Saturday, May 6, 2017

Markets | VIX - Waiting For Godot

By now everyone and their cats are aware that volatility across markets and asset classes are low, been so for a long time, and shows no signs of reversal. VIX, the US market benchmark vol index is around it's historic lows. The MOVE Index - the bond markets benchmark from BofA/ML - is no better. CVIX - an FX benchmark from Deutsche - is doing a bit better but nothing assuring. People have punted, hoped and feared a come back of volatility, but so far we have not seen any sustained sign of it.

The reasons and the expectations from analysts come under mainly two flavours. The first narrative is that volatility is artificially suppressed by big league volatility sellers (speculators, but more importantly those ETFs folks and systematic risk factors people). The second narrative is market in general is going through a hopeful optimistic patch supported by central bank puts. Both groups believe volatility is going to explode sooner or later. According to the first narrative, a potential driver is a random shock, that will force re-balance in ETFs and risk factors strategies and will amplify the move. The second version is we are just a few bad economic prints or some geo-political mis-steps away from a runaway volatility.

While both of these narratives have some merits, none of them is either sufficient or complete. Or even useful for any practical purpose. There are different opinions, but I tend to side with the arguments from risk factors people (like AQR) that this line of arguments vastly over-estimates the impact of risk factors portfolios. And it is hardly fair to blame some folks for selling vols in a steep roll-down scenario as we have these days (we have written about it before). On top there is certainly some influence from street positioning. As we have written about before, for a long time now, the dominant positions of the big hedgers (read big banks and market making houses) in the markets have been long gamma, putting a stabilizing effect and pinning the vol down. The second "complacency" narrative appears less plausible, but of course cannot be ruled out.

But irrespective of which one (or may be even both) you believe in, none is useful to take a position in volatility. Essentially the argument is: volatility is trading in a distorted way and we need an external event to set it right. It is cheap since such an event will surely come some time in future. Unfortunately, by definition, we cannot predict much about the timing of an unexpected external event. And presumably you do not have the luxury of an infinite stop-loss on the bleeding you will have while you wait for that vol exploding event to materialize.

In fact the only predictable statement to make about the direction of volatility is: when the rates go up, VIX will follow. And here is why.

To start, note that although the VIX is near historical lows, it is not cheap. The realized has been lower. And the second fundamental thing to note that in the post-crisis world, the volatility has transcended its status as just a "fear gauge" and has become an asset class in its own right. And in this world of unconventional monetary policy and low rates, volatility has become intrinsically tied to the level of rates. The chart below captures this point.

We talked about this point way back in 2012 (from bonds markets point of view). When you treat volatility as an asset class (where selling volatility is a surrogate carry strategy) it becomes clear to see the connection. Consider an asset allocator who has an option to either sell volatility and collect the premiums, or buy some equivalently risky carry product, e.g. a high yield corporate bonds portfolio.

To make apple-to-apple comparison, we can think of a hypothetical "volatility bond". Given the existing spread of risky (BBB) bonds to treasury, we can deduce the probability of default of such an investment. From this, we can hypothesize a volatility bond, which consists of selling an out-of-the-money (OTM) call spread and put spread on S&P 500, each 100 point wide. The strike of the short options are such that the probability (implied from volatility) of them ending up in the money is equal to the probability of default of the high yield portfolio above (worth 100 in notional). In both cases the maximum we can lose is $100 (note in the case of short vol strategy, only one of the call or put spread can be in the money and exercised against us). So the yield from the high yield portfolio, and the premium collected (let's call that volatility yield) are comparable returns from portfolios with comparable risks. The chart above shows the yields from these two roughly equivalent portfolios. As we can see, in this rough approximation, the vol yield has in fact been higher than comparable BBB yield through out the post-crisis period, and moved in steps. The relative value before the crisis was unbalanced. It would have paid to buy OTM options spreads, funded by a high yield portfolio (anecdotally, there was an equivalent popular trade there during that time, but in the wrong market - the infamous Japanese widow maker). But at present the markets are pretty much in sync with each other and appear efficient. Far from the "distortion" argument in the narratives above.

The only way the vol can rationally go up from here is if the general risk portfolio yields also go up. That can happen in two ways. Either spread to risk-less rates (like treasury) increases (signifying a risk-off event like in the narratives above). Or through a secular rise in rates - which basically takes us back to Fed and inflation. As argued in the last post, pretty much everything we can expect now hangs on future inflation path.

The results are outcome of an approximate analysis. We obviously ignored some important issues (like skew and convexity of these deep OTM strikes) and made some shortcuts (a digital set-up is more appropriate than a options spreads as in here). We also missed a bit more fundamental point here, which is correlation. S&P 500 is a much broader index than the high yield universe, and the comparison above is more appropriate as the market-wide correlation goes up. As the correlation goes lower, we can afford to sale closer to the money options spread in S&P to retain the same riskiness in the portfolio, thus making the volatility yield even higher. And as we have it, the correlation (again see the last post) is down off late. But the main point remains unchanged - Vol is low but NOT cheap (although last few points in recent time in 2017 points to some relative cheapness).

Perhaps it is a good time to stop complaining about low VIX prints and watch those HY spreads and inflation development carefully instead.

All data from CBOE website/ Yahoo Finance/ Bloomberg

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