HOW CAN YOU TRADE THE VIX?

Investors on Wall Street tend to get very nervous during times of increased volatility like the 2008 financial crisis.

For this reason, some of them look to the CBOE Volatility Index for some downside protection during times or market turmoil.

VIX Chart Beispiel
VIX Chart Example

WHAT IS THE VIX?

The CBOE Volatility Index, known by the ticker symbol VIX, is a measure of the 30-day implied volatility of the S&P 500 based on the market prices of call and put options on the S&P 500.

Basically, the VIX index behaves as follows: When the S&P is down for the day, the index trends up. When the markets are trending up, the index is trending down.

The VIX is also often referred to as Wall Street’s “fear index” or “fear gauge.” It is used by many hedge fund managers, professional investors, analysts and individual traders to predict how volatile the stock market is likely to be in the near future.

According to the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), the concept of the VIX index was developed in 1993 by Dr. Robert Whaley. Whaley regularly writes articles on market volatility topics for Marketplace, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other financial news organizations.

However, it is important to note that while Whaley was developing the concept of the VIX index, volatility indices were first proposed by researchers Dan Galai and Menachem Brenner in 1989.

How is the VIX calculated?

Although the calculation of the VIX is somewhat complicated, you can refer to this whitepaper from the Chicago Board Options Exchange to understand the details. As mentioned earlier, the intent of the VIX is to capture the expected 30-day volatility using the option prices of the SPX index. To accomplish this, the CBOE uses two different expiration dates and calculates a weighted average.

It uses the two expiration dates that have less than 37 days and more than 23 days to expiration to set the 30-day time frame to zero.

To ensure liquidity, the calculation takes into account the options on the S&P 500. It is the indispensable link to create tradable products for arbitrage and hedging of OTC volatility derivatives. For transparency reasons, the VIX is also calculated directly from option prices in an independent model.

How is the VIX traded?

Trading the VIX involves buying products that track the volatility index. Since the launch of the VIX, more than 30 trading products have been developed that allow traders to bet on its levels.

These levels have fallen dramatically since reaching a record intraday high of 89 during the credit crisis a decade ago. In November 2017, the VIX hit a historic low of 9.14. Today, the VIX hovers around 16. The higher the VIX number, the more volatile the stock market, and vice versa.

What products can I use to trade the VIX?

To go long or short on the VIX, the following financial products are suitable:

  • Options
  • Futures
  • ETFs
  • CFDs

How to trade VIX futures

Investors cannot own the VIX itself: They can only trade instruments that track the index. There are several options available for trading Wall Street’s so-called “fear indicator.”

Two of these options are the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX) and the iPath S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures ETN (VXZ).

iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX)

One of the easiest options is to trade the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX). This product offers volatility exposure with a truly impressive average volume of approximately 36.7 million shares per day.

It offers investors exposure to a daily rolling long position in the first and second month futures contracts on the VIX. Therefore, the value of the VIX increases when the market is uncertain and volatility increases.

iPath S&P 500 VIX Medium Term Futures ETN (VXZ)

The iPath S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures ETN (VXZ) tracks the S&P 500 VIX medium-term futures total return index. VXZ holds rolling long positions in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh month VIX futures traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).

The futures are also continuously rolled from shorter-dated contracts to longer-dated contracts during the month.

Risks associated with trading the VIX

  • The “Contango” Trap

The VIX futures market is said to be in a contango state, i.e., when the current price is lower than the future price. For example, if a one-month VIX futures contract is trading at 15 and the VIX is at 12 today, the VIX futures market is in contango.

This situation presents a problem because you are essentially buying high and selling low. This causes the value of your investment to dissipate over time. If you buy VIX futures with money you can’t afford to lose, you could actually be putting your portfolio at great risk.

If you look at long-term charts of the VIX, such as the VXX below, you will notice that the VIX typically trends lower with spikes when volatility increases. This coincides with general market movements.

VXX Chart
VXX Chart

As the market spikes lower, you can expect the VIX to move higher and then drop lower as market fear subsides.

Holding a long position on the VIX for several days can be dangerous. Traders typically use the VIX as a hedge against long market positions when they feel the market is overextended.

  • Low liquidity

Another risk for traders is that liquidity on the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX) and the iPath S&P 500 VIX Mid-Term Futures ETN (VXZ) can be anemic.

Conclusion:

During times of global economic uncertainty like 2019, when extreme events occurred around the world, the stock market tends to experience extreme volatility. Such as the fierce trade war between the U.S. and China and the violent protests in Hong Kong and Europe.

Volatility is negatively correlated with market returns, which means it increases when returns decrease and vice versa.

Therefore, investors should include assets such as VIX futures that are positively correlated with volatility in their portfolios to maintain a balanced portfolio.

VIX futures provide a great opportunity to protect portfolios from sell-offs resulting from market uncertainty and to profit from implied volatility.

Most importantly, the daily display of the VIX index in a streaming chart can help active traders gain valuable and useful information about the markets. However, it is important to remember to pay attention to the risks associated with trading products linked to the index.

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