The oil ETF trying to avoid imploding on retail investors attempts another trick with reverse split

Key Points
  • The manager of the United States Oil Fund on Wednesday announced an 8-for-1 reverse stock split.
  • This reduces the number of shares outstanding, which in theory leads to a higher stock price. A reverse stock split does not change any of the fund's underlying fundamentals.
  • The fund, which trades under the ticker USO, is popular with retail investors and is meant to track the price of oil.
  • This is the latest in a series of changes the fund has announced, as it grapples with a more than 80% loss this year.
Stocks rebound at open as crude stages comeback

The United States Oil Fund, a popular exchange-traded security known for its 'USO' ticker, announced another change to the fund's makeup on Wednesday as it tries desperately to retain investors after a 80% drop this year.

USCF, the manager of the fund, said that it will execute a one-for-eight reverse share split for USO that will go into effect after the close on April 28.

A reverse stock split reduces the number of shares outstanding, thereby raising the price of the stock. This is a cosmetic change and the net effect to the return for existing shareholders will be nothing. None of the fund's fundamentals are altered.

After opening in the green, shares fell 10.68% to $2.51. The move lower was despite a nearly 20% pop in oil prices on Wednesday. The fund, which is popular with retail investors, is supposed to track the price of oil.

USO has sustained heavy losses as the price of crude falls. Starting on Friday, USCF began implementing a number of changes to the fund's structure in an effort to stave off additional losses.

The stock was briefly halted for trading on Wednesday after USCF filed the latest changes, which alters the mixture of contracts that it holds. USO will now hold 10% of its holdings in the WTI contract for September delivery.

This is the latest step in allowing the fund to hold longer-term contracts and therefore avoid a collapse in value as contracts approach their expiration date, which the fear since Monday when WTI plunged below zero and into negative territory for the first time in history.

A Tuesday fling from USCF was similar in nature — also stating that the fund would hold longer-dated contracts rather than just focusing on the front month — except that it did not mention September contracts, and therefore had a more concentrated position in the June, July and August contracts.

USCF also said that it was temporarily suspending the issuance of so-called creation baskets. Creation baskets are how an ETF creates new shares to meet demand. The baskets hold the underlying securities, which in this case are plummeting oil futures. With the halting of these creation baskets, the ETF will essentially now trade with a fixed number of shares like a closed-end mutual fund.

That's why the fund fell while oil popped on Wednesday. It's now trading on just supply and demand for the fund, not oil itself.

When asked why the fund keeps changing its structure, USCF chief marketing officer Katie Rooney told CNBC the following: "Due to extraordinary market conditions in the crude oil markets, including super contango, USO has invested in other permitted investments, as described in the prospectus."

Hayman Capital Management CIO Kyle Bass, who has been a vocal critic of commodity-focused ETFs geared toward retail investors, called the reverse split "garbage" in a tweet. Bass also has a short position in in some of these ETFs.


Warren Pies, energy strategist at Ned Davis Research, sounded a similarly cautious tone.

"At best, they are expensive ways to gain programmatic futures exposure," he said of commodity-based ETFs on Monday. "At worst, they are designed to implode. Still, money continues to flow into the USO ETF. As of last week, USO's assets reached an all-time high of more than $5 billion. To reiterate: In this environment, USO is a train wreck. Stay away," he said.

Subscribe to CNBC PRO for exclusive insights and analysis, and live business day programming from around the world.