ETF Trends
ETF Trends

Last week market volatility spiked to the highest level since 2011. To some degree, this should not come as a shock; we’ve been in an unusually quiet period that was due to end at some point and now has.

Nevertheless, last week’s volatility surprised many, which raises the question of how investors should position their portfolios. What does this recent bout of volatility tell us about the economy and financial markets?

Volatility is returning to its long-term average. First, to a large extent, the recent rise in volatility points to a return to a more typical market environment. While imperfect, the VIX Index, a popular measure of the implied volatility of S&P 500 index options, provides a good illustration of this phenomenon.

Between 1990 and the end of 2011, the VIX Index averaged roughly 20%. Since the start of 2012, the VIX Index has hovered around 15%, and during the first eight months of this year, the average fell to a little over 13%. More or less, volatility has recently simply reverted to its long-term average.

The increase in volatility is consistent with past cycles. While no factor alone is responsible for the changed environment, I believe the pickup in volatility is reasonable in light of diminished expectations for global growth and less benign credit markets.

Historically, big drivers of financial market volatility have been forward looking economic conditions, credit conditions and market momentum, all of which have deteriorated over the past two months. To the extent that momentum has declined, investors expect less robust growth, and credit conditions—while still easy—are less benign than several months ago.

As the investment climate changes, it’s important to consider the investing implications of higher volatility. Here are my four key takeaways.

Momentum is likely to be less effective as a trading strategy. A change in the volatility regime can affect investor behavior. For example, during periods of extreme risk aversion, such as in 2008 and again in 2011, investors demanded liquidity and correlations climbed, temporarily negating the benefits of diversification. Obviously, the current environment is a long way from 2008 or 2011, but at the margin, higher volatility is likely to impact behavior. Specifically, a more normal volatility environment will arguably dampen enthusiasm for momentum trades.

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