Sustained periods of low volatility correlate well with steadily rising equity prices. Yet concern is mounting that the current low volatility is storing up future problems, because investors are doubling up on high share prices. By selling put options on shares and indices, thereby committing themselves to buy shares should the prices fall, these funds are exposed to an equity market sell-off through both their ownership of stock and the recently written put options.
It is perfectly rationale to sell puts if you believe that markets are rising. The concern however, is that funds are so starved of yield that they are writing puts for the short-term income benefit and relying on the world’s central banks to bail them out should stock markets take a dive. A parallel is drawn with the sub-prime mortgage debacle, when it was not the size of the market for poorly underwritten mortgage loans that triggered the financial crisis, but the vast number of derivatives layered on top that magnified risk throughout the financial system.
Implied volatility for the top 500 US stocks has fallen sharply since the post-Brexit panic and even more significantly since the worries about global growth were at their height in February. Yet as the chart above shows, two year implied volatility remains in its average range and around 10% above the successive lows of 2015.
On a longer timeframe the shock from the financial crisis and its echo in 2011 are clearly visible, but the current level of implied volatility is not unusual in the post-crisis period when central banks have been deliberately dampening volatility in order to encourage risk-taking. Implied volatility for US large caps is 6% above the low point of its average spread. In Europe the picture is similar and implied volatility is 18% above the bottom end of its normal range, which has repeatedly marked the low point for this indicator.
The charts appear to support the strategy of the put sellers, because implied volatility still has room to fall to reach previous lows, during which time the options sold will expire worthless. The put writers are also doing central bankers’ bidding by taking more risk, so they will feel justified in expecting central banks to bail them out when necessary. Large, long-only funds find it difficult to react to sudden moves in markets, meaning that they miss their chance to scoop up large quantities of shares before prices rally back to where they were. A logical way to ensure that these funds benefit from temporary corrections is to write puts so that they are guaranteed stock immediately prior to a central bank induced bounce.
There is a near-term benefit in enhanced portfolio returns because of the income from writing puts, but the longer-term gains are based on the assumption that central banks will continue to do what they have been doing since 2009. Janet Yellen may lay out the path to higher interest rates in her speeches, but as long as the Fed is seen to be ready to ease monetary policy whenever markets are in stress, the put-writing investment strategy will work.
OTAS users may keep a close eye on the trends in implied volatility to see when the current normal moves become exceptional. They should also look for confirmation from other indicators presented in a similar fashion, such as the cost of credit for corporates derived from the CDS market.