Tag Archive: volatility

Still a risk-on environment, but option traders remain nervous

Markets globally continue to show strong risk-seeking behavior, a continuation of the broader trend in place for much of the time since late March 2020. That was the point at which monetary and fiscal policy activity surged to produce enormous stimulus in the US and globally.

Recent US legislation that included a total of about $900 billion in new fiscal support is now starting to be felt, and recent political developments have increased the odds of further fiscal support this year. Alongside this persistent fiscal support to counteract the severe economic impacts of COVID-19, monetary policy remains extremely accommodative. Near-zero policy rates and heavy bond buying programs are expected to be maintained for many months if not years, putting both monetary and fiscal policy firmly in the “highly stimulative” category at the same time.

This backdrop has allowed the strong demand for risky assets to continue, as reflected in many measure of market prices. Our chart below shows four such measures:Global Risk Appetite Measures

Top section: The MSCI All-Country World Index (ACWI) is a broad global equity index, and it has been outperforming the total returns generated by the ICE/BofA Merrill Lynch (ML) 10+ Year Treasury Index (measuring returns to Treasury bonds with maturities of 10 years or more). This stock/bond relative return series has recently moved above its pre-COVID peak as bond returns have been weak and stock returns have been very strong.

Second section: Here we plot our own custom index of global high volatility stocks (top decile of global stocks above USD$200 million market cap, ranked by trailing two-year historical return volatility). This index of risky stocks is a useful measure of investor risk appetite. It has posted powerful gains since the March low in equity prices, and continues to make new highs.

Third section: This shows the relative returns of the S&P 500 High Beta index versus the S&P 500 Low Volatility index. The High Beta index reflects the 100 stocks in the S&P 500 with the highest market beta (sensitivity to stock market movements) and is a measure of high-risk stock activity among US large-cap stocks. The Low Volatility index captures the 100 stocks in the S&P 500 with the lowest historical return volatility (both indices are rebalanced quarterly). Their relative return is another measure of risk appetite among investors based on the relative riskiness of stocks within the major US benchmark index. It has been rising sharply again after a pause over the summer and is also making new cycle highs.

Fourth section: Turning to debt markets, this plots the average credit spread on high yield (junk) bonds in the US. The credit spread measures the additional yield investors require over and above the yield on a US Treasury bond of the same maturity to hold the debt of a high-risk borrower (i.e., companies with weaker financial conditions and thus higher default risk). That spread surged in the immediate aftermath of the COVID crisis in March/April of last year, and then has been steadily declining thanks to the Fed’s aggressive support of the corporate bond market. Recently it has continued to make new lows (reflecting greater risk appetite among investors), and is now back to pre-COVID levels despite the ongoing economic turbulence.

So we can confidently say that investors are content to take on greater risk than usual with the expectation that government support for markets and the economy will continue. We also note that the volatility of stock prices recently has dropped back down to very low levels, another condition typically found when risk appetite is high and a bullish trend is well established.

Under these conditions, we would normally expect options traders to react to the low market volatility and favorable backdrop by reducing their expectations of short-term future volatility. This would typically be visible in the CBOE VIX index, which measures the expected level of market volatility over the next month embedded in S&P 500 index options prices.

But right now, we see that the VIX has held at relatively high readings, and allowed a wide gap to open up between implied future volatility and recent realized volatility. We can see in the chart below that normally the VIX and realized volatility move together and are closer than they are now.VIX vs Realized Vol

It appears that options traders do not expect the current stability in equity markets to continue, and are pricing in a significant rebound in volatility (which is typically associated with falling stock prices). Our analysis indicates that this tends to be a favorable contrarian sentiment indicator: when options traders are especially nervous about rising volatility (relative to actual volatility), it suggests that some investors remain unconvinced and underinvested, which can support further near-term gains.

So while some measures of market sentiment are clearly pointing to high optimism among investors (a worrisome sign from a contrarian sentiment standpoint), the VIX is currently providing a supportive sentiment reading in our view. With the market’s trend still strong and the policy backdrop supportive, risk assets could continue to rise at least a little while longer.

Small-caps are gaining traction as light appears at the end of the COVID tunnel

After a long period of either underperformance or mixed relative returns, small-caps in the US are now finally gaining meaningful traction relative to large-caps.

As shown below, the relative return of the small-cap Russell 2000 index versus the large-cap Russell 1000 index has broken out of the range it has been in since June. The latest move started after the Pfizer vaccine news hit on November 9th, after making an initial move in early October.US Small-Cap Large-Cap Relative Return

Our view has long been that small-cap relative performance follows a cyclical pattern, with the best return/risk payoffs coming when the economic and market cycle have been weak and are starting to recover. The early stages of a new expansion or bull market are thus typically the best for small-caps, while the later stages of an expansion or the early phases of a bear market or recession tend to be better for large-caps, especially after accounting for risk.

