The VIX has recently flirted with its all-time closing low, analysts worry that volatility has been so low for so long that analysts are worried that the next sizable negative shock will cause investors to panic and dump their holdings.
Other than a handful of selloffs over the past couple of years (Aug. 2015, Jan. 2016, June 2016), Federal Reserve-led easing has guided markets steadily higher since the crisis. As MarketWatch reports, The Dow hasn’t experienced a 5% drop since 2011, and before that a 5% drop hadn’t happened since 2008, when there were 9 such drops. The blue-chip index closed at a record high on Friday, leaving it just 200 points shy of 22,000. At this level, a 5% selloff would equate to a 1,100-point, one-day slide in the gauge – an eye-popping four-digit drop.
Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, says the market isn’t prepared for a large selloff because "garden-variety" volatility has been largely absent from US stocks for the last year.
"'I would say no because we’re out of practice. Your usual standard garden-variety volatility just hasn’t been around, and we haven’t seen it for 12 months,' Hogan told MarketWatch.
'Quiet markets have been the norm and not the exception and I think a major pullback is going to feel a whole lot larger for lack of experience and the numbers are larger,' he said.”
Hogan isn’t the first strategist to point out the market’s vulnerability to a sharp rise in the VIX. As Morgan Stanley’s Chris Metli said in a research note exploring what a “short vol unwind” might look like. Low volatility has produced a regime where the risks are asymmetric and negatively convex, so being prepared for an unwind is critical, since a 3% or 4% move in the S&P 500 can have a disproportionately large impact on the VIX as dealers and exchange-traded products rush to hedge.
According to Marketwatch and Dow Jones data, even a 2.5% drop in the Dow, adding up a 550-point decline, could rattle investors. Moves of this magnitude, while still relatively rare, are far more frequent, with 564 such moves occurring in the Dow since 1901. The most recent slump of this magnitude occurred on June 24, the day after the Brexit vote, when the Dow tumbled about 610 points, or 3.4%. There were three such moves in 2015. The S&P 500 is also long overdue for a major pullback.
As for the S&P 500, 61 of the past 67 years have seen at least one 5% drop, or 91% of all years, according to Ryan Detrick, senior market strategist, at LPL Financial.
"‘The inevitable 5% drop will be a shock to nearly everyone,’ Detrick said. ‘We’ve been historically spoiled so far this year, but as the economic cycle ages, we fully expect more volatility the remainder of this year and the likely 5% correction to take place as well,’ he said.”
Still, it’s important for investors to remember that while a 5% might “feel like 1987,” it’s necessary to “flush out the weak hands,” Detrick says.
“The important thing to remember is the Fed is still accommodative, earnings continue to improve globally, and inflation is contained – meaning any pullback could be a nice opportunity to add equity exposure.
Although a 5% correction might feel like 1987 to some of us about now, pullbacks and volatility are perfectly normal parts of bull markets and are needed to flush out the weak hands.”
Market luminaries including billionaire investor Howard Marks and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller have warned investors to be cautious. According to Shiller’s CAPE ratio, a popular measure of equity valuations, S&P 500 valuations are at levels only seen twice before: in 1929 and 2000. Shiller said on CNBC Thursday that he “lies awake worrying” about how long this period of quiet will last. Doubleline Capital founder Jeff Gundlach said his fund bought up VIX calls when the index hit its most recent lows.
To be sure, investors are willing to pay a premium for protection. According to Bank of America, the market has never "trusted" the VIX as little as it does now, and has never before been willing to pay, and bet, more for upcoming imminent sharp moves.