Remains of a volatility short

Markets are ecosystems. And like any ecology, markets can come to favor organisms with certain traits over arbitrary time periods. In the natural world, dinosaurs flourished when the global climate favored their biology. Then, quite suddenly, that changed. National Geographic tells it like this:

Scientists tend to huddle around one of two hypotheses that may explain the Cretaceous extinction: an extraterrestrial impact, such as an asteroidor comet, or a massive bout of volcanism. Either scenario would have choked the skies with debris that starved the Earth of the sun’s energy, throwing a wrench in photosynthesis and sending destruction up and down the food chain. Once the dust settled, greenhouse gases locked in the atmosphere would have caused the temperature to soar, a swift climate swing to topple much of the life that survived the prolonged darkness.

This is not so much different from those who got wiped out holding large positions in XIV. Short volatility strategies thrived in a market environment that for years has favored long duration assets (long term bonds, high growth stocks, cryptocurrencies) and dip-buying any market decline. When the market environment changed, suddenly and violently, the short volatility trade blew up. Years of gains vaporized in a single day.


Over the past couple of years I have begun to believe there are tremendous benefits to viewing markets through an evolutionary and/or ecological lens. I think this helps you focus on a range of variables impacting the markets, versus wearing blinders that limit you to valuation, momentum, or whatever it is you consider your “thing.” So when a particular asset class catches a strong bid, here are some things I consider:

If this is a cash flow producing asset, what is the relationship between the intrinsic value of the cash flows and the market price? For stocks it is not especially difficult to use the market price and a simple DCF model to derive a market implied IRR. For bonds just check the yield to maturity, yield to call, yield to worst, etc. This gives you an idea of how investors are pricing risk.

Who is driving flows into or out of a sector or asset class? Mutual funds look at the world differently from hedge funds, which look at the world differently from banks and insurance companies. Each of these players has different objectives and constraints, which will impact their behavior as market conditions change.

Are the players driving flows into the asset weak or strong hands? Retail investors are the weakest hands in the markets. I consider many mutual funds weak hands also (depends on the fund family). Mutual fund flows are driven by retail investors and their financial advisors, who are notorious for chasing performance.

How highly levered are the players driving flows into the asset? Leverage can drive extraordinary returns, but it also creates fragility. When deleveraging events occur, prices can collapse suddenly. Many of the short volatility players who got blown up recently didn’t understand the magnitude of the leverage embedded in their positions.

What exogenous factors are driving flows into this asset class? Is an asset in demand due to expectations for low interest rates, low inflation, or other macroeconomic variables? Macro conditions are fickle, and human beings are notoriously poor forecasters.

The most fragile market ecology is one where weak hands are using leverage to play some exogenous variable with known unstable or mean-reverting properties. From this perspective, systematically shorting volatility was stupendously risky–a form of Russian roulette. A large number of retail investors were trading instruments (volatility linked ETPs) with significant embedded leverage, placing a massive directional bet on low rates, low inflation and market momentum.

A market ecology I believe is extremely fragile, but hasn’t blown up yet, is high yield debt. This is an asset class that is highly leveraged by definition, and has attracted massive flows from yield-starved investors. Strong flows have pushed prices up to the point where future expected returns are dismally low, and protective covenants are the weakest on record. Perhaps worst of all, there is a liquidity mismatch between the ETPs (HYG, JNK, etc.) providing investors with easy access to high yield debt and the underlying high yield bonds. For a preview of what happens when a liquidity mismatch meets a stampede for the exits, refer to Third Avenue Focused Credit.

Next stop: Adaptive Markets by Andrew Lo.

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