Published on January 31st 2013
A corollary of this Austrian view of the VIX is that under a system with simultaneously a gold standard (i.e. commodity backed currency) AND a 100% reserve requirement (i.e. no credit multiplier), the weight of implied correlations in the determination of a forward looking implied volatility index should be irrelevant.
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: January 31 2013
The collapsing CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) and its implication that it is now safe to dive into equities has received much attention in the press (see here and here). Today, I want to briefly discuss what this index represents and implies
What is the VIX?
The VIX is a forward looking implied volatility index calculated by the Chicago Board Options Exchange (“CBOE”). The index is constructed by creating a ‘synthetic option’ based on prices paid for puts and calls on the S&P 500 on any given day. More plainly, the VIX is an attempt to measure future volatility (implied volatility) based on how much the market is willing to pay today for put and call options.
Option premiums are priced using the Black Scholes pricing formula, which ironically, was invented by the fine folks who brought you Long Term Capital Management. The formula assumes that:
a) Price volatility follows a normal distribution (i.e. price changes are of a continuous nature and about 95% of the values lie within two standard deviations), and
b) There is a risk free-rate of return.
Trading of options tends to focus on volatility expectations. Should market participants think volatility will be higher in the future, they will bid up the price of the index options, or the reverse, if they think volatility will be lower in the future. The VIX therefore follows the implied volatility of S&P 500 options.
A word of caution
A factor often overlooked on the VIX is the correlation of price returns among the constituents (stocks of the S&P500 index) of the index. Correlation has a relevant impact on the VIX, because in a world of fiat money and aggregate leverage (i.e. banks do not have a 100% reserve requirement):
a) In a rush for liquidity (i.e. everyone is looking for the exits at the same time) all stocks are sold regardless of relative fundamentals, and
b) When liquidity is injected by central banks, stocks rise in tandem, regardless of relative fundamentals
Therefore, implied correlations are significantly driven by the liquidity policies of central banks. When liquidity evaporates, correlation pushes the VIX more than implied by the underlying component volatilities.
An “Austrian” view
Should we care about implied volatility when the future is unknowable? Can we assume a normal distribution to discount the probability of rare events? Can we not have a sound theory to understand an economic system, rather than rely on implied volatilities and correlations?
In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb likens statistical forecasting of human action to the life of a turkey:
As a young turkey is growing up, he is fed a plentiful amount of grain each day from the loving farmer. Weeks and months go by and the turkey continues to be well taken care of. He develops a love for the farmer and is convinced with strong statistical significance that tomorrow will be just as lovely as today. The trouble is that one day, the turkey wakes up and it’s Thanksgiving and the loving farmer “brings the turkey to market” so to speak.
Taleb’ s example should elucidate that with human action, statistical prediction is paradoxical. In the same fashion, to guide one’s views on a low VIX fundamentally ignores the reality that liquidity conditions are prone to sudden violent changes, which will impact correlations.
As I elaborated more than a year ago (here, here and here), when the Fed extends US dollar currency swaps (even if they are not used) or when the Swiss National Bank pegged its currency to the Euro, their balance sheet are coupled to those of other central banks. This coupling weakens correlations across and within asset classes, as liquidity is injected. The compression in the VIX, in my opinion, has been driven by monetary policy, rather than a genuine recovery in productivity/equity valuations.
In a recent note by Barclays’ US Equity Derivatives Strategy team ( see “A small kink in the volatility term structure”, Index Volatility Weekly, January 14th, 2013), the authors suggest that since “…stock implied volatilities are already at their 2006 levels, a further decline in VIX should have to be driven by a decline in implied correlations…”. My guess is that we will not get to that decline as long as the Euro zone remains “breakable”. This would be consistent with my Austrian view on the VIX and a test of this view would be the reaction in implied correlations to an improvement in the Target 2 balances or an advance towards a banking union. If any or both of these issues show a resolution, the implied correlations and the VIX will still have room to get lower, with a Euro at obscenely higher levels. Finally, I am not convinced that there can be a clear impact on correlations from the ongoing global currency wars. One can argue either way that the wars can increase (i.e. liquidity is injected) or decrease (cooperation among central banks risk breaking up) correlations.
A corollary of this Austrian view of the VIX is that under a system with simultaneously a gold standard (i.e. commodity backed currency) AND a 100% reserve requirement (i.e. no credit multiplier), the weight of implied correlations in the determination of a forward looking implied volatility index should be irrelevant. There would be no reason to think that the relative volatility of the index constituents should be correlated. And just like Fermat found the margin of his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica too small, I too don’t find enough space in this article to include “the truly remarkable proof” of this corollary.
