Trading on home prices

With two new vehicles from MacroMarkets, you can invest in the outlook on housing prices whether they go up or down.

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By Katie Benner, writer-reporter

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Investors now have an easy way to bet on the direction of housing prices. Expect prices to rise? You can buy MacroShares Major Metro Housing Up (UMM). Fear they have further to fall? Go for MacroShares Major Metro Housing Down (DMM).

Both products were created by MacroMarkets, an investment management company co-founded by Yale economics professor and housing expert Robert Shiller; and they started trading on the New York Stock Exchange on June 30.

The vehicles are similar to exchange-traded funds (ETFs), in that they track an index. In this case, MacroShares track the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index of 10 major cities.

But unlike ETFs, they do not hold a basket of securities. Instead, they each have a pool of assets invested in short-term Treasury bills and overnight repurchase agreements.

Assets shift back and forth between the two trusts quarterly to reflect changes in the home price index. At present, UMM has about $9 million in assets, while DMM has a little more than $13 million.

"They work like a teeter-totter," says Matt Hougan, editor-in-chief of IndexUniverse.com and the Exchange-Traded Funds Report. "It's an odd mechanism for accessing the market, but with housing there is no other way to invest in housing prices."

Because share prices change based on investor demand, they will sometimes be higher or lower than the assets they represent, much like closed-end mutual funds, which almost always trade above or below their net asset value.

Since the shares were launched, the housing bears have held sway. UMM has lost 27% and is trading at around $14. DMM has gained 16% and is trading at around $36.

This isn't MacroMarkets' first venture into new investment products. In 2006 it launched a pair of instruments that tracked oil prices. It liquidated them in 2008 when oil prices soared from $88 to $145 in only five months, which pushed all the assets into the up shares.

"The teeter-totter can only go so high or so low, so eventually all the money flowed into the Oil Up side and they had to shut them down," says Hougan. "But housing prices don't fluctuate as wildly. It's very unlikely that the value of my house will go from $200,000 to $1 million in just five months."

The housing shares are scheduled to terminate on November 25, 2014; MacroShares will pay investors in the two securities based on the value of the index on that date. Investors can buy and sell the securities at any time they like until the payout date.

So how does this fit into an investor portfolio?

MacroMarkets hope that investors will use them to hedge housing exposure. For example, a homeowner is worried that prices may drop, he can buy Housing Down shares. If prices then fall, the increase in value of the Down shares will help offset the loss of home equity.

"These products are for investors with a view on housing who wants to execute a short-term strategy around that view," says Tom Lydon, the editor of ETFtrends.com. "If you have a huge amount of your net worth tied up in your home and you want to hedge that because you believe prices will fall further, now you have a tool." To top of page

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