Market Volatility and the S&P 500

By Colin Twiggs
February 9, 2017 11:00 p.m. EST (3:00 p.m. AEDT)

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It was clear from investment managers' comments at the start of the year — even Jeremy Grantham's meltup — that most expected a rally followed by an adjustment later in the year or early next year.

Valuations are high and the focus has started to swing away from making further gains and towards protecting existing profits. The size of this week's candles reflect the extent of the panic as gains patiently accumulated over several months evaporated in a matter of days.

S&P 500

Volatility spiked, with the VIX jumping from record lows to above the red line at 30.

S&P 500 Volatility (VIX)

VIX reflects the short-term, emotional reaction to events in the market but tends to be unreliable as an indicator of long-term sentiment. I prefer my own Volatility indicator which highlights the gradual change in market outlook. The chart below shows how Volatility rose gradually from mid-2007, exceeding 2% by early 2008 then settled in an elevated range above 1% until the collapse of Lehman Bros sparked panic.

S&P 500 in 2008

The emerging market crisis of 1998 shows a similar pattern. An elevated range in 1997 as the currency crisis grew was followed by a brief spike above 2% before another long, elevated range and then another larger spike with the Russian default.

S&P 500 in 1998

The key is not to wait for Volatility to spike above 2%. By then it is normally too late. An alternative strategy would be to scale back positions when the market remains in an elevated range, between 1% and 2%, over several months. Many traders would argue that this is too early. But the signal does indicate elevated market risk and I am reasonably certain that investors with large positions would prefer to exit too early rather than too late.

So where are we now?

Volatility on the S&P 500 spiked up after an extended period below 1%. If Volatility retreats below 1% then the extended period of low market risk is likely to continue. If not, it will warn that market risk is elevated. Should that continue for more than a few weeks I would consider it time to start scaling back positions.

S&P 500 in 2018

Only if we see a further spike above 2% would I act with any urgency.

The sucker has always tried to get something for nothing, and the appeal in all booms is always frankly to the gambling instinct aroused by cupidity and spurred by a pervasive prosperity. People who look for easy money invariably pay for the privilege of proving conclusively that it cannot be found on this sordid earth.

~ Jesse Livermore


Colin Twiggs is director of The Patient Investor Pty Ltd, an Authorised Representative (no. 1256439) of MoneySherpa Pty Limited which holds Australian Financial Services Licence No. 451289.

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