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Asset Allocation

What Does a Low VIX Tell Us About the Market?

Robert Harlow, Quantitative Analyst and Portfolio Manager
David Clewell, Research Analyst, Multi-Asset

Executive Summary

  • The financial press has been paying considerable attention lately to the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX), with many financial pundits citing recent low readings on the VIX as evidence of investor complacency and rising equity risk.
  • Media coverage often implies that a low current VIX is a strong signal of expected future volatility and will be followed by a sell-off in U.S. equities and other risk-seeking assets.
  • Historical evidence shows that, over the near term, investors typically overestimate the next 30-day volatility of the S&P 500 Index.
  • Further, when the VIX has been low, U.S. equities have outperformed U.S. bonds on average over the next 12 months, regardless of the change in the VIX over that horizon.
  • Without a meaningful and prolonged catalyst, we do not believe a low level of the VIX alone implies investor complacency or an immediate danger of a risk-off event.

Background

There has been much discussion in the financial press recently about the danger of investor complacency—with a low VIX frequently cited as compelling evidence that equity investors have grown too relaxed about potential risks. The problem is that it is difficult to determine whether markets are truly complacent or not; we can’t survey all investors and, even if we could, how many investors would admit that they were complacent? Instead, we take a mental shortcut and presume that something we can measure is a good proxy for the thing we actually care about. Enter the VIX. In this article, we try to determine the usefulness of the VIX as a forward indicator for both market risks and market returns.

Understanding the VIX

The VIX can be interpreted as the market expectation for realized volatility over a forward 30-day period (Figure 1).1 While it is true that the VIX tends to be mean-reverting and it occasionally spikes following long periods of calm, it is more often the case that calm follows calm. It is very tempting to look at a time series of the VIX and assume that you want to “buy the VIX” when it’s low and “sell the VIX” when it’s high. Unfortunately, the VIX is not a stock that you can buy and hold, it is the strike price of a 30-day variance swap. When you buy a 30-day variance swap, the only thing that matters is the forward realized volatility of the underlying asset, not what the price of a similar 30-day swap will be at some point in the future.

FIGURE 1: The VIX Index

As of April 28, 2017

Source: CBOE.

If a low VIX were actually a good measure of investor complacency, there would be a corresponding relationship between a low VIX today and higher-than-expected volatility over the forward 30-day period. However, this is not the case. Consider the scatterplot shown in Figure 2, which compares expected volatility (VIX level) with forward realized volatility. Points above the line (with slope equal to 1) reflect investor complacency, while points below the line reflect the opposite. In the majority of cases, investors actually overestimate 30-day volatility,2 and even when they don’t, it is not a function of the prior level of the VIX but other factors that impact the underlying asset, the S&P 500 Index.

FIGURE 2: Expected Volatility Versus Forward Realized Volatility

As of April 28, 2017

Source: CBOE. Each data point represents a month. The level of the VIX or expected volatility (X axis) is observed on the last day of the previous month and the “Forward SPX Realized Volatility” (Y axis) is the annualized standard deviation of daily total returns over the current month. The gray line has slope 1 with intercept at 0.

Historical Relationship Between the VIX and U.S. Equity Performance Relative to U.S. Bonds

The complacency argument implies that the forward performance of traditional risk-on asset classes will be negative when the VIX is too low. Although past performance cannot predict future performance, we evaluated the historical relationship between the VIX and the forward 12-month performance of the Russell 3000 Index (U.S. equities) relative to the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index (U.S. bonds). We looked at:

  • The level of the VIX versus forward 12-month equity returns relative to bonds and
  • The level and change in the VIX versus forward 12-month equity returns relative to bonds.

We compared the level of the VIX with subsequent 12-month relative returns on the Russell 3000 Index versus the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index over rolling 12-month periods running from January 1990 through December 2016 (Figure 3). Relative returns were sorted into three buckets based on initial VIX levels: A “low” VIX was defined as being in the bottom quartile of all readings over the period, “medium” VIX levels fell in the middle two quartiles, and top-quartile readings were considered “high” VIX levels.

