For comparison purposes, I've also added the costs of hedging the SPDR S&P 500 Trust ETF (SPY), the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (DIA) and the Nasdaq 100-tracking ETF PowerShares QQQ Trust ETF (QQQ) against the similar declines. First, a reminder about what optimal puts mean in this context and why I've used 20% as a decline threshold.
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 (there's an example of this, with screenshots, in this article about hedging against a US default with optimal puts on TLT).
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:
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.
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).
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 LVLT
In some cases, the cost of protection may be greater than the loss you are looking to hedge against. That was the case with Level 3 Communications (LVLT). As of Friday, the cost of protecting against a greater-than-20% decline in that stock over the next several months was itself greater than 20%. Because of that, Portfolio Armor indicated that no optimal contracts were found for it.
Hedging Costs as of Tuesday's close
The data in the table below is as of Tuesday's close. After the three ETFs listed for comparison purposes, the NYSE stocks are listed in order of their share volume in Tuesday's trading, with the most actively traded stock (MI) listed first; the Nasdaq stocks are listed in a similar order, with the most actively traded Nasdaq stock (SIRI) listed first.
|Symbol||Name||Cost of Protection (as % of position value)|
|Comparison Index ETFs|
|SPY||SPDR S&P 500||1.23%**|
|DIA||SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Avg||1.22%**|
|QQQ||PowerShares QQQ Trust||1.98%**|
|MI||New M&I Corporation||5.06%**|
|BAC||Bank of America Corporation||5.91%**|
|GE||General Electric Company||2.68%**|
|S||Sprint Nextel Corporation||8.35%**|
|WFC||Wells Fargo & Co.||3.55%**|
|JPM||JP Morgan Chase & Co.||3.27%**|
|SIRI||Sirius XM Radio Inc.||11.0%**|
|CSCO||Cisco Systems, Inc.||3.89%**|
|LVLT||Level 3 Communications, Inc.||No Optimal Puts At This Threshold|
**Based on optimal puts expiring in January, 2012.