Thursday, June 27, 2013

VIX Futures Margin Requirements to Increase After Today’s Close

A number of readers have expressed concern to me privately about today’s increase in the VIX futures margin requirements. The current margin requirements are detailed at the CFE Margins splash page, while the new margin requirements were outlined in CFE Regulatory Circular RG13-019 on Tuesday and were just updated on the CFE (CBOE Futures Exchange) web site here.

Perhaps the most critical of the changes is the substantial increase in margin requirements for spread positions. The current initial margin requirement for a spread is $625 - $1250, with the variation due to the number of months involved in the spread. The maintenance margin for these positions is currently $500 - $1000. After today’s close, the initial margin requirement jumps to $2860 - $4015, with the maintenance margin rising to $2700 - $3650.

For those VIX futures spread traders out there – and I’d imagine that includes just about all VIX futures traders – this is an increase of 5-6 times the current margin requirement and has the potential to trigger some forced liquidations. If you have any concerns about your margin position going into tomorrow’s trading day, I urge you to take the balance of today’s trading session to make the appropriate adjustments.

As best as I can tell, quite a few VIX spread traders are not aware of these margin requirements changes, which could only add to any potential market dislocation.

Of course the VIX futures are also an essential ingredient in the VIX ETPs, notably VXX, which also has weekly options expiring tomorrow…so depending upon how much impact the new margin requirements have on the VIX futures market, VXX, XIV, UVXY, TVIX and their associated options (as well as the full stable of VIX ETPs) could be influenced by tomorrow’s market action.

In addition to the potential issues related to the VIX futures market tomorrow, there are a number of broader issues that are related to the margin requirements. For starters, the CFE used to set margin requirements for the VIX futures. This responsibility recently moved to the OCC, which uses a large-scale Monte Carlo-based risk management methodology, known as System for Theoretical Analysis and Numerical Simulations (“STANS”) that is said to evaluate approximately 7,000 risk factors. Today’s margin requirements change is the first instance in which the OCC made the determination (presumably after STANS crunched the numbers for rising volatility across a wide variety of asset classes) to change margin requirements and essentially directed the CFE to implement this change. Recognizing that this was the first OCC-driven margin requirements change, the CFE issued the regulatory circular referenced above to explain what was happening. Going forward, no such regulatory circular is likely to be issued when there are changes to margin requirements. Instead, traders are expected to learn about changes in margin requirements by visiting the CFE Margins page each morning. This raises another question: if traders think two days’ notice via a regulatory circular is not sufficient notice for margin requirement changes, I can only imagine how they will react when that notice is of the same-day variety.

Of course STANS and the OCC can change margin requirements at any time, but if the VIX futures markets do not operate with their usual efficiency tomorrow and some traders are subject to forced liquidations of relatively illiquid back month legs because they were not aware that margin requirements were about to increase by a factor of five or six, then perhaps it is time to think about some other ways that changes in margin requirements can be implemented and communicated.

Related posts:

Disclosure(s): long VXX, long XIV and short UVXY at time of writing; the CBOE is an advertiser on VIX and More

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

VXTYN Measures Volatility in U.S. Treasuries and Potential Spillover Effect

Recently I have been highlighting some non-traditional measures of volatility and risk in the financial markets, including VXEEM (CBOE Emerging Markets ETF Volatility Index); DXJ (WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity Fund); and DBV (PowerShares DB G10 Currency Harvest Fund). Part of my intent in focusing some attention on these largely under-the-radar indices and ETPs is to get more investors to think about risk more broadly across geographies and asset classes.

One asset class that should absolutely be watched closely by even those stubbornly equity-centric investors (and I know you are out there in larger numbers than you care to admit) is U.S. Treasuries. Of course U.S. Treasuries come in quite a few flavors, but the most important is probably the U.S. 10-Year Treasury Note. In a display of impeccable timing, last month the CBOE and the CFE teamed up to launch a new volatility index based on this security: CBOE/CBOT 10-year U.S. Treasury Note Volatility Index (VXTYN).

In the chart below, I show the path of VXTYN and the SPX going back to January 10, 2013, which is the beginning of the historical data for VXTYN provided by the CBOE. Note that VXTYN only began rising in May and when hit has made a substantial move up, that has preceded a decline in stocks.

[source(s): CBOE, Yahoo, VIX and More]

Just for fun, I am also including a chart that shows a 21-day rolling average of the correlation between VXTYN and the SPX. Here the relationship between the swings in correlation and subsequent moves in stocks may be easier to visualize. With less than months of historical data to draw on, I would caution against jumping to conclusions regarding correlation and causation, but at the very least I thought this graphic might provide some food for thought.

