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Black swan hedging for the masses

May 30, 2012: 1:49 PM ET

Investors worried about Europe imploding may find solace in two new ETFs that launched Wednesday and offer portfolio protection against so-called black swan events.

Coined by economist and former derivatives trader Nassim Taleb, a black swan event is one that's highly improbable and unforeseen, like the 2008 financial crisis and Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster.

Horizons Universa Canadian Black Swan ETF and the Horizons Universa US Black Swan ETF track the S&P 500 (SPX) and Canada's benchmark TSX index respectively, just like a typical exchange traded fund. But these ETFs also buy "crash protection," through stock and commodities options that pay out handsomely if the broader market drops dramatically.

"If you're worried about the extreme events that have the potential to wipe out a big portion of your portfolio, the strategy used by the Black Swan ETF should help you to sleep a bit more easily," said Michael Johnson, a senior analyst with ETF Database.

But a good night's sleep comes at a price.

The fund charges management fees of roughly 1%. That's about four times as much as most ETFs, according to Morningstar analyst John Gabriel.

Investors will also pay performance fees similar to what hedge funds charge -- a rarity in the ETF world. Universa takes a 20% cut of any returns that beat either the S&P 500 or TSX indexes.

But Universa Chief Investment Officer Mark Spitznagel thinks investors will be willing to pay up for that so-called tail protection.

"Tail protection provides water in a drought, rather than in a flood, or capital for investing when buyers are scarce, and prices are attractive again," said Spitznagel.  "This is ultimately the source of its long-term advantage."

Universa manages about $6 billion for its hedge funds clients who saw a tenfold return in 2008 -- the same year the S&P 500 slumped nearly 39%.

Investors in this ETF will also have a tenuous connection to Taleb, who's retired from day-to-day trading but still helps guide Universa's investing strategy.

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