Can the SKEW/VIX predict market corrections?

Over the past few years, we have developed a series of indicators of market complacency in order to prevent investors of a sudden spike in price volatility after a long period of calm. One of them looks at the divergence between the Economic Policy Uncertainty EPU index (Baker et al., 2016), a measure of economic uncertainty based on newspaper coverage frequency, and the VIX. Figure 1 (right frame) shows that over the past few years, the EPU index has been displaying a much higher risk level that would be inferred from the options market. Some also watch the activity in the TED spread, which has been distorted since the financial crisis due to a tightening up of regulations and changes in money market funds (figure 1, right frame), and notice when it starts to stir.

Figure 1

Fig1 New

Source: Eikon Reuters

An interesting one looks at the behavior of the SKEW index relative to the VIX. As we previously mentioned, since the crash of October 1987 (Black Monday, DJ down 22.6%), investors have realized that S&P500 tail risk (returns that are under 2 or more standard deviations below the mean) is significantly greater than under a log-normal distribution. Therefore, the ‘skew’ measures the perceived tail risk of the market via the pricing of OTM options. A rise in skew indicates that ‘crash protection’ is in demand among institutional investors. A ‘low VIX/high skew’ combination says that the market is complacent, however the ‘big players’ perceive far more tail risk than usually. Therefore, a surprise increase in realized volatility may not be too far away.

Figure 2 shows the times series of the VIX, the SKEW and the weekly change in the SP500. As you can see, a sustain period of falling VIX and rising SKEW is generally followed by a sharp spike in implied volatility. For instance, while the VIX was approaching the 10 level in the summer of 2014, the SKEW index had been on a rise in the year preceding that period, rising from 113 in July 2013 to 146 in September 2014. In addition, the Fed stepped out of the bond market in October 2014 (end of QE3) and therefore exacerbated investors’ concern on the market. We then saw huge moves in both equities and bonds in the middle of that month and the 18-month period that followed was basically a flat equity market with some significant drawdowns (October 2014, August 2015 and December 2015 / January 2016). The second period we highlighted was in 2016 / 2017, which was marked by an extremely low volatility and a rising SKEW. We saw that things reverted drastically in the February VIX-termination event. Following this event, we eventually had another period of falling VIX and rising SKEW in the next months before the October sell-off. We can notice in the chart that the SKEW does not stay above the 150 threshold for too long, hence a VIX trading at around 12 and a SKEW at 150 were last summer were indicating a potential market turmoil.

Figure 2

Fig2 New (1)

Source: Eikon Reuters

The SKEW/VIX behavior does not predict a market correction all the time (i.e. the SKEW had been falling for months prior the August 2015 sell-off), however we think that investors should remain cautious when the SKEW starts to rise above 140 and the VIX remains low. While a falling VIX would push investors to increase their leverage (target vol strategies or risk parity funds), we think that looking at the two variables for portfolio construction could help reduce the potential drawdowns.

Great Chart: Italy EPU Index vs. 10Y Bond Yield

The recent results in Italian’s election held on March 4th wasn’t really a surprise for market participants, with EURUSD barely moving (the pair is actually up 2.5 figures over the past week) and the 5Y CDS spread (vs. Germany) flat at around 92bps (here). According to the latest estimates, the populist Five-Star movement, created by comedian Beppe Grillo and led by its prime ministerial candidate Luigi di Maio, came in first individually capturing 32.7% of the votes. However, if we look at the coalitions results, the Center-Right coalition got 37% of the vote shares, with the alliance including the League with 17.4%, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (14%) and the Brothers of Italy (4.4%) and US with Italy (1.3%) parties. The disappointment was for the Democratic Party, which has governed Italy since 2013, as the Center-Left coalition captured ‘only’ 23% of the vote shares (much lower than the 27+% estimates, here), prompting former PM Matteo Renzi to step down as party leader. The FT published an interesting graphic lately, showing the geography of the electoral vote: Italy, the politically divided country (here). As you can see it, the Five-Star movement made the largest gain in the South (including Sardinia), in regions with the lowest per capita income.

Hence, following the election results, an interesting chart to watch in the weeks to come is the 10Y Bond yield vs. the Italy EPU index. As a reminder, the Economic Policy Uncertainty (EPU) index was developed by Baker, Bloom and Davis (2016) as a measure of economic policy uncertainty based on newspaper coverage frequency. The authors studied the evolution of political uncertainty since 1985 across countries (12 including the US) using leading newspapers that contain a combination of three of the target terms: economy, uncertainty and one or more policy-relevant terms (For the European EPU index, the author used two leading newspapers per country). Since its inception, the index has gained popularity in practice, measuring another form of market’s volatility or uncertainty. Baker et al. found that elevated political uncertainty has negative economic effects, which can potentially impact market prices.

This chart plots the EPU index versus the Italy 10-year bond yield. We can observe an interesting correlation between the two series. Since the financial crisis, it looks like LT sovereign yields have been rising when the EPU index increased ahead of a political or economic uncertain event. For instance, during the European debt crisis of 2010 – 2012, the EPU Index for Italy rose from 75 to over 200, while the 10Y yield skyrocketed from 4% to 7%. The financial meltdown in the Euro area was then halted after ECB Draghi’s “Whatever it takes to preserve the Euro” famous words at a global investment conference in London on 26 July, 2012.

As we mentioned in our previous posts, we don’t see any imminent risk for Italy, however a potential threat to investors would be a prolonged period of political instability. The question now is: can a rise in Italian LT yields in the next few months lead to a contagion to other peripheral countries’ bond yields (i.e. Spain or Portugal, here)?

Chart: Italy EPU Index (lhs) vs. 10 bond yield 

(Source: Eikon Reuters, policyuncertainty.com)