August 23, 2017

Hidden Volatility

Volatility plunged yesterday after spiking last week to a 2017 zenith thus far. But what does it mean?

“Everybody was buying vol into expirations, Tim,” you say. “Now they’re not.”

Buying vol?

“Volatility. You know.”

It’s been a long time since we talked about volatility as an asset class. We all think of stocks as an asset class, fixed income as an asset class, and so on.  But volatility?

The CBOE, Chicago Board Options Exchange, created the VIX to drive investment in volatility, or how prices change. The VIX reflects the implied forward volatility of the S&P 500, extrapolated from prices investors and traders are paying for stock futures. The lower the number the less it implies, and vice versa.

(If you want to know more, Vance Harwood offers an understandable dissection of volatility and the VIX.)

For both investor-relations professionals and investors, there’s a lesson.  Any effort to understand the stock market must consider not just buying or selling of stocks, but buying or selling of the gaps between stocks. That’s volatility.

It to me also points to a flaw in using options and futures to understand forward prices. They are mechanisms for buying volatility, not for pricing assets.

Proof is in the VIX itself. As a predictor it’s deplorable. It can only tell us about current conditions (though it’s a win for driving volatility trading). Suppose local TV news said: “Stay tuned for yesterday’s weather forecast.”

(NOTE: We’ll talk about trading dynamics at the NIRI Southwest Regional Conference here in Austin on Lady Bird Lake Aug 24-25 in breakout sessions. Join us!)

Shorting shares for fleeting periods is also a form of investing in volatility. I can think of a great example in our client base. Earlier this year it was a rock star, posting unrelenting gains. But it’s a company in an industry languishing this summer, and the stock is down.

Naturally one would think, “Investors are selling because fundamentals are weak.”

But the data show nothing of the sort! Short volume has been over 70% of trading volume this summer, and arbitrage is up 12% while investment has fallen.

Isn’t that important for management to understand? Yes, investing declined. But the drop alone prompted quantitative volatility traders to merchandise this company – and everyone is blaming the wrong thing. It’s not investors in stocks. It’s investors in volatility. Holders weren’t selling.

“But Tim,” you say. “There isn’t any volatility. Except for last week the VIX has had all the enthusiasm of a spent balloon.”

The VIX reflects closing prices. At the close, all the money wanting to be average – indexes and ETFs tracking broad measures – takes the midpoint of the bid and offer.

Do you know what’s happening intraday?  Stocks are moving 2.5% from average high to low. If the VIX were calculated using intraday prices, it would be a staggering 75 instead of 11.35, where it closed yesterday.

What’s going on? Prices are relentlessly changing. Suppose the price of everything you bought in the grocery store changed 2.5% by the time you worked your way from produce to dairy products?

Volatility is inefficiency. It increases the cost of capital (replace beta with your intraday volatility and you’ll think differently about what equity costs).  Its risk isn’t linear, manifesting intraday with no apparent consequence for long periods.

Until all at once prices collapse.

There’s more to it, but widespread volatility means prices are unstable. The stock market is a taut wire that up close vibrates chaotically. Last week, sudden slack manifested in that wire, and markets lurched. It snapped back this week as arbitragers slurped volatility.

It’s only when the wire keeps developing more slack that we run into trouble. The source of slack is mispriced assets – a separate discussion for later. For now, learn from the wire rather than the tape.  The VIX is a laconic signal incapable of forecasts.

And your stock, if it’s hewing to the mean, offers volatility traders up to 2.5% returns every day (50% in a month), and your closing price need never change.

When you slip or pop, it might be the volatility wire slapping around.  Keep that in mind.

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