July 22, 2015

Behavioral Volatility

I recall knowing one particularly volatile fellow. I should have called him VIX.

Speaking of the VIX, options on that popularly titled Fear Gauge expire today as a raft of S&P components report results. Many will see sharp moves in share-prices and attempt to put them in rational context.

Volatility derivatives are no sideshow but a mainstream fact. Yesterday the top five  most active ETFs included the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) a Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipt from State Street that traded 68 million shares, more than any single stock including Apple ahead of results, and the VIX Short-Term Futures ETN iPath (VXX), with 38 million shares, matching Facebook’s volume (out-trading all but seven stocks).

Louis Navellier turned the concept of volatility into quantitative analytics for investment at his Reno advisory firm managing $2.5 billion. Oversimplifying, rising volatility signals change. Mr. Navellier used increasing volatility as a signal to sell highs and buy lows.

By the same token, when your shares break through moving averages, it’s at root a volatility signal. Your price is changing more than the historical central tendency.  But what causes volatility?

This is why we introduced Market Structure Alerts in June for our clients. They’re predicated on the seminal principle that volatility signals change. Rising standard deviation is a pennant pointing to developments you should know. But we want more than surface answers.  Measuring tides alone offers no reasons. So we measure behavioral volatility, not price or volume volatility – which is a byproduct of the former.

When the ocean rolls or roars, we understand that it reflects something else ranging from the gravitational pull of the earth and the moon to earthquakes undersea. We use these facts to shape our understanding of how our ecosystem called earth functions.

A conversation I have often with IR professionals is what I’ll call Story versus Structure.  “My CEO wants to understand why we’re underperforming our peers.”  We have a simple answer and an elementary model that demonstrates it. Yet it can be hard to let go of the notion that underperformance traces to a fundamental feature, the Story. “Our return on equity trails our peer group, so that’s got to be the reason.”

Now sometimes Story is the problem. When it is, it manifests in behavioral change. But don’t forget that the biggest investors are Blackrock and Vanguard. We’re told they’re perpetual holders. No, they’re perpetual trackers of benchmarks like the S&P 500 so they are perpetually in motion, relentlessly sloshing like tides. When these tides crash more violently it’s because money in 401ks and pensions is uniformly beginning to buy or sell, producing disparate impact in stocks.

It’s not Story but Structure. The market functions in a defined way, according to a set of measurable mathematical rules, just like the universe. If we omit some part of market function because it’s complicated it doesn’t cause the behavior to cease to exist. Every IR program today should measure behavioral change.

How many ETFs own your shares?  Our smallest client with market cap of $200 million is in 14. Most are in 30, 40 or more, some over 100. Each of these probably has options and futures and tracks an underlying index, which also has options and futures. All the components of each ETF and underlying index likely have options and futures, just as your shares might. There are exchange-traded notes that directionally leverage indexes and ETFs. Swaps that substitute returns in baskets of these for proceeds in other asset classes. Traders pair futures with stocks and change them each day. And throughout, Blackrock and Vanguard and the rest of their asset-allocation kin behind two million global index products move like massive elephants ever crossing the Serengeti.

Sound dizzying?  It’s your ecosystem. The good news is we’ve reduced its complexities to a set of central tendencies and now we have Alerts that signal when these change.

Why should you care in the IR chair? We’ve got a friend who’s a realtor in Steamboat Springs. She knows everything about it, down to the details of any house you can mention that’s on the market. She knows which neighborhoods get sun in the afternoon, where you should be for easy access to amenities. She knows her market.

We want you to know yours. We hope to help you move from seeing price and volume as a tide moved by mysterious forces to understanding your ecosystem and what distinct behavioral change is behind volatility.

That in turn makes you a powerful expert for your Board and management team. You don’t have to do it, of course. But the quest to be better, to know what there is to know about the market you serve is the difference between something that can become mundane and an enterprise ever fresh and new, an exhilarating exploration.  Some volatility, so to speak, is refreshing!

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