price relative to the intraday indicative value (IV).  In 2012, new creation units were halted for a month and a day, with the price of TVIX rising to an 89% premium to TVIX.IV at one point.  When TVIX creation units were restored, TVIX fell 60% in three days and soon was trading within 1% of indicative value.  In 2020, the cessation of new creation units was final and irreversible, so TVIXF has now been trading on the pink sheets for 21 months without any new creation units.  Initially, there was almost no premium in TVIXF to TVIX.IV, but the Reddit r/wallstreetbets crowd eventually latched onto the potential for a short squeeze in TVIX in early February 2021 and spiked the price of TVIXF from parity to a 43% premium in two days.  Since the initial targeting by r/wallstreetbets, the premium in TVIXF to TVIX.IV has averaged about 72% and has been as high as 160% at one point.

An even more famous and noteworthy example of investors targeting a product with no creation unit capabilities for a short squeeze is the plight of the VelocityShares Daily 3x Inverse Natural Gas ETN (DGAZF), which spiked from 400 to 24,000 in a week in August 2020.  The VelocityShares Daily 3x Inverse Natural Gas ETN was traded under the ticker DGAZ when it delisted, with no new creation units along with TVIX on July 12, 2020.  The combination of longs targeting a short squeeze, limited liquidity in the OTC pink sheets, no new creation units and 3x leverage made for a historic spike of 12,000% in one week.  While such a scenario is unlikely to unfold in VXX, it is important to understand the history and the potential for outsized short squeezes when there are no creation units available to arbitrage away the difference between the heavily shorted underlying and its indicative value.

There are many other examples of ETPs that have had their creation units suspended, with resultant price anomalies.  Deutsche Bank did it with a variety of commodities ETNs in 2011 and 2012.  PowerShares also suspended creation units in the popular PowerShares DB Oil Fund (DBO) in 2015, with yet another large price spike.

While buyer beware is a good mantra to keep in mind when purchasing ETFs or particularly ETNs, it is even more important for short sellers to understand the risks of holding one or more of these products short when creation units are suspended and particularly when the products are delisted, with trading moving to the OTC pink sheets.

As for VXX, the reasons for the halt in creation units are not exactly clear.  Barclays says in their press release:

“This suspension is being imposed because Barclays does not currently have sufficient issuance capacity to support further sales from inventory and any further issuances of the ETNs. These actions are not the result of the crisis in Ukraine or any issue with the market dynamics in the underlying index components. Barclays expects to reopen sales and issuances of the ETNs as soon as it can accommodate additional capacity for future issuances.”

The underlying cause of the issuance capacity issue may be a number of factors, including the cost of hedging the position, exchange position limits or other factors.  Without knowing the underlying cause, it is difficult to predict when new creation units will be restored.  That said, as VXX appreciates in price, the size of the problem Barclays needs to tackle will continue to rise, which may further complicate the resolution process.

Of course, when new creation units are restored, one can expect that the price of VXX will almost immediately fall to that of VXX.IV.  Investors, therefore, need to understand the risks associated with long positions going forward and not find themselves in an air pocket like TVIX longs did back in March 2012.  For this reason, anyone who is insistent upon holding a long or short position in VXX should consider constructing a defined-risk position using options.  Alternatively, VIXY is an ETP issued by ProShares that holds a basket of VIX futures rather than an unsecured bank note with a promise to return the same performance as that basket of VIX futures.

It should go without saying that everything here I addressed relative to VXX is true for OIL as well and with all the turmoil in the oil markets related to events in Ukraine and Russia, there is already the potential for huge moves in the underlying.

I covered the TVIX creation units issue in considerable detail in 2012 and the links below probably provide the most comprehensive review of this matter anywhere on the internet.  I have also provided links to a number of tangential issues related to VIX ETPs and pricing anomalies.

In the graphic below, I show the divergence between VXX and VXX.IV during today’s regular trading hours (Pacific Time).  I find it interesting that it took more than three hours after the initial press release before VXX began to uncouple from VXX.IV and spike higher, ultimately reaching a 12% premium before the divergence began to narrow during the last half hour of trading.

Long-term, I still think VXX is likely to remain the premier VIX-based ETP, but Barclays has some work to do to get the creation units back and the product trading with a normal supply-demand balance.  Until then, keep a close eye on the varying premium of VXX and VXX.IV, while evaluating alternatives such as VIXY and UVXY.

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