Balck Scholes,banks,correlation,coupling,credit,gold,liquidity,Nassim Taleb,normal distribution,VIX,volatility
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Published on March 18th 2012
In 2012, Greece and increasingly other peripheral EU countries owe to other governments, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Private investors have been wiped out and will not return any moment soon. We fear that just like in 1931, when the next bailout is due either for Greece again or Portugal or Spain, political conditions will be demanded that no private investor in his/her right mind would ever have demanded.
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: March 18 2012
We are back from Washington DC and realize that we could choose different titles for today’s letter. Let’s try a few…
Title No.1: “The market proved us wrong”
Indeed, we have been, and continue to be, long term gold bulls. We have been buying dips in gold and find ourselves having averaged down on our holdings, as gold did not find a floor in the low $1,700/oz, nor $1,695/oz or even $1,660/oz. Averaging down is the sure way to ruin and wisdom calls for trimming rather than increasing one’s exposure to a falling asset. And we trimmed only a bit and stopped buying, with the belief that it will prove a wrong decision, but with the unemotional duty to survive. As we write, we learn that there’s an article on the Financial Times telling us that central banks (not the Fed, of course) have been doing the same, only better than us: They really added!
We have no doubts that the plunge in gold on February 29th was simple manipulation and it is only this reason that encourages us to hold on to what we have. With respect to stocks, we continue to remain neutral of them, not willing to buy but also, not willing to short them. From conversations with friends and readers, we noticed that we have not explained ourselves appropriately. Therefore, we want to briefly stop here to provide these short comments:
The popular view on inflation is that which sees it coming from a steady increase in the supply of money spilled over onto assets, lifting investments, increasing employment, wages and later the price of every consumption good. If the price of assets and the employment rate rise, it is understood that the original goal by the central banker, that of lifting the level of activity with monetary easing, is working and that soon, that easing will disappear, followed by an increase in interest rates.
The problem we have with this view is personal. Unfortunately, we lived through inflation and remember it differently. Inflation is a steal. It is a tax charged by the government. And they charge this tax because they run a deficit. No government would nor will ever target inflation under surplus or balanced fiscal conditions. Inflation is the distortion of relative prices, and it always starts with that of the cost of capital. It is a manipulation first of the cost of capital, then of commodities and followed by price controls: First on goods and later on salaries. It entails control on capital flows (which we are currently seeing everywhere in the world), currencies, and financial repression. Therefore, our view is different: Inflation does not bring full employment. That’s a myth. Inflation creates unemployment. Under inflation, production does not rise lifting prices. That’s another myth. Under inflation, production falls, creating shortages of goods, which is what further shifts the inflationary process to hyperinflation. If a country like the US manages to have the rest of the world finance that shortage of goods, that’s another story and it will last as long as the rest of the world wants it to last. But we should be clear on the underlying process. If you have any doubts, just drive around the former industrial areas in the outskirts of Buffalo, Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, etc. and you will picture what we’re talking about here.
As we explained at the beginning of the year, the rally in stocks and in gold was expected. It was only three weeks ago that the world was injected with more than half a trillion Euros in 3-yr liquidity lines!!! But gold was manipulated and stocks were not. And we have gold at below its 200-day moving average and the capitalization of Apple Inc. at higher than half a trillion US dollars, without Steve Jobs as CEO. Take this as you wish. In the meantime, on Friday we saw a violent increase in US yields, followed by demand, that kept the 30-yr Treasury yield below 3.5%, which is what brings us to the next possible title, for today’s letter…
Title No. 2: “Financial repression, Stage 1”
Perhaps the most clear exposition of financial repression occurred this week, when President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron openly threatened to manipulate crude reserves to lower the price of oil. The sense of embarrassment is gone. The leaders of two world powers meet and tell us in our faces that they contemplate manipulating the reserves of a commodity? What is going on? We, at “A View from the Trenches” take signals of repression like this one seriously. It was only a few years ago that governments started running after people’s assets in other jurisdictions. They followed with open repression in the foreign exchange markets (Switzerland pegging the Franc, Brazil controlling capital flows). They kept on directing the lending activities of banks. They manipulate the reserves in gold. They wiped out investors in sovereign debt and this is a trend that will not weaken but strengthen. Perhaps our readers don’t, but we do see union strikes more often these days vs. in past years. How can any entrepreneur in these conditions feel encouraged to invest in increasing the productivity of his/her business? They cannot and all they are doing and will be doing is maintain what they have, refinance their liabilities longer term for cheaper rates and use every excess cash they count on to increase their dividends, as a way to cash out in a world where the price of equity, the price of risk, is anything but clear. We remember those times in Argentina when suddenly, bankrupt companies were owned by rich businessmen. One thing is to invest in dividend producing companies, with dividends driven by stable and healthy cash flows. Another thing is to invest under the illusion that those exist, when in fact the dividends are the only outlet entrepreneurs have to cash out with bank debt. We think we are witnessing the latter case but, as followers of Von Hayek, we can understand the confusion, because the price system is broken and the signals sent by prices are misleading. We need to quote the great Friederich A. Von Hayek here, on the price system:
“…The price system is just one of those formations which man has learned to use (though he is still very far from having learned to make the best use of it) after he had stumbled upon it without understanding it. Through it not only a division of labor but also a coordinated utilization of resources based upon an equally divided knowledge has become possible. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do…(…)… I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind…” F.A. Von Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, American Economic Review. XXXV, No. 4., September 1945
The actions of central banks have totally annihilated the price system, in relation to both the inter-temporal allocation of resources and the capitalization structure of economic systems. This brings us to our last title…
Title No. 3: “Remember the KreditAnstalt”
Since the debt swap of Greece’s sovereign debt, in terms of the capitalization structure of this sovereign, we understand that more than two thirds of it is in the hands of the public sector (European Central Bank, IMF, other governments) and highly collateralized. This is a point we have been thinking during last week because it painfully reminds us of the KreditAnstalt crisis of 1931. We highly recommend readers to do their own research on this topic and to reach their own conclusions. On our part, we are interested in one angle of it.
