Whether Vol is High or Low, Gamma Trading Can Exploit Opportunity
Alternative Team Perspectives by Jason Hill
February 20, 2019
In 2017, volatility reached historically low levels—the S&P 500 had zero moves greater than 2% and only eight between 1-2%. In 2018, volatility kicked into a higher gear, with 64 days where the S&P 500 Index moved 1-2% and 20 days with moves greater than 2%.
While 2018 may have seemed particularly volatile, the average VIX level for the year was only 16.6, below the 10-year average of 18.5. With volatility returning to more normal levels, 2019 could see even more volatility.
Investors may not like the return of volatility, but it can strengthen the tailwinds for the gamma trading we do in our market neutral income strategy (see page 32).
The more volatility in the market, the more stocks rise and fall—which can give us more opportunities to sell high and buy low.
But, what if volatility declines again or stays at more normal levels? The good news is that gamma trading is a versatile strategy. In an environment like 2017 when overall market moves were at a minimum, one might assume there were limited opportunities for us to profit from gamma trading. Although we did see somewhat muted convertible arbitrage returns because of the low vol environment, low volatility in the S&P 500, VIX and other major indexes does not always mean low volatility for individual stocks.
We can still find many gamma-trading opportunities even in low volatility environments:
- 1. Sector rotations and individual stock volatility versus index volatility. For example, if the market is experiencing a sector rotation, Utility Stock A could be down 10%, while Tech Stock B is up 10%. Individually, these are very large stock moves, but if Stock A and Stock B were in the same index, their moves would cancel each other out, in theory. So, while there could be a major sector rotation going on along with substantial single-stock moves, overall index volatility could still be very low.
- 2. Company-specific events. Companies release earnings throughout the year and this creates many opportunities to trade. It is common to see greater than 2 or 3 standard deviation moves following earnings releases as well as other company-specific events and announcements.
- 3. Smaller market-cap companies. Small and mid-sized companies represent about half of the U.S. convertible market. These smaller market-cap companies typically have higher historic and forecasted volatility levels than larger cap stocks.
While we’ve seen index volatility snap back in a major way, it is important to remember that gamma trading can be profitable in many different market environments and does not rely solely on elevated broad market volatility.
Alternative investing strategies, such as gamma trading, are not appropriate for all investors. The value of a convertible security is influenced by changes in interest rates, with investment value declining as interest rates increase and increasing as interest rates decline. The credit standing of the issuer and other factors also may have an effect on the convertible security’s investment value.
The VIX (CBOE volatility index) is the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatility Index, which shows the market’s expectation of 30-day volatility. It is constructed using the implied volatilities of a wide range of S&P 500 index options. The S&P 500 Index is considered generally representative of U.S. stocks. Indexes are unmanaged, do not include fees or expenses and are not available for direct investment.
The opinions referenced are as of the date of publication and are subject to change due to changes in the market or economic conditions and may not necessarily come to pass. Information contained herein is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice.