About that Volatility = Complacency Claim… by Attain Capital

Here’s how the usual reporting on low volatility goes…

There’s Low Volatility because the VIX is low, and the VIX being low reflects investors paying less for future downside protection, and paying less for downside protection means investors are less concerned (or aware) of the possibility of downside… so low volatility means these investors are becoming more “complacent”.  What exactly does complacent mean, we looked it up, via dictionary.com:

“pleased, especially with oneself or one’s merits, advantages, situation, etc., often without
awareness of some potential danger or defect; self-satisfied.”

It’s kind of like a person foregoing hurricane insurance because there hasn’t been one in a while. Their recent good fortune of no hurricanes blowing their house down has made them complacent about the possibility of future hurricanes.

The structure of the VIX leads to this low volatility = complacency argument. The Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Market Volatility Index, or the VIX, measures the implied volatility of S&P 500 index, representing investors’ expectations of volatility in the benchmark equities index over the next 30 days.  Higher VIX values indicate anticipation of higher stock market volatility while lower VIX values indicate the expectation for lower stock market volatility. With stock markets tending to ‘take the stairs up, and the elevator down’ as the old saying goes, higher volatility is associated with lower prices most of the time. So, if investors think equities are going lower, they think it will be accompanied by increased volatility, and therefore will be willing to price the VIX higher.

So….we’ll concede that a Low Vix can represent a certain amount of complacency and lack of awareness of possible downside (or upside spikes for that matter) among investors in equities.

But does it follow that low volatility in say, Bonds, means that bond investors are becoming more complacent. While this is mostly semantics and likely only of interest to the most nerdy among you, does it follow that low volatility in Bonds as measured by tight ranges means there is complacency in that market?  We sort of think no. You see, volatility in nearly everywhere but the VIX is measured not by the prices of options to extrapolate the expected volatility over the next 30 days – but instead by the observed volatility over the most recent period, be it 30 days or 100 or the past year.

And that’s the rub… when we say that there’s low volatility in a market like bonds or the Euro Currency because the ranges have contracted, and that means there’s complacency (like we did in our “Complacency Everywhere” piece last week), we’re missing that the tighter ranges are what happened, versus the VIX reading being a measure of what investors believe will happen.  Now, of course, investors being humans – they often project what just happened onto what they think will happen, so there is a high correlation between the observed volatility and expected volatility.

But you can see intuitively that these aren’t the same thing. The observed volatility being low simply means investors were not faced with any market moving information or outside forces over the observed period. It doesn’t necessarily mean those investors are becoming complacent, i.e. – pricing in low volatility expectations moving forward. Luckily, the CBOE came out with some VIX-index like products a while back which allow us to test out this observed versus implied phenomenon. You can see from the charts that while observed volatility is at multi-year lows, the expected volatility is actually at multi-month highs.

Bonds:

Observed volatility = the tightest 10 Yr Treasury Yield 3 month range in 35 years

Expected Volatity = CBOE/CBOT 10-year U.S. Treasury Note Volatility Index – VXTYN (below)

volatility

(Disclaimer: Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results)

Euro Currency:

Observed volatility = the tightest consecutive monthly ranges in the Euro since inception

Expected Volatility = CBOE EuroCurrency ETP Volatility Index – EVZ (below)

volatility

(Disclaimer: Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results)

So next time someone (like us) tells you investors are complacent because there’s low volatility – double check their inputs. Are they saying low volatility using the expected volatility of that market looking forward, or the observed volatility looking backwards?  We couldn’t agree more that tighter ranges and a low VIX portend a more volatile climate coming up (not a lower one), but the slight problem in the low volatility = complacency argument didn’t sit so well with us over the weekend… we feel better now for having gotten it off our chest.