The current economic cycle has been very unusual. After a record-long expansion, a very rare external shock (a virus) hit, causing far higher amplitude in the economic data (record-setting declines and recoveries), along with historically huge policy interventions (fiscal and monetary stimulus, etc.). The heavy uncertainty about how the current cycle will play out may explain why small-cap relative performance has only recently started to show the upturn we would expect as conditions start to improve after a recession. The recent signs of progress on a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) offer the prospect of “getting back to normal” next year, and may reduce some of the headwinds facing smaller companies relative to larger firms.

Several other indicators suggest the small-cap outperformance trend may be a better bet now than earlier this year.

First, US small-caps are outperforming across all sectors over the last month, indicating a broad-based trend. This includes the Technology sector, where large-cap Tech had outperformed small-cap Tech by 30% for the year through September 1st, but since then small-cap Tech has outperformed its larger brethren by 12%.

Second, as shown below, the “volatility penalty” for owning small-caps has declined and is now back to relatively low levels. The rolling three-month volatility of the Russell 2000 index has now fallen back to just a small differential over the volatility of large-caps (Russell 1000). That is, investors do not have to take on substantially more risk (volatility) in their portfolios by choosing small-caps over large-caps, as they would have done earlier in the year.US Small vs Large-cap Relative Volatility

And third, small-caps outside the US have been outperforming for some time now (as shown in the lower two sections of the chart below), and therefore US small-caps may have some catching up to do.Global Small-cap Relative Returns

With price activity looking better and the cyclical backdrop potentially becoming more favorable, there could be more room for the recent trend of small-cap outperformance to run over the coming months.

Relative volatility risk in US small-caps remains high

Among the various asset allocation decisions for which we provide guidance to clients is whether to favor small-caps or large-caps (i.e., the “size” factor) within the US equity market. In our view, small-caps do not reliably outperform large-caps consistently over time (as some models and studies might suggest), and instead view the “size premium” (outperformance of small-caps) more as a cyclical phenomenon that tends to show up under certain macroeconomic and market conditions.

While there are many potential conditions that might affect small-cap/large-cap relative performance, much of our work is oriented around the idea that small-caps give the best “bang for the buck” in the periods just before and through the early stages of a new economic or market cycle. That is, recessionary troughs in the economy and equity market set up the conditions for future small-cap outperformance, as smaller companies tend to benefit most from the re-acceleration of economic growth that typically occurs after recessions. This is also when monetary and fiscal stimulus tend to be strongest. In these scenarios, small-caps have typically underperformed before and during the preceding recession/bear market and become out of favor and potentially undervalued. Conversely, the later stages of an economic cycle and the early stages of a recession or bear market tend to be unfavorable for the riskier and more economically sensitive small-caps.

Looking at conditions now, there is certainly evidence that a recessionary trough has occurred or is in process, and both monetary and fiscal stimulus have been very aggressive. This would potentially argue for favoring small-caps over large-caps, and indeed small-cap relative returns have stabilized after a sustained period of significant outperformance by large-caps since mid-2018 (and arguably longer). However, it may be worth an extra dose of caution before making heavy overweight allocations to small-caps on an intermediate-term (6-12 month) basis. This is not only due to the unusual nature of the current cycle, but also more specifically to the extremely elevated relative risk still apparent in the volatility of small-caps versus large-caps.

Using the Russell 2000 Index to measure returns for US small-caps and the Russell 1000 Index for large-caps, the chart below shows the rolling three-month annualized volatility of daily returns for both indices over the last 20 years (small-caps in blue, large-caps in red) in the top section, and the difference between them in the bottom section.

US Small Large Cap Relative Volatility

A few things jump out: first, volatility for all equities surged to extreme levels earlier this year, matched only by the Great Financial Crisis in the last 20 years, and has been declining rapidly thanks to the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary interventions. And second, the difference between small-cap and large-cap volatility has remained near historic extremes even as volatility has declined for both size categories.

As shown in the bottom section of the chart, small-caps are almost always more volatile than large-caps (i.e., the volatility spread is usually above zero), with a historical average of about 4.5%. However, the latest readings on the volatility spread of over 14% are the highest in the last 20 years. That is, while large-cap volatility has dropped to a (still elevated) level of just under 24% (equal to average daily index movements of about 1.5%), the small-cap index volatility has only managed to decline to 38% so far (equal to average daily movements of about 2.4%). This is still far above the normal level of volatility for small-caps historically of about 22%.

The bottom line is quite straightforward: even after sharp rallies in equities and lower market volatility in general, owning small-caps remains much riskier on a price volatility basis than owning large-caps. So if expected returns must be commensurate with expected risk, then a decision to allocate heavily to small-caps requires either 1) an unusually high excess return expectation, or 2) an expectation of drastically lower small-cap volatility soon.

Given the economic backdrop and the reliance on government stimulus as well as the relative fundamentals of small-caps versus large-caps (a possible topic for another post), it may take a little while longer to have confidence that small-cap excess returns will be sufficient to compensate for their unusually high extra risk relative to large-caps.