“Bulls do not win bull fights. People do.” – Normal Ralph Augustine
“Stocks fluctuate, next question.” – Alan Greenberg, former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Bear Stearns, in response to questions about the crash, October 22, 1987
“If you have trouble imagining a 20% loss in the stock market, you shouldn’t be in stocks.” – Jack Bogle
November last year, in Volatility Selling and Volatility Arbitrage Ideas Using Equities, we wrote:
Based on the tenets of Prospect Theory, the popularity of short volatility strategies is somewhat confounding. By investing in such strategies, investors are underweighting as opposed to overweighting a low probability event (a market crash). At the same time, they are giving preference to negative skewness, favouring small gains at the risk of incurring large losses.
During October, 2017, the VIX recorded its lowest monthly average since the launch of the index dating back to January, 1993. What makes this statistic even more remarkable is that autumn months are generally more volatile with October being, on average, the most volatile month during the year. The average level of the VIX for October, starting 1993, is 21.8 – more than double the 10.1 averaged last month.
With all that being said, we do consider the short volatility trade to be richly valued. That does not mean we expect the equity market to crash, instead the differential between implied and realised volatility has tightened to such a degree that this gap can easily close and invert. The trade can become loss making without a meaningful correction in equity markets.
Poorly structured short-volatility products and the limited – almost non-existent – down-side risk to going long volatility has, in our opinion, led to the emphatic short-squeeze in volatility witnessed over the last ten days or so. The tail has well and truly wagged the dog. That is, higher volatility has led to the sharp correction in the market. Not the other way round. The late-afternoon equity sell-off on Monday 5 February is indicative of as much.
S&P 500 Index on 5 February, 2018Source: Bloomberg
XIV, SVXY and other products of their ilk are not the first, and are almost certainly not going to be the last, poorly conceived investment products to blow-up. Think back to portfolio insurance, synthetic collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and CDO-squared as a reminder. There has been plenty of commentary, and no shortage of memes, lambasting regulators of and speculators in short-volatility products alike – many of the critics make valid arguments that should give regulators pause for thought. For investors the time, however, is not to reflect on the flaws of these products but rather to focus on whether the blow-up of these products can lead to a contagion into adjacent markets or is this just a shake-out of weak hands.
The most convincing argument for the recent correction being a shake-out of weak hands comes from the US corporate bond market. US corporate spreads have been benign in the face of the recent spike in volatility – a first in a very long-time.
US Corporate Yield Spreads vs. VIX IndexSource: Bloomberg
The narrative of rising inflation expectations leading to the correction in equity market has taken hold in some quarters. Firstly, looking at the USD 5-year, 5-year inflation swap rate, there has not been a sharp increase in market-based inflation expectations. In fact, the increase in inflation expectations was much sharper immediately after Trump won the election than at any time during the last year. Secondly, high inflation does not negatively affect equities. If inflation is high but stable, it is nominally positive for equity markets and is unlikely to cause any damage to the real economy. Moreover, historical data suggests that the highest levels of price-to-earnings multiples are witnessed during periods when inflation ranged from 2 to 3 per cent.
An unexpected acceleration in inflation followed by unanticipated changes in monetary policy, however, can have significant negative consequences for the economy. The Fed, to date, has not shown any signs of panic. As long as the Fed continues on the path of slow and steady rate hikes, we do not expect Fed rate hikes to derail the economy or the equity market. If, however, the US economy overheats in response to the recently passed tax reforms and the tight labour market, the Fed may be forced to react aggressively, which could be catastrophic for both the economy and equity markets.
USD 5-Year, 5-Year Inflation Swap RateSource: Bloomberg
The one change coming out of the recent sell-off, in our opinion, is that volatility has made its secular low. We suspect that retail investors are unlikely to return to short volatility in droves. We also have a hunch that private banks and wealth managers will not be offering short-volatility products to their high-net worth clients any time soon. Volatility, therefore, should stabilise closer to its longer-term average – we do, however, expect volatility to be structurally lower than the past due to the increased prevalence of passive and systematic strategies, which implicitly dampen volatility during a stable market environment.
A necessary corollary of higher volatility is that investors have to be more discerning in security selection. Active management may soon be back in vogue.
In the after-math of the recent market sell-off we have heard market legends claim that “macro is back” or that it is an “exciting turn for macro trading”. At the same time, we have heard old hands speak of the trauma of 1987 and how it shaped their approach to markets going forward. What we do not hear or read of enough though is that as traumatic as 19 October, 1987 was, it was also the buying opportunity of a generation. The S&P 500 compounded at an annualised rate of 18.9 per cent over the next ten years.
We do not expect returns from equity markets for the next ten years to be like those witnessed between 1987 and 1997. We, however, also cannot ignore that global equity markets had a major break out last year.
MSCI All Cap World IndexSource: Bloomberg
We have one simple, singular thought when it comes to equity markets today. Until we come across evidence to the contrary, we think investors should figure out what they want to own and buy it with both hands.
This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.