Declining (Low) Volatility = Rising (High) Complacency

When we speak of trends, we want to recognize a trend can be rising or declining, high or low. These things are subjective, because there is infinite ways to define the direction of a trend, its magnitude, speed, and absolute level. So, we can apply quantitative analysis to determine what is going on with a trend.

Below we see a quote for the CBOE Market Volatility Index (VIX). The VIX is a measure of the 30 day implied volatility of S&P 500 index options. It is a measure of how much premium options traders are paying on the 500 stocks included in the S&P 500. So, it is a measure of implied or expected volatility based on how options are priced, rather than a measure of actual historical volatility based on a past range of prices. Without going into a more detailed discussion of the many factors of VIX, I’ll add that the VIX is a fine example of an index that is clearly mean reverting. That is, the VIX oscillates between high and low ranges. Once it gets to a high level or low-level, it eventually reverts to its average. Said another way, it’s an excellent example of an index we can apply countertrend systems instead of trend following systems, because the VIX swings up and down rather than trending up or down for years.

The VIX has a long-term average of about 20 since its inception. At this moment, it is 11.82. It’s important to realize the flaw of averages here, because the VIX doesn’t actually stay around 20 – it instead averages 20 as it swings higher and lower.

VIX CBOE Market Volatility below 12


I used the above image from CNNMoney because it shows the rate of change in the VIX over the past 5 years on the bottom of the chart. Notice that over the past 5 years (an arbitrary time frame) market volatility as measured by VIX has declined -63.78%. To get an even better visual of the decline and price action of the VIX, below is a chart of the volatility index going back to 2001.

Do you see a trend? Do you see high and low points?

VIX Long term average high and low

We observe the current level is low by historical measures. In fact, it’s about as low at it has been. The last time the volatility index was this low was 2006 – 2007. That was just before it spiked as high as it has been during the 2007 – 2009 market crash. You can probably see what I mean by “mean reversion” and “countertrend”. When the stock market is rising, volatility gets lower and lower as investors become more complacent. Most investors actually want to get more aggressive and buy more stocks after they have already risen a lot for years, rather than realizing the higher prices go the more risky they become. We love trends, but they don’t last forever. What I think we see above is an indication that investors have become complacent, option premiums are cheap, because options traders aren’t factoring in high volatility exceptions. However, we also see that the VIX is just now down below 12.5, and area the last bull market reached in 2006 and that low volatility stayed low for over a year before it reversed sharply. Therein lies the challenge with counterrend trading: we don’t know exactly when it will reverse and trends can continue longer than we expect. And, there are meaningful shorter term oscillations of 20% or more in the VIX.

I also want to point out how actual historical volatility looks. Recall that the VIX is an index of market volatility based on how options are priced, so it implies the expected volatility over the next 30 days. When we speak of historical volatility, there are different measures to quantify the historical range prices have traded. Volatility speaks of the range of prices, so a price that averaged 100 but trades as high as 110 and low as 105 is less volatile than if it trades from 130 and 70. Below I charted the price chart of the S&P 500 since 2002. The first chart below it is ATR, which is Average True Range. ATR considers the historical high and low prices to determine the true range. A common measure is the standard deviation of historical returns. Standard deviation is charted below as STDDEV below the ATR. Below Standard Deviation is the VIX.

VIX and S&P 500 historical market volatility

Notice that the measures of volatility, both historical and implied, increase when stock prices fall and decrease when stock prices rise. Asymmetric Volatility is the phenomenon that volatility is higher in declining markets than in rising markets. You can see why I say that volatility gets lower and lower as prices move higher and higher for several years. Then, observe what happens next. Right when investors are the most complacent, the trend changes. Prices fall, volatility spikes up. They feel more sure about things after prices have been rising, so there is less indecision reflected in the range of daily trading. When investors feel more uncertain, they become indecisive, so the range of prices spread out.

Based on these empirical observations, we conclude with the title of this article.

The VIX is an unmanaged index, not a security, so it cannot be invested in directly. We can gain exposure to the VIX through derivatives futures or options. This is not a recommendation to buy or sell VIX derivatives. To determine whether or not to take a long or short position in the VIX requires significantly more analysis than just making observations about its current level and direction. For example, we would consider the term structure and implied volatility vs. historical volatility and the risk/reward of any options combinations.




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