It’s easier than ever to bet on the death of brick-and-mortar retail

  • ProShares just launched its Decline of the Retail Store ETF, which allows investors to make the inverse of a brick-and-mortar index’s return.
  • The fund arrives at a time when many traders are skeptical about the future of traditional retail as online competition mounts.

There’s no denying that traditional retailers are in trouble. Fortunately for stock investors, it just got even easier to bet on their demise.

ProShares, a provider of exchange-traded funds, just unveiled the Decline of the Retail Store ETF (ticker: EMTY) — a product designed to return the inverse of a brick-and-mortar store index. In other words, the price of the fund will rise when the underlying gauge falls. This allows investors to make a short wager of sorts on the entire industry by simply buying the ETF.

For retail pessimists, this is a vast improvement over previous options, which included the shorting of single retail chain stocks and the real-estate investment trusts that own store leases. These bears also had the option of shorting retail ETFs, but those funds also contained online retailers — the very group putting so much pressure on brick-and-mortar.

“Investors are witnessing signs of trouble in the malls and falling stock prices in the markets,” Michael L. Sapir, the cofounder and CEO of ProShare Advisors, said in a press release. “For the first time, investors can turn these trends into a potential investment opportunity through an ETF.”

Officially launched for trading on November 16, the ETF has declined by 9.5% over its first two weeks. Based on that, it appears that the fund has been doing its job, with retail stocks rallying during the same period in the wake of a strong start to the holiday season.

With all of this in mind, it’s important for investors to note that the ETF is designed to return the inverse of a brick-and-mortar index on a day-to-day basis, rather than tracking longer trends. So, rather than a long-term bet on the decline of the sector, it’s intended to be an instrument to time a particularly weak day for retailers — perhaps around earnings or another stock-moving event.

The ETF comes in direct response to souring sentiment around traditional brick-and-mortar retailers as emerging online juggernauts like Amazon threaten their long-term future.

And that long-term future looks bleak across the entire sector. Just two weeks ago, the clothing store J. Crew announced plans to close 50 stores amid tumbling sales. J.C. Penney, which is already planning to close 138 stores, had a disastrous third-quarter reporting period, bringing its stock decline to more than 50% on a year-to-date basis. Nordstrom’s attempt to go private was derailed by a lack of investor interest, which was blamed on — wait for it — Toys R Us’ bankruptcy earlier in the year.

The situation shows just how interconnected the failings of various physical retailers have become. Those are just a few examples of the plight facing the industry.

While EMTY is the first fund to function as a pure short bet against brick-and-mortar retailers, there are other ETFs offered by ProShares that can be used for a similar purpose. The only catch is that they’re leveraged, meaning they’re designed to return two or three times the inverse of a long-retail index.

So if you’re a relatively risk-averse investor looking to make a quick one-day bet on the death of retail, EMTY may be for you.

SEE ALSO: A tug-of-war is raging over control of the stock market

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