[source(s): CBOE, Yahoo, VIX and More]

Last but not least: did you know there are ETPs for placing bets on whether the Treasury yield curve will get steeper or flatter? I highlighted these products back in 2010 in Treasury Yield Curve ETNs and Volatility; they are known formally as the iPath US Treasury Steepener ETN (STPP) and the iPath US Treasury Flattener ETN (FLAT).

Related posts:

Disclosure(s): long DXJ at time of writing; the CBOE is an advertiser on VIX and More

Thursday, June 20, 2013

All About the Pullback from SPX 1687

Today the S&P 500 index fell 2.5% and at its low was more than 102 points lower than the all-time high of 1687.18 from May 22nd. At times like this I am amazed by how many requests I get to update the table of pullbacks I have been posting periodically since the current bull market began in March 2009.

As the table below shows, the current peak-to-trough decline represents a 6.1% pullback from the all-time high and ranks tenth of twenty-one pullbacks during this period. The mean pullback during this bull market is 7.0% and would suggest a bottom of SPX 1568. The median pullback is only 5.6% and would have brought the index down to 1593.

This is not to say that there is a specified amount of suffering that the bulls must be subject to before stocks should feel to rebound or that there is a certain amount of time that the bulls should spend in the penalty box (the mean peak-to-trough decline lasts 18 days, while the median is 7 days), but at some point the severity of the pullback will begin to attract more buyers and increase the odds that the tide will turn.

[source(s): CBOE, Yahoo, VIX and More]

For those who prefer their data crammed into one graphic, I have also updated an annotated plot in which the y-axis captures the magnitude of the peak-to-trough decline (inverted) and the x-axis records the duration of that move. I have also included the peak VIX during the pullback as a red label for each dot and a long dotted black line as the best linear fit of all the data points.

Note that the current pullback is already the fifth longest in four plus years and while it has made quite a splash so far, there is only a 3.87 point cushion from today’s close to the intraday low before the pullback officially becomes longer in the tooth and more severe.

[source(s): CBOE, Yahoo, VIX and More]

Disclosure(s): none

VXEEM as a Measure of Emerging Markets Volatility and Risk

If you think U.S. stocks have been through a rough patch as of late, then you haven’t been paying attention to emerging markets stocks, where the popular EEM emerging markets ETF as fallen from a high of 42.96 on May 22nd to 37.02 earlier today – a 13.8% drop in less than one month. A large part of the problem has been the performance of the BRIC countries, where Brazil (EWZ), China (FXI) and India (EPI) are all acting as if they have been thrown overboard with anchors tied to their ankles, making Russia (RSX) look like the most stable investment of the group – which is quite a task.

Investors looking to monitor risk and uncertainty in Brazil and China are fortunate enough to have dedicated volatility indices based on the VIX methodology for EWZ and FXI. These volatility indices were created by the CBOE and use the tickers VXEWZ and VXFXI, respectively. For a more holistic view of risk and uncertainty in the emerging markets space, the best choice is probably VXEEM, the CBOE Emerging Markets ETF Volatility Index that is calculated based on options in EEM.

The chart below shows the relative performance of VXEEM and the VIX going back to the end of October 2012. Note that during toward the end of 2012, the debate over sequestration caused the markets to assign much more additional risk and uncertainty to U.S. stocks than to emerging markets stocks. During the course of the last month or two, this relationship has reversed and the risk and uncertainty associated with VXEEM has grown at a much faster rate than that of the VIX. On average, the absolute level of VXEEM is about 40% higher than that of the VIX. This week, however, VXEEM has been about 60% higher than the VIX.

On a related note, I find it interesting that S&P announced the launch of the S&P Emerging Markets Volatility Short-Term Futures Index just ten days ago. With that index in place, it would be relatively easy to create a futures-based emerging markets volatility ETP that would function in the same manner as VXX, but be based on VXEEM rather than the VIX. The biggest obstacle to this type of product is probably the current lack of liquidity in the VXEEM futures market.

[source(s): Google Finance]

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Disclosure(s): short VXX at time of writing

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

VIX and SPX During the 1994 Interest Rate Hike Cycle

With yesterday’s The VIX and the Pre-FOMC + Post-FOMC Trades post in the books, it occurred to me that my reference to the series of interest rate hikes in 1994 probably stretches back before the memory banks of the current generation of investors. So with all the anxiety about Fed tapering and ultimately ending quantitative easing, I thought this might be a good time to review what happened to stocks and volatility when the Fed embarked upon a series of interest rate hikes that took the financial community by surprise.

