Optimal puts are the ones that will give you the level of protection you want at the lowest possible cost. As University of Maine finance professor Dr. Robert Strong, CFA has noted, picking the most economical puts can be a complicated task. With Portfolio Armor (available on the web, and as an Apple iOS app), you just enter the symbol of the stock or ETF you're looking to hedge, the number of shares you own, and the maximum decline you're willing to risk (your threshold). Then the app uses an algorithm developed by a finance academic to sort through and analyze all of the available puts for your position, scanning for the optimal ones.
You can enter any percentage you like for a threshold when using Portfolio Armor (the higher the percentage though, the greater the chance you will find optimal puts for your position). The idea for a 20% threshold comes, as I've mentioned before, from a comment fund manager John Hussman made in a market commentary in October 2008:
An intolerable loss, in my view, is one that requires a heroic recovery simply to break even … a short-term loss of 20%, particularly after the market has become severely depressed, should not be at all intolerable to long-term investors because such losses are generally reversed in the first few months of an advance (or even a powerful bear market rally).
Essentially, 20% is a large enough threshold that it reduces the cost of hedging but not so large that it precludes a recovery. When hedging, cost is always a concern, which is where optimal puts come in.
How Costs Are Calculated
To be conservative, Portfolio Armor calculated the costs below based on the ask prices of the optimal put options. In practice, though, an investor may be able to buy some of these put options for less (i.e., at a price between the bid and the ask).
Why There Were No Optimal Puts for VXX and FAZ
In some cases, the cost of protection may be greater than the loss you are looking to hedge against. That was the case with iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term (VXX) and the Direxion Daily Financial Bear 3X (FAZ). As of Thursday's close, the cost of protecting against greater-than-20% declines in those stocks over the next several months was itself greater than 20%. Because of that, Portfolio Armor indicated that no optimal contracts were found for them.
Hedging costs as of Thursday
The data in the table below is as of Thursday's close. The ETFs are listed in order of 125-day exponential moving average volume, with the most actively-traded name (SPY) at the top.
|Symbol||Name||Cost of Protection (as % of position value)|
|SPY||SPDR S&P 500||1.64%*|
|XLF||Financial Select Sector SPDR||3.44%*|
|EEM||iShares MSCI Emerging Markets||2.82%*|
|IWM||iShares Russell 2000 Index||2.82%*|
|SLV||iShares Silver Trust||7.71%**|
|EWJ||iShares MSCI Japan Index||3.21%*|
|SDS||ProShares UltraShort S&P 500||3.87%*|
|FAS||Direxion Daily Financial Bull 3X||No optimal puts at this threshold|
|XLE||Select Sector SPDR -- Energy||2.72%*|
|VXX||iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term||No optimal puts at this threshold|
|VWO||Vanguard Emerging Markets||3.87%*|
|EFA||iShares MSCI EAFE Index||3.72%*|
|XLI||Industrial Select Sector SPDR||2.57%*|
|FXI||iShares FTSE China 25 Index||2.99%**|
|GLD||SPDR Gold Shares||0.40%*|
|USO||United States Oil||4.57%**|
|EWZ||iShares MSCI Brazil Index||3.61%*|
|XLB||Materials Select Sector SPDR||3.12%*|
|SSO||ProShares Ultra S&P 500||7.89%*|
**Based on optimal puts expiring in January, 2012.