There’s so much talk about volatility right now — and specifically the stubbornly low behaviour of the VIX — that I thought I’d do a round-up of some of my previous pieces on it.
Please note, I’m in an anti-paragraph, anti-proofreading kind of mood today. So typos and big blocks of text are ahead.
1. On the VIX
Let’s start with this one, from September 2013, about a new index trying to challenge the VIX, the index that most people associate with ‘volatility.’ For more than two decades, the VIX index run by the Chicago Board Options Exchange has been the financial industry’s go-to method for measuring expectations of volatility in the wider marketplace, with the CBOE turning the index into something of a cash cow thanks to the launch of futures tied to the gauge. VIX-related futures have in turn allowed a plethora of VIX-based exchange-traded products (ETPs) to also launch. With all that money benchmarked to the VIX, it’s no surprise that we have occasionally seen upstarts attempt to challenge it.
2. Selling volatility
Now let’s go here to this story from December 2014. About six years on from the financial crisis and deep in the era of monetary stimulus, investors are struggling to make returns and seize upon the realisation that selling volatility — whether that be through shorting the VIX or some other derivative-based method — can be a lucrative (if risky) strategy. This was the big shift in the volatility market. Instead of having a bunch of banks or hedge funds (or de facto, GSEs) sell volatility, you suddenly have a bunch of buy-side funds and retail investors who are interested and able to do so, the latter largely thanks to the explosion in VIX-related products. The big question, per the piece, is whether these new sellers of volatility are more likely to behave differently than traditional vol-sellers. Are they more or less likely to react to abrupt shifts in volatility?
3. Self-reflexive VIX
By September 2015, the VIX is again in the headlines after the unexpected devaluation of the Chinese yuan spooked markets. While the VIX did jump on this news, it was the VVIX (in effect, volatility of volatility) that reached an all-time record. Here’s my article about that: “When there’s a sudden spike in volatility, as occurred last month, the price of near-term VIX futures rises. Meanwhile, volatility players — notably hedge funds and CTAs — scramble to buy protection as they seek either to hedge or cover short positions, causing a feedback loop that encourages near-term futures to rise even further.” CFTC positioning data at the time did suggest a classic short squeeze as investors closed out their short vol positions post the spike. In effect there were said to be two major forces impacting the VIX, systematic volatility sellers as well as VIX-related ETPs that have to buy or sell futures to rebalance. This rebalancing act makes the VIX curve important, a point picked up on by Chris Cole of Artemis Capital in a story I wrote about a month later: “VIX term structure inverted at the greatest degree in history in August, so much so and so fast that many structured products that use simple historical relationships to gauge term structure switching and hedging ratios just couldn’t handle it,” he said. The concern is that the explosion in volatility-trading means more demand to buy or sell futures to rebalance, which could impact the shape of the curve itself.
4. VIX and beyond!
The proliferation of ETPs tied to the VIX is a concern insofar as it affects the volatility landscape, but it’s not the whole story. To explain, let’s go to Bill Gross, who became the poster child for volatility-sellers after publicly saying in June 2014 — while still at Pimco — that the company was selling “insurance, basically, against price movements” to juice returns in an era of low interest rates. Not once did he mention the VIX. It wasn’t until October 2014, after Gross’s abrupt departure from Pimco, that we got a better sense of what that insurance-selling strategy might mean when the U.S. Treasury market experienced a sudden melt-up, of sorts. At the time, there was plenty of talk that Pimco was liquidating some derivatives positions, which ended up having an outsized effect on the underlying cash market. The U.S. government’s report on the episode later mentioned that: “In particular, anecdotal commentary suggested that some dealers had absorbed a portion of the sizable ‘short volatility’ position believed to have been previously maintained by large asset managers. As volatility spiked on October 15, those positions would have prompted some dealers to dynamically hedge this exposure, exacerbating the downward move in yields.” Then, in August of last year, the BIS published a paper on asset managers dabbling in eurodollars including the example of Pimco in 2014, which I wrote up in a piece called “This is where leverage lives in the system.” That article contained a laundry list of potentially risky strategies across rates (viz eurodollars, futures, forwards), credit (using swaptions and swaps) as well as equities (options, VIX ETPs, etc.). What’s my point? I don’t mean to underplay what’s happening with the VIX, but my concern is that if we’re looking for potential flash points in the financial system then we may want to broaden our horizons.