To set the context, the 1990s started out with a recession that coincided with the first Gulf War and a corresponding sharp rise in oil prices. The Fed had been gradually lowering interest rates from 1989 – 1992 and this helped to create an environment that favored a recovery, but this recovery took some time to gain traction and did not get going until 1991. The stock market fared better than the economy during this period; after a down year in 1990, stocks rallied to post gains in 1991, 1992 and 1993. After a strong January for stocks, 1994 appeared to be on a similar path to success.

It was at this point that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan decided to remove the proverbial punch bowl before the party got out of hand and on February 4, 1994, the Fed surprised the markets by announcing a 0.25% increase in the federal funds rate. By the time 1994 was over, the Fed had raised interest rates on six different occasions. As the chart below shows, the first three raises were 0.25% increases in the federal funds rate, but the incremental size of the raises increased to 0.50% and eventually 0.75% later in the year and were supplemented by increases in the federal discount rate, which also grew from 0.50% to 0.75%. By the time 1994 was in the books, the federal funds rate had jumped from 3.00% to 5.50% and the federal discount rate had risen from 3.00% to 4.75%. (The rate hike cycle finally ended on February 1, 1995, when the Fed raised the federal funds rate to 6.00% and the federal discount rate to 5.25%.)

Keep in mind that Alan Greenspan did not believe in signaling the Fed’s intentions in those days; on the contrary, he was a master of obfuscation and his cryptic and often ambiguous language typically kept investors in the dark about his intentions. For this reason, it was difficult for the markets to anticipate the Fed’s next move and investors we not necessarily prepared for subsequent interest rate hikes.

How did the financial markets respond to what amounted to almost a doubling of the federal funds rate and an increase of more than 50% in the federal discount rate? With a lot less volatility than one might imagine. The average closing value of the VIX was 13.93 in 1994, little different than the 13.90 average for the VIX in 2013. While the VIX did spike all the way up to 28.30 on April 4th, the VIX only closed above 20.00 on two days during the entire year! The S&P 500 index ended the year with a small loss (a small gain if dividends were to be included in the calculations), but roared back with gains of 34%, 20%, 31%, 27% and 20% in the subsequent five years.

[source(s):, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, VIX and More]

The series of rate hikes did dramatically change the yield curve, as the chart below illustrates. The more dramatic moves were at the front end of the terms structure, with the curve essentially flat from two years through thirty years by the end of 1994.

[source(s): Wall Street Journal / SmartMoney]

So while Robin Harding’s Fed Likely to Signal Tapering Move is Close article in the Financial Times yesterday (and his subsequent tweet, “The Fed does not leak anything to any journalist to steer markets - especially during blackout”) may have given investors an opportunity for a dress rehearsal for the ultimate tapering, the historical record from 1994 suggests that tapering fears may be exaggerating how the QE end game will ultimately play out.

Related posts:

Disclosure(s): none

Monday, June 17, 2013

The VIX and the Pre-FOMC + Post-FOMC Trades

Back in December 2008, in VIX Trends Around FOMC Announcement Days, I posted a chart of the average movements in the VIX in the ten trading day leading up to and following “Fed Days,” otherwise known as days in which the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) makes its policy statement announcement. Several long-time readers who recall that chart – and an earlier incarnation from VIX Price Movement Around FOMC Meetings – have recently asked for an updated version. With all eyes on the Fed’s statement and Ben Bernanke’s press conference on Wednesday, this seems like a good time to revisit how the VIX moves in the days leading up to and following FOMC announcements.

In the chart below, I have normalized VIX data going back to 1990 to make it easy to compare the mean daily changes in the VIX in the ten trading days preceding FOMC policy statement announcements as well as ten trading days following those announcements. The quick takeaway is that the data from the last five years has been consistent with the data as of 2008. There are still three dominant features in this chart:

  1. a pre-FOMC VIX ramp in which the VIX tends to move up sharply in the three days leading up to the FOMC announcement and trend up more gradually 1-2 weeks in advance of the announcement
  2. a sharp decline in the VIX averaging about 2.6% on the day of the FOMC announcement, with a gradual decline in the VIX of another 1.0% or so in the two days following the announcement
  3. a sharp rebound in the VIX that starts three days after the FOMC announcement and persists until nine trading days after the announcement

Over the course of the past five years, the pre-announcement ramp in the VIX has been steeper during the three days prior to the announcement and more gradual in the week or so prior to that period. Also, recent history has seen the post-announcement decline in the VIX extending two additional days to now span four days following the announcement.

