Why the VIX is like the Headless Horseman
It’s Halloween, so we’re all busy planning what to wear for the annual scary holiday party.
I’m going as the VIX. Why? Because nothing scares the Street like the Fear Index.
Sure, James Carville may insist that the bond market is way more intimidating, but if it’s a short, sharp shock you want, I say you can’t beat the VIX. Just like the Headless Horseman, it gallops in and scares the bejeezus out of everyone with great results: witness the global markets last week. Traders and investors were reduced to a bunch of terrified, shivering jellies when they were told the VIX had soared to a two-year high of 30.
So what is the VIX?
The VIX is the volatility index. Volatility is when something goes up and down. Like my mood. If I’m all happy one day and in a raging fury the next, you might say I have a volatile temper. Not necessarily a bad temper – more mercurial. It’s the same with stocks and the indices that track them. The more up and down they go – the wilder the swings in the market – the more volatile they are, and some smart boffins have worked out how to measure that volatility on an index: the VIX.
So how does the VIX measure volatility?
It does it by taking traders’ temperature. Not literally – that would really be something – rather, it tracks their expectations by watching how they make bets on what they think the S&P 500 index will do over the next 30 days. Using the wonder of math, those bets are crunched in various ways, and then displayed on a graph. If the traders think the market will only be a little bit bumpy, the VIX number will be low. If they fear there will be crazy wild swings, with stocks bouncing up and down like a roller coaster, the VIX number will be high. Hence the Fear Index.
So a high VIX number is bad?
Not necessarily. Think of the markets as the ocean and the VIX as a surf forecast. If the report says we’re going to have double overhead waves, driving rain and five mile-an-hour rip currents, a lot of surfers (like me) are going to stay in bed. Or maybe we’ll go down to the beach, stand on the shore and watch as the more adventurous and professional surfers (nutters) paddle out. Some of those daredevils will rue the day. They’ll come back with broken boards, splintered limbs and shattered dreams. But the really good – or lucky – ones will have an amazing time. Traders are like surfers. When the market is plunging one day and soaring the next, many step out of the market, which is why volume often falls when volatility is high. Most of those who have the nerve to hang in there will be shredded. But a lucky few will make pots of money, buying on the dips and selling on the highs. Like Goldman Sachs, which reported in its latest earnings release that a big chunk of its profits came from trading on the volatility in the markets.
What’s behind this latest bout of volatility?
You can pick your villain. On the downside, you’ve got Ebola, continued conflict in the Middle East, protests in Hong Kong, poor earnings from some select blue chips in the U.S. (GE, IBM), fears of a global slowdown, and worries about the draw-down in government stimulus. On the upside, here in the U.S. you’ve got falling unemployment, rising consumer sentiment, falling oil prices, some great earnings from banks and tech companies, the upcoming holiday season and, of course, the fact that stock prices have fallen recently, creating a buying opportunity.
Sounds dangerous. Should we worried that the end is nigh?
It’s true that the VIX is still at a two-year high, but don’t panic. Breathe in and out of a paper bag and keep saying to yourself, “this too shall pass.” If you’re an individual investor, that means you should leave your stock where it is. Remember that these days you’re not just up against some sleazy dude in a fancy Italian suit and loud suspenders, you’re up against the machines, too. So do the smart thing, and hang out on the beach sipping coffee while you watch the show. Remember, the VIX is just like the Headless Horseman: it gallops through the market, scares the wits out of everyone, and creates a hell of a mess. But the fear never lasts for long, and besides, it usually makes for some great stories.