The KreditAnstalt of 1931 had been created in October of 1929, as the merger between the bankrupt Bodenkreditanstalt and the Öesterreichischekreditanstalt. However, the distressed assets of the Bodenkreditanstalt’s were too distressed to deal with. Given the Austrian regulations on capital requirements, when on May 11th, 1931 the KreditAnstalt disclosed a 140MM Schilling loss, it immediately suffered a run on deposits. The Österreichische Nationalbank intervened, loaning 152.5MM Schillings. The Bank of International Settlements loaned an additional 100MM Schillings three days later. But by June, more funds were needed and this time….this time the Bank of International Settlements, under a request from the French, would only provide them if the Austrian government aborted a customs union with Germany, which was underway. The Austrian government did not accept the political condition and instead only received a third of the funds needed, from the Bank of England, on June 16th.
In the meantime, the Austrian government had been forced to guarantee the bank’s foreign deposits and imposed exchange controls to sustain the convertibility of the Schilling to gold. But the violence of the capital outflows was so strong that Austrialeft the gold standard on June 17th. Unlike Greece, Austrians in 1931 did not have the 3-yr liquidity lines from Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank. These events triggered a wave of bank defaults in Eastern Europe and Germany. Gold eventually also was withdrawn from London. In July, the Federal Reserve Banks and the Bank of France saved the Bank of England with currency swaps of US$650 million and £eq.25 million, respectively. But this was not enough and Great Britain had to leave the gold standard on September 21st. The countries that held sterling pounds as foreign reserves suffered heavy losses.
Fiat currencies were no longer to be trusted and the run on deposits was now taking place in the United States. Think of this: As Europe owed the US payment in specie and Europe had gone off the gold standard…who was the Fed going to recover the loaned money (approx. the equivalent of 465 metric tonnes of gold) back from??? We have written about this before too, in relation to the swaps extended by the Fed to the European Central Bank. If the Eurozone breaks up, who is the Fed going to recover the money from? They will not. But unlike back in 1931, the US dollar is not backed by gold and depositors are not going to run for their funds to exchange them into gold. However the Fed will need to undoubtedly print more US dollars and the devaluation, eventually, will happen anyway. The year 1931 was the year of bank failures in America. In 1932, after a bank holiday that lasted a week, the US government confiscated gold from its citizens.
The question you may have in mind now is what similarity do we see with the current situation? Well, this whole series of events was triggered because France, a public sector creditor, introduced a political condition to Austria, in exchange for a bailout of the KreditAnstalt. Today, like in 1931, in the Eurozone, the public sector is increasingly the creditor of the public sector. In 1931,England andFrance were creditors of Austria and demanded conditions that no private investor would have demanded.
Private investors live and die by their profits and losses. Politicians live and die by the votes they get. Private investors worry about the sustainability and capital structure of the borrower, the collateralization and the funding profile of their credits. Politicians worry about the sustainability of their power. It’s a fact and we must learn to live with it.