Of course there is no reason to expect that patterns which have persisted for the past 33 years to magically reappear for each FOMC announcement going forward, but I do believe that the historical pattern does say something about human nature, uncertainty and perceptions of risk.

It is worth noting that the biggest one-day jump in the VIX on a Fed day dates from February 4, 1994, when Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan surprised the markets by announcing a 0.25% increase in the federal funds rate, helping to lift the VIX 41.9% on that day. For comparison purposes, the next largest Fed day VIX increase was a 15.1% gain on March 15, 2011. While another VIX pop may be in the cards, history says there is a 72% chance the VIX will decline on Wednesday and that the decline should average about 2.6% or about 0.44 based on the current level of the VIX.

What is the trade here? While many will undoubtedly try to guess the direction of Wednesday’s move, the three other trades with a historical bias include:

  1. an increase in the VIX in advance of Wednesday’s announcement
  2. a continuation of any decline in the VIX from Thursday to Monday
  3. a new uptrend in the VIX beginning on Monday or Tuesday and running through the beginning of July.

[source(s): CBOE, Yahoo, VIX and More]

Related posts:

Disclosure(s): none

Friday, June 14, 2013

Using DXJ to Monitor Developments in Japanese Equities, Currency and Risk

Since Tuesday’s The Currency Carry Trade, DBV and Risk clearly resonated with quite a few investors who are struggling to put their arms around what is going on in Japan and what the implications are for U.S. equities and other asset classes, I thought I would follow up today by focusing attention on an important ETP that can be used as an indicator or for speculation and hedging: the WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity Fund (DXJ).

As the name suggests, DXJ is designed to be long Japanese equities, with no exposure to fluctuations in the Japanese yen, due to hedging of the currency. As WisdomTree puts it:

“The Fund employs an investment approach designed to track the performance of the WisdomTree Japan Hedged Equity Index. The Index and the Fund are designed to provide exposure to equity securities in Japan, while at the same time hedging exposure to fluctuations between the value of the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen. The Index and the Fund seek to track the performance of equity securities in Japan that is attributable solely to stock prices without the effect of currency fluctuations.”

While DXJ was launched back on June 16, 2006, it was not until January 15, 2013 that options began trading on this product. The introduction of options is particularly notable in that while DXJ’s price provides an aggregated view of Japanese equities net of currency fluctuations, one can also use the implied volatility data from the options prices to determine how market participants see the risk and uncertainty in currency-hedged Japanese equities going forward. The chart below shows a three-month view of DXJ, with 30-day implied volatility (red line) remaining above 20-day historical volatility (blue line) for the past five weeks, though these numbers have converged this week. Not surprisingly, options volume has picked up substantially in DXJ as of late and there has been a bullish bias (calls = green, puts = red) in that volume. What I find even more interesting, however, is that implied volatility in DXJ appears to have peaked on June 5th.

With USD/JSP breaking below 94 earlier today, clearly there is a great deal of volatility in the yen that is being hedged away by DXJ. If one were to be interested in buying Japanese equities on the dip and also wish to eliminate the currency exposure found in the likes of EWJ, then DXJ is an alternative worth considering.

On the other hand, if one is interested in monitoring Japanese equities and currency movements in one issue and/or tracking the market’s assessment of risk and uncertainty (via implied volatility), DXJ could certainly be a useful tool for those purposes as well.


Related posts:

Disclosure(s): long DXJ at time of writing; Livevol is an advertiser on VIXandMore

Thursday, June 13, 2013

ISEE Equities Only Index Prints Something Not Seen Since March 6, 2009

Put to call ratios are a permanent fixture in my indicator stable and something I have been writing about for a number of years, including an early 2007 effort, A Sentiment Primer (Long).

My perennial favorite of all the off-the-shelf put to call ratios actually inverts the traditional ratio: the ISEE equities only call to put ratio. This ratio only counts opening options purchases and excludes index and ETF products so as to provide a more targeted approach to divining what sort of speculative trades retail investors are favoring.

What got my attention yesterday was that in reviewing the components of my proprietary Aggregate Market Sentiment Indicator (AMSI) for the newsletter, I saw that the ISEE equities only call to put ratio closed under 120 (meaning less than 120 opening call purchases per 100 opening put purchases) for three consecutive days for the first time since March 6, 2009 – the date when the SPX put in its post-crisis bottom at 666 and began what has now been a bull leg that has lasted more than four years.  Not surprisingly, this kind of hat trick is typically associated with conditions in which stocks are extremely oversold and ripe for a bounce, as appears to be the case today and was certainly the case in March 2009.

