Understanding Covered Call CEFs
By Roger Nusbaum, AdvisorShares ETF Strategist
Barron’s recently had a favorable write up on closed end funds that one way or another use a covered call strategy as a means of providing income. Where the article focused on CEFs, the yields can be quite high because of the leverage that CEFs often use as well as returning capital, when necessary to maintain a payout. It is also worth noting that there are traditional funds that sell calls and ETFs that sell calls and puts too for that matter.
I wrote about these quite a few times in the early days of Random Roger. The history of them shows long stretches where they do very well then long periods where they get pounded and then repeats. Based on chart below they got crushed in 2008 and the dividends were cut on many of them and neither the prices or payouts have recovered since.
The article tries to make the case that volatile markets like now are a good environment for this niche and that the call premium can help mitigate the impact of large declines. I think both points are flat out wrong. The history here is that they do well in rising markets. The chart from Google Finance captures a whole bunch of them over a ten-year period. I removed the symbols for compliance reasons but finding funds in this space should be easy to do. If you play around with the time periods you will see they did very well in 2006 and far into 2007, 2009 well into 2010 and then a three year run from 2012-2014. As mentioned the got crushed during the bear market, did badly in 2011 and are having mixed results in 2015.
I would have no expectation that these funds can buffer a stock market decline. These are income vehicles but they track the equity market higher to an extent (they correlate but don’t keep up) and I would bet they get hit hard in the next bear market but probably not as hard as 2008. Part of the equation in 2008 was a shutting down of bond markets which impacted CEFs in terms of accessing leverage. I don’t expect that to repeat but I would want sell in the face of a bear market as a 30% decline seems plausible for these funds in a down 40% world. Obviously there would be income vehicles to keep in a bear market but I don’t think these are one of them.
Where they do well, then do poorly, they will do well again, maybe after the next bear market maybe sooner but anyone interested in this space probably needs to be willing to be tactical and be willing to sell after a period of their doing well. Interest rates have a very good chance of remaining inadequate for many years even if the Fed does hike rates this month.
Attempting to be tactical is not right for everyone but I do think that the way investors get their yield will probably include market segments that require a more active and tactical approach.