By Saqib Iqbal Ahmed
NEW YORK (Reuters) -The battered shares of Van Eck’s Russia ETF have attracted a surge of trader interest and drawn comparisons to last year’s so-called meme stock frenzy, as investors seek ways to capitalize on market gyrations caused by the Ukraine crisis.
Designed to track the performance of the MVIS Russia Index, the ETF has tumbled nearly 70% over the last two weeks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions stir massive swings in assets linked to the country.
Van Eck said in an SEC filing on Wednesday the ETF would temporarily suspend the creation of new shares until further notice, citing “significant declines” in the value of Russian securities and the rouble.
The ETF’s tumble has been a boon for bearish investors. RSX shorts are up $299 million in year-to-date mark-to-market profits, according to financial analytics firm S3 Partners.
At the same time, recent volatility has ramped up trading in the ETF’s shares and options, much of it driven by retail investors, analysts said.
With the ETF’s price swinging wildly — it fell as much as 15% before recovering to trade up as high as 6% on the day — trading volume in the ETF shares jumped to 27 million by 2:30 p.m. (1930 GMT), or about twice the average daily amount, according to Trade Alert data. The ETF closed down nearly 13% on Wednesday.
Options on the ETF were even busier, with 211,000 contracts traded, or four times the expected volume.
Garrett DeSimone, head quant at OptionMetrics, said some of the volume seemed spurred by traders trying to profit from the extremely elevated volatility in the stock.
“These high levels of volatility are extraordinary, causing the VanEck Russia ETF to behave similarly to a meme stock,” he said.
“It looks as though retail definitely has its fingerprints on RSX options trades today,” DeSimone said.
Sentiment was mixed, with some traders betting on a quick rebound while others were hoping for a continued slump in the shares, based on the choice of options contracts traded.
Short interest in RSX stood at just under 18% of the float and totaled $137.8 million, according to S3 data. Shares shorted have increased by 14% in the last 30 days, the firm said.
“Long RSX shareholders may be looking for long-term appreciation of Russian stocks that are down from 60% to 90% recently, short sellers are getting immediate gratification from their trades,” said S3’s Ihor Dusaniwsky in emailed comments to Reuters.
Russian markets being closed for the third straight day posed another challenge to valuing the ETF correctly, causing the trading price to stray far from its net asset value (NAV) – or the value of each share of the ETF based on its portion of the fund’s underlying assets, analysts said.
On Monday, the ETF’s shares finished the day at a 178% premium to its NAV, according to VanEck data. “That makes the trading in the shares that much more speculative,” said Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA Research.
(Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Ira Iosebashvili, Jonathan Oatis and Sam Holmes)