About one year ago, in one of my previous Chart of the Week posts, I noted the unprecedented high equity volatility witnessed by investors. Today, equity volatility is anything but extraordinary by historical standards. The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatility Index (VIX), which reflects the expectation of near-term S&P 500 Index volatility, closed at 17.33 on April 23. The average of the index for the last 10 years is 17.63. This week, I would like to share some interesting observations about equity volatility through the pandemic so far.
First, as seen in this week’s chart, equity volatility is receding. This is largely due to the rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and actions taken by both the government and Federal Reserve (Fed). The successful vaccination campaign and the continuously improving infection statistics boost investors’ confidence that the economic recovery will be fast and furious. The Fed and government policies have ensured smooth market functioning and ample liquidity.
Looking back, it took a little while to get where we are now. The VIX had stayed above 20 for 254 consecutive trading days, which is the second longest streak since the inception of the index, trailing only the period after the 2008 financial crisis. The VIX is calculated based on the short-term S&P 500 Index options traded on the CBOE. There are two major factors determining the level of the index. The first is the expectation of near-term S&P 500 Index volatility, while the second is the risk premium derived from the supply-demand dynamic. The latter factor played a significant role in the index remaining elevated for an extended period of time. Even though the index is around its historical average now, investors are not being complacent. The deep out of the money put options representing tail hedges are still quite expensive relative to history.
Additionally, the Nasdaq 100 Index and Russell 2000 Index volatility have larger premiums compared to the S&P 500 Index volatility. Due to the compositions of those two indices, they should have higher volatility than the S&P 500 Index. The Nasdaq 100 Index is concentrated in the technology sector, hence lacking diversification. The Russell 2000 Index includes 2000 small-cap companies, which have weaker balance sheets compared to large-cap companies. But the volatility premiums are larger than usual. For the period from Oct. 1, 2020 to April 23, 2021, the average volatility premiums of the Nasdaq 100 Index and the Russell 2000 Index were 5.8% and 8.0%, respectively, compared to averages for the last 10 years of 2.5% and 4.6%.
The driver behind this divergence has been factor and sector rotation. The majority of the stocks in the Nasdaq 100 Index are considered growth stocks. The Russell 2000 Index includes many value stocks. When the economy is recovering, value stocks tend to outperform growth stocks. But, based on the last decade’s experience, investors view the value trade as a tactical trade. It is very susceptible to any signs of stalled economic recovery. The back-and-forth factor and sector rotation has uplifted the volatility of these two indices.
Lastly, the green-dotted line in the chart represents the volatility of 20-plus-year Treasuries. Given the straightforward relationship between Treasuries and interest rates, it is a decent approximation for interest-rate volatility. Interestingly, this index has surpassed the VIX several times since March, which is unusual historically. It occurred back in 2017 when the VIX was extremely low, but today’s VIX level is average rather than low. A more comparable instance would be the 2013 taper tantrum, when markets started pricing in additional tightening from the Fed, lifting interest-rate volatility. If interest-rate volatility is here to stay, equities would expect a bumpy ride ahead.
As the economy is reopening and people are gradually normalizing their lives, equity volatility is abating. The further we get from last year’s volatility storm, the more volatility sellers should get back to work. However, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and there is no shortage of uncertainties. It is hard to see equity volatility falling much further from here. Looking forward, I would expect equity volatility to be range-bounded, barring any virus mutation that materially weakens the efficacy of vaccines. Given the elevated equity level and cheaper equity options relative to last year, either delta replacement or outright hedge are reasonable. Also, the S&P 500 Index volatility term structure is very steep. Rolling down the curve could be an attractive carry strategy if your risk management allows it.
The material provided here is for informational use only. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Penn Mutual Asset Management.
This material is for informational use only. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Penn Mutual Asset Management. This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and it is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy.
Opinions and statements of financial market trends that are based on current market conditions constitute judgment of the author and are subject to change without notice. The information and opinions contained in this material are derived from sources deemed to be reliable but should not be assumed to be accurate or complete. Statements that reflect projections or expectations of future financial or economic performance of the markets may be considered forward-looking statements. Actual results may differ significantly. Any forecasts contained in this material are based on various estimates and assumptions, and there can be no assurance that such estimates or assumptions will prove accurate.
Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All information referenced in preparation of this material has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy and completeness are not guaranteed. There is no representation or warranty as to the accuracy of the information and Penn Mutual Asset Management shall have no liability for decisions based upon such information.
High-Yield bonds are subject to greater fluctuations in value and risk of loss of income and principal. Investing in higher yielding, lower rated corporate bonds have a greater risk of price fluctuations and loss of principal and income than U.S. Treasury bonds and bills. Government securities offer a higher degree of safety and are guaranteed as to the timely payment of principal and interest if held to maturity.
All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. This material may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission.