The Bernanke Death Blow for Volatility.

Long suffering holders of the volatility ETF (VXX), might be celebrating over the recent price, now trading at $34 compared to $8 the week before. They better take another look.

The beleaguered fund just had a four-to-one reverse split. The price may be four times higher now, but owners now have only one-fourth as many shares. It was the only thing the managers could do to prevent the price from going to zero, where it was surely headed.

I had a brief, but unhappy experience with the (VXX) last March, when I urged readers to buy some downside protection after a torrid six month run in stocks. Once it became clear that the market was going to churn sideways instead of crash, I dumped it like a hot potato, singing my performance for the year by 3.43%. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. The ETF I bought at $23.76 and bailed on at $20 traded down to $8.

Enter Ben Bernanke. With the Federal Reserve now promising unlimited liquidity for years to come, the outlook for the new, reincarnated (VXX) looks bleak at best. Why bother paying for protection when the Fed is offering it for free? The future promises a continued slow grind sideways to down for volatility.

Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email from a reader asking if it is time to buy the (VIX). I tell them to take a long nap instead. The (VXX) will have its day in the sun, possibly sometime in 2013 when even the mighty Fed can’t hold back a tide of selling prompted by a severely deteriorating economy. Maybe it makes sense to “Sell in May and go away” again?

Mr. Market sometimes speaks in mysterious tongues, and you really have to wonder what he is struggling to tell us by taking the Volatility Index (VIX) down to low double digits.

A number of advisors have been recommending that investors load up on the (VIX) in recent months to give them downside protection from an imminent market crash. Those who followed such advice were hammered, their clients no doubt striking them off invitation lists for the coming company Christmas party.

Just last October, it touched $49, when I urged readers to pile in on the short side. I came out in the mid-$30’s weeks later.

Those who traded the triple-leveraged (TVIX) fared even worse. The best impression of an ETF going to zero that I know of, is the (TVIX). In 2011, it was trading at $110. Now it is at $1.39. This is why I plead with traders to avoid triple leveraged ETF’s like the plague. These things are designed for day-trading by hedge funds only. Eventually, they all go to zero.

I also quit recommending (VIX) plays when I realized that there is some sort of arbitrage going on in the hedge fund community that is punishing (VIX) owners. I haven’t figured out the exact mathematical dynamics yet, but it has to involve selling short the cash stocks and shorting (VIX) contracts against them. Whatever they lose on the cash short is more than made up by the profits on their (VIX) short.

So what is the 13% (VIX) really trying to tell us? Here are some thoughts:

*It is discounting multiple tranches of quantitative easing by central banks around the world that take all asset prices up for the rest of the year.

*It reflects the complete abandonment of the stock market by the individual investor, which is why trading volume has collapsed.

*It also indicates how exchange traded funds are taking over, sucking volume out of the stock market. The (VIX) doesn’t reflect activity in ETF’s.

*It could be discounting an Obama win in the presidential election. The S&P 500 has delivered a 92% return since the Obama inauguration, the third best in history after Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Mixed stock and bond portfolios have delivered the best returns in history, with both asset classes appreciating dramatically for 3 ½ years, something that never happens.

*It could be that the (VIX) at this level has it all wrong, and that a stock market selloff is about to send it soaring. Those who have rigidly held on to that belief until now have been severely tested.

For those who have fortunately avoided the (VIX) trade so far, let me give you a quick primer on the instrument. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) is a measure of the implied volatility of the S&P 500 stock index. You may know of this from the talking heads on TV, beginners, and newbies who call this the “Fear Index”.

For those of you who have a PhD in higher mathematics from MIT, the (VIX) is simply a weighted blend of prices for a range of options on the S&P 500 index. The formula uses a kernel-smoothed estimator that takes as inputs the current market prices for all out-of-the-money calls and puts for the front month and second month expirations.

The (VIX) is the square root of the par variance swap rate for a 30-day term initiated today. To get into the pricing of the individual options, please go look up your handy dandy and ever useful Black-Scholes equation. You will recall that this is the equation that derives from the Brownian motion of heat transference in metals. Got all that?

For the rest of you who do not possess a PhD in higher mathematics from MIT, and maybe scored a 450 on your math SAT test, or who don’t know what an SAT test is, this is what you need to know: When the market goes up, the (VIX) goes down. When the market goes down, the (VIX) goes up. End of story. Class dismissed.

The (VIX) is expressed in terms of the annualized movement in the S&P 500. So a (VIX) of $13 means that the market expects the index to move 3.8%, or 53 S&P 500 points up or down, over the next 30 days. You get this by calculating 13%/3.46 = 3.8%, where the square root of 12 months is 3.46. The volatility index doesn’t really care which way the stock index moves. If the S&P 500 moves more than the projected 3.8%, you make a profit on your long (VIX) positions.

Probability statistics suggest that there is a 68% chance (one standard deviation) that the next monthly market move will stay within the 3.8% range. I am going into this detail because I always get a million questions whenever I raise this subject with volatility-deprived investors.

It gets better. Futures contracts began trading on the (VIX) in 2004, and options on the futures beginning in 2006. Since then, these instruments have provided a vital means through which hedge funds control risk in their portfolios, thus providing the “hedge” in hedge fund.

But wait, there’s more. Now, erase the blackboard and start all over. Why should you care? If you buy the (VIX) here at $13, you are picking up a derivative at a nice oversold level. Only prolonged, “buy and hold” bull markets see volatility stay under $20 for any appreciable amount of time. If you don’t believe that we are in such a bull market now, you should be buying (VIX) on every dip.

A bet that euphoria doesn’t go on forever and that someday something bad will happen somewhere in the world seems like a good idea here. You would think that is a no brainer with a fiscal cliff and a 2013 recession on the horizon. But right now, the burden of proof is on the market as to exactly when the right time to do that is. And for the (VIX) to work well, bad things have to happen quickly, preferably by tomorrow.

$110 to $1.39.  Ouch!

Ben’s Death Blow to Volatility.

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