At the time of publication, Jared Woodard held positions in SPX options.
The market has not been this docile in more than eight months. The short-term volatility of the S&P 500 dipped below 10% in mid-January, and the market has kept getting quieter as stocks churn flat-to-higher. The temptation when stocks get this quiet and options become this cheap is to assume that volatility will soon revert higher. But before speculating on rockier markets up ahead, it is worth looking back at how similar markets have fared historically.
Fig. 1. SPX 10-day Historical Volatility, 2009 – 2012. Source: Condor Options
To get a sense of just how calm equity markets have been recently, compare the sub-10% historical 10-day volatility for SPX to the last few years of market history. There have been four periods since the March 2009 market bottom during which SPX has traded with such lack of intensity. In the first three cases, market volatility touched 20% within a month or less. In the final case, stocks stayed quiet from April to July 2011 before getting rowdy for the European banking crisis. Fig. 2 zooms in on the same data from January 2011 to the present. The lower panel in each chart shows the percentage rank of each day’s volatility estimate in relation to market data since 2001.
Fig. 2. SPX 10-day Historical Volatility, 2011 – 2012. Source: Condor Options
Fig. 3. SPX Median Returns When 10d HV Rank < 0.10. Source: Condor Options
So far, the data seems to justify a short-term bet on increasing stock volatility. Options can certainly get cheaper, but they are already at middling valuations and, as always, there are any number of macroeconomic and geopolitical scenarios that could generate some turmoil. But before investors apply portfolio hedges or put on bearish bets, it is worth looking at how markets have fared price-wise in similar past situations.
The attached table shows median SPX returns one, two, three, and six months later when the 10-day historical volatility rank has fallen below 10% (that’s the historical percentile rank of 10d HV, not the annualized volatility itself). The first surprise is that the median returns are all positive: quiet markets can precede tumultuous ones, but on average they do not. The second notable result is that market conditions like the present situation have, historically, offered better returns than the “any time” average one, two, and three months later. I checked for the worst subsequent returns at the same horizons, and the “any time” result was worse there as well: -18% one month later when volatility is this low, versus -30% when the volatility requirement is removed.
If the past is any guide, the odds favor better than average upside returns in the near future, even if those returns are achieved at a somewhat more volatile pace. Our practice in client accounts is to scale into portfolio hedges rather than apply them all at once, and that advice seems especially appropriate here. As for speculative positioning, traders who want to bet on increasing volatility should do so from a market-neutral standpoint rather than taking on exclusively bearish exposure.