FIGURE 3: Historical Scenario Analysis

Average 12-Month Relative Returns on U.S. Equities Versus U.S. Bonds by VIX Category
January 1990 Through December 2016

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

When the VIX was in the bottom quartile—corresponding with index readings of 10.3 to 13.9, U.S. equities outperformed U.S. bonds by an average of 8.4 percentage points over the next 12 months, with -1.4% as the 10th percentile return and 21% as the 90th percentile return. Further, U.S. equities outperformed U.S. bonds 88% of the time, while 12% of the time U.S. equities underperformed U.S. bonds. (For additional information on the study methodology, please see the appendix on page 5.)

Considering both the level and the next 12-month change in the VIX may provide additional information. As shown in Figure 4, when the VIX was in the lowest quartile and increased by over 100 bps over the following 12 months (the scenario feared in the investor complacency argument), U.S. equities outperformed U.S. bonds by an average of 7.6 percentage points, with a 10th to 90th percentile return range of -3.4% to 21.6%. The overall hit rate—the percentage of the time that U.S. equities outperformed U.S. bonds—when the VIX was in the lowest quartile and rising was 81%, which means there was negative relative performance 19% of the time.

However, when the VIX has been in the two medium quartiles (25th to 75th percentile) and increased by more than 250 bps over the next 12 months, it historically has signaled negative relative performance over those next 12 months. In this type of environment, U.S. equities underperformed U.S. bonds by an average of -3.5 percentage points with a 10th to 90th percentile return range of -36.8% to 22.1%. The overall positive hit rate in the medium two VIX quartiles was 49%, which means 51% of the time there was negative relative performance.

FIGURE 4: Level and Change in the VIX Versus Forward 12-Month Relative Performance

Average 12-Month Relative Returns on U.S. Equities Versus U.S. Bonds by VIX Category
January 1990 Through December 2016

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

Conclusion

While the empirical evidence shows there have been times when a low level of the VIX has underestimated forward realized volatility and U.S. bonds have outperformed U.S. equities, the number of occurrences has been relatively low. As a result, without a meaningful and prolonged catalyst, such as increased geopolitical concerns, unexpected global central bank policy changes, or negative economic data, we believe there is a low historical likelihood that the current level of the VIX implies investor complacency and/or an immediate risk-off event. While we claim neither that correlation is causation nor that history will repeat itself, we do not believe there is sufficient quantitative evidence today to argue this time will be different.

Price Point

Asset Allocation: What does a low VIX tell us about the market?

Asset Allocation: What does a low VIX tell us about the market?
Without a meaningful and prolonged catalyst, we do not believe a low level of the VIX alone implies investor complacency or an immediate danger of a risk-off event.

For a technical explanation of these concepts and their relationship to the VIX, see the appendix on page 5. [Return to Text]

2 A phenomenon known as the variance risk premium. [Return to Text]

Important Information
This material is being furnished for general informational purposes only. The material does not constitute or undertake to give advice of any nature, including fiduciary investment advice, and prospective investors are recommended to seek independent legal, financial and tax advice before making any investment decision. T. Rowe Price group of companies including T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and/or its affiliates receive revenue from T. Rowe Price investment products and services. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. The value of an investment and any income from it can go down as well as up. Investors may get back less than the amount invested.

The material does not constitute a distribution, an offer, an invitation, a personal or general recommendation or solicitation to sell or buy any securities in any jurisdiction or to conduct any particular investment activity. The material has not been reviewed by any regulatory authority in any jurisdiction.

Information and opinions presented have been obtained or derived from sources believed to be reliable and current; however, we cannot guarantee the sources' accuracy or completeness. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. The views contained herein are as of the date noted on the material and are subject to change without notice; these views may differ from those of other T. Rowe Price group companies and/or associates. Under no circumstances should the material, in whole or in part, be copied or redistributed without consent from T. Rowe Price.

The material is not intended for use by persons in jurisdictions which prohibit or restrict the distribution of the material and in certain countries the material is provided upon specific request.

It is not intended for distribution to retail investors in any jurisdiction.

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Bloomberg Index Services Ltd. Copyright 2017, Bloomberg Index Services Ltd. Used with permission.

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201706-187103

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