Friday, December 9, 2011

Taking Profits in VIX Options (and ETPs)

Two hours into today’s session, the trading idea I mentioned yesterday, going long VIX puts, is doing quite well. The VIX Dec 27.50s are up more than 50% and the Dec 30s puts have advanced about 45%.

One question that I believe is much trickier with VIX options than options for most other securities is when and how to take profits. A large reason why taking profits in VIX options has an extra layer of complexity and difficulty is due to the mean reversion tendencies of volatility in general and the VIX in particular.

Another potential complicating factor regarding the management of VIX options positions has to do with their underlying. I hope that by now readers of this blog have had it drummed into their head that the VIX futures are the best proxy for the underlying in VIX options, not the cash VIX or VIX index, which is the VIX that is most often quoted in the media. Anyone holding positions in VIX options – and VIX ETPs for that matter – should be monitoring the VIX futures.

Looking at the changes in the first two hours of trading, one can see the typical pattern in which the front month (December) VIX futures (-6.3%) are moving about 80% as much as the cash VIX (-7.9%), with the second month (January) futures (-4.4%) moving about 56% of the cash VIX. This is right in line with historical norms. For an additional data point, VXX, which is a blend of front month and second month VIX futures, is down about 4.7%, which makes sense in that hold a disproportionate amount of front month futures at this point in the options expiration cycle.

So what does this all mean for taking profits in VIX options?

First, I cannot overstate how important it is to watch the VIX futures and understand how they move in relation to the cash VIX.

Second, because the VIX has a tendency to mean revert and thus often reverse recent sharp moves in either direction, it is important to take at least partial profits when one is the beneficiary of a significant favorable move in volatility. I like to take profits in 25% or 50% of my position, for instance, if my VIX options appreciate by 50%.

Third, keep in mind that the long VIX puts mentioned above are still out of the money and have no intrinsic value. As a result, they are subject to significant time decay (theta) each day and therefore will lose value if there are no additional favorable moves in volatility.

The bottom line is that harvesting VIX profits can be a challenging task and should be thought of as part art and part science. One only has to look at the many steeple-shaped VIX spikes to appreciate just how fleeting large profit opportunities in VIX options can be.

Besides, who knows what the next rumor out of Europe will be and how much the masses will panic or unpanic.

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Disclosure(s): short VXX at time of writing; Livevol is an advertiser on VIX and More

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