For the record, the ISEE equities only call to put ratio is back in the middle of its traditional range today, most recently at 178, as the financial markets are discovering some sort of normalcy – at least outside of the context of the Japanese yen.

The chart below shows the ISEE equities only call to put ratio, using closing values for the past month, as of yesterday’s close.

Note that the ISEE ratios come in two other flavors: an index that is limited to index and ETF transactions; and an all securities index which combines the equities only data and the index + ETF data. Current and historical data for all three versions of the ISEE call to put ratios, as well as an interactive chart, are available at the ISEE Index page.

For those who may be interested in learning more about put to call ratios, I have a larger than usual list of links below to jump start your research.

[source(s): International Securities Exchange]

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Disclosure(s): none

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Currency Carry Trade, DBV and Risk

Anyone who has been active in the financial markets during the past five years knows that there are many types of risk, many ways to think about and measure risk, and invariably some risks lurking around the next corner that many of us have never bothered to contemplate. Most investors tend to focus their attention on equities and therefore have a tendency to think in terms of the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) and use that number to evaluate the relative level of risk, uncertainty or perhaps fear in the markets. That being said, during the past few years, almost everyone has become conversant in such topics as credit default swaps, the TED spread, the LIBOR-OIS spread, bank capital ratios and a whole host of concepts and statistics which were not on their radar in 2007.

For a more holistic approach to evaluating risk, there is always the St. Louis Fed’s Financial Stress Index, which is one example of an attempt to aggregate a variety of risk factors (18 in all) related to economic and financial matters into a single risk index.

One aspect of market risk that many investors continue to struggle with is the currency carry trade. If the daily movements of the dollar are relatively unimportant for those interested in buying and selling stocks that are primarily based in the U.S., then it is relatively easy for most investors to conclude that the gyrations of the Japanese yen (FXY) or Australian dollar (FXA) can be dismissed as much less important than those of the dollar. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It turns out that many investors, particularly large institutional ones, have an appetite for the currency carry trade, in which one borrows in a currency where interest rates are low and uses the proceeds to buy assets in a currency where interest rates are higher. With Japan’s central bank targeting interest rates of 0.1% and the Reserve Bank of Australia recently cutting its base rate to 2.75%, the carry trade is structured as an interest rate differential trade in which an investor can borrow in yen and then buy Australian bonds, with profitability determined by the net interest rate differential plus or minus any fluctuation in the exchange rate.

Naturally some more aggressive investors prefer to use the yen as a funding currency for the purchase of assets other than bonds, including U.S. stocks. The problem for investors in U.S. stocks is that when the yen appreciates sharply – as it did on Monday and Thursday of last week, as well as during today’s session – traders with short yen positions who are victimized by a short squeeze will be subject to margin calls and/or forced liquidations, which means that not only are they covering their short yen positions, but they are also selling any long positions in U.S. equities as both legs are unwound. For this reason, when the yen carry trade is in favor, U.S. equities tend to move in the opposite direction of the yen. Traders can monitor the strength of the yen by following the USD/JPY currency cross or the Japanese yen ETF, FXY.

An alternative to focusing entirely on the yen is to monitor the PowerShares DB G10 Currency Harvest Fund (DBV), which, as PowerShares indicates, “is composed of currency futures contracts on certain G10 currencies and is designed to exploit the trend that currencies associated with relatively high interest rates, on average, tend to rise in value relative to currencies associated with relatively low interest rates. The G10 currency universe from which the Index selects currently includes U.S. dollars, euros, Japanese yen, Canadian dollars, Swiss francs, British pounds, Australian dollars, New Zealand dollars, Norwegian krone and Swedish krona.”

In other words, DBV is a carry trade ETF that is short three currencies and long three currencies at all times, updating these holdings on a quarterly basis. The ETF is currently short the Swiss franc, the euro and the yen, with long positions in the Australian dollar, the Norwegian krone and the New Zealand dollar.

As the chart below shows, DBV has been tracking the S&P 500 index quite closely for most of the past year, but that relationship has recently broken down as DBV has plummeted while the SPX has experienced only a mild pullback. Going forward, investors should strongly consider keeping an eye on the USD/JPY cross, the FXY ETF (which is optionable) and also DBV, which provides a much broader picture of the overall carry trade – and can also serve as a proxy for the risk this trade can pose to stocks.

[In addition to the products referenced above, note that there is a currency carry trade ETF that is similar to DBV, the iPath Optimized Currency Carry ETN (ICI), but this product has considerably less liquidity.]


Related posts:

Disclosure(s): none

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