This post comes as a suggestion from HappyPantsMcGee (or HPM, or whatever the Diddy wannabe is calling himself this week). He asked me to explain the practice of ft.com/blog/2011/02/10/484126/sec-probes-etf-stripping-by-insider-traders-ft/">ETF stripping, especially as it relates to the recent insider trading charges filed against several of our dimwitted brethren. ETF stripping is a pretty clever tactic, and one of the ancillary benefits of doing it is that you can hide whichever stock you're really trading by trading all the others instead. Here's how it works:
Let's say you've got some inside information on XYZ. Let's just say they're about to announce a blockbuster drug approval that no one expected for at least another year. Now, you could go buy a bunch of XYZ a couple days before the announcement and just hope the SEC doesn't catch you. A better way to do it, however, might be to buy an ETF that holds XYZ as one of the component stocks. Then you short every other component of the ETF, the net effect being that you're long XYZ.
This is known as ETF stripping, because you've stripped the company you actually want to own out of the ETF (by shorting all the others), without actually buying the company's stock and leaving a paper trail for the SEC to find. Clever, huh?
Here's why this isn't a great strategy. Frankly, a lot can go wrong. First and foremost, it's a ton of effort to go to for something that might not actually pay off. You might have the best information in the world, but if the market ignores it you haven't made a dime on it. I know that's an unlikely scenario, but with the amount of time and capital it would take to short what could potentially be dozens of other stocks just to isolate the one stock you want to be long, this strategy is pretty steep on the risk/reward ratio.
Also, you run the risk of a rising tide lifting all ships. In other words, what if the news is so good (or so bad, if you've gone the other way) that it causes every component of the ETF to run up? The one company you're long isn't going to make up for the 25 you're short.
Bottom line: it's a cute strategy, but one probably best left to the theoreticians. If the guys trying to make a shaky buck with all these esoteric strategies would just devote that mental energy to adding value, they'd probably make more money and wouldn't have to worry about federal-pound-me-in-the-ass prison.
Mod note: "Blast from the Past - Best of Eddie" - This one is originally from 2/15/11