In 2012, Greece and increasingly other peripheral EU countries owe to other governments, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Private investors have been wiped out and will not return any moment soon. We fear that just like in 1931, when the next bailout is due either for Greece again or Portugal or Spain, political conditions will be demanded that no private investor in his/her right mind would ever have demanded. Think of it…What in the world had the customs union between Austria and Germany in 1931 had to do with the capitalization ratio of the KreditAnstalt??? Nothing! Yet, millions and millions of people worldwide were condemned to misery in only a matter of days as their savings evaporated! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of fiat currencies! You have been warned! If months from now you read in the papers that the EU Council irresponsibly demands strange things from a peripheral country in need of a bailout, remember the KreditAnstalt. Remember 1931…
Please, understand that this is not a tail risk. The tail risk is precisely the opposite. The real tail risk here is that when the next bailout comes due, politicians think like private investors and give priority to economic rather than political considerations. That’s the tail risk! If such a crisis occurred, the media will speak of increased correlations and tell you that everything is actually fine on this side of the Atlantic. But if you read us, you will know that all that led to such a situation was perfectly foreseeable and nothing is really fine on this side of the Atlantic either. You will have remembered 1931…
1931,Atlantic,central banks,correlation,currency swaps,ECB,Fed,financial repression,gold,Greece,Hayek,KreditAnstalt,price system,stocks,swaps
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Published on May 4th 2009
Some brief comments on 3 issues the markets have lately been paying attention to: Steepening credit curves, Sovereign CDS and Banks stress tests
Please, click here to read this letter in .pdf format: may-4-2009
Finally, Friday came with the data on the ISM Index, which was at 40.1 vs. expected of 38.4. On an absolute basis, main street still looks awful, but everyone makes the case that the so called “second derivative” is signaling there is light at the end of the tunnel. As I have been repeating since March 18th, the positive news relies on the Treasuries, GSE debt and securities purchases by the Fed. On Friday, the sell-off in Treasuries continued. The yield on the 30-yr Tsy is now above 4%. And yield, agency and credit curves have steepened considerably during last week. The news on Chrysler and the delay in the release of the stress tests results have left stocks on a wait-and-see mode. The S&P500 at 877.52pts is up a bit over 1% in the week. The inflationist policy in April has pushed a lot of short-covering in the credit space. The CDX IG12 ended at 163/165bps. But High Grade, High Yield, Loans, Convertibles and Mortgages have all tightened significantly too.
- May 1st, 2009: 30-yr Treasury (white) vs. S&P500 (orange)
Source: Bloomberg Analysis: Tincho’s Letter
Some brief comments on 3 issues the markets have lately been paying attention to:
- Steepened credit curves: Most analysis on this is either descriptive or focused on the specific fundamentals. This is short sighted. The steepening is the natural outcome of the inflationist process. It could also be called re-leverage. The different degrees of steepening and liquidity points we see are another proof of the non-neutrality of inflation, which is also impacting correlation in structured credit. Think of this: Without central banks, the only inverted curves you would ever see would be at the single-name level. But we do have central banks…
- Sovereign CDS: The recent tightening in this space is purely technical. Like any other spread, the sovereign spread should compensate for expected losses: spread = prob. of default x loss given default. In the case of developed sovereigns, the probability of default would be that of systemic collapse, after which huge inflation surges, resulting in a considerable currency debasement (=loss given default or loss given systemic collapse). Now, this probability has not yet fully disappeared, while the currency debasement is just starting. Thus, from a fundamental perspective, sovereign spreads should be widening. And they are, but this is only taking place in the bond market (i.e. Treasuries), where yields keep climbing.
- Banks stress tests: The US Govt. wants well capitalized banks. This is all idiocy. In our leveraged world, it is a mistake to think that the banks’ capital’s task is to allow the redemption of funds, when clients have lost confidence in their banks. The confidence that banks and the loans they have issued enjoy is indivisible. No risk management policy or capital requirements adopted on the banks’ initiative or forced upon them can remedy this. Given the ongoing inflationist policy, regurgitating this issue only brings unnecessary political risk to the table = If the Fed will keep bidding on assets and print our way out of this, they should shut up and just do it! Asking for more capital or more lending or even targeting an inflation rate is hypocrisy and it only adds expensive noise (volatility) to a trend!
This week is heavy in Treasury supply: $35bn 3-yr auction (Tues), $22 bn 10-yr (Wed), and $14 bn 30-yr (Thur). With Transmission spreads (LIBOR, LIBOR-OIS and Comm. Paper) collapsing, what could bring a reversal (lower lows in stocks, wider wides in credit)? POLITICS! Behaviour like the one shown in the chart above, between 10:30am and 2pm, when govt. debt and stocks enter or exit for the same doors AND the outlet valve of foreign exchange acts as a thermometer, MUST BE AVOIDED. (What happened on Friday between 10:30am and 2pm, AND AFTER?)
Agency,Banks stress tests,capital,cds,CDX,Chrysler,Commercial Paper,Convertibles,correlation,credit curve,currency debasement,expected losses,GSE,High Grade,High Yield,IG12,inflation,ISM Index,LIBOR,LIBOR-OIS,liquidity,Loans,loss given default,Mortgages,second derivative,sovereign,steepen,Treasuries,yield
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