Volatility as a Stock Replacement Strategy

Stuart Barton I October 12, 2017

Stock Replacement Strategies (SRS) attempt to replicate equity performance without directly investing in the stocks they seek to replace. A popular example of this is buying deep in-the-money call options (or 1.00 delta options) such that the price of the options will increase by $1 for every $1 increase in the underlying stock price. In-the-money options can in this way deliver the same type of exposure to a stock for a lower upfront cost than actually buying the underlying stocks, and can simultaneously reduce the risk exposure of a portfolio. Imagine a $20 strike call option on a $50 stock; if the stock were to fall to zero, the $20 strike option in the SRS would only stand to lose its premium (say $35), while a traditional long stock position would lose its entire $50 value.

But option buying is not the only way to gain equity type exposure while managing risk. Another less known strategy is to replace equity exposure in a portfolio with a smaller, Beta-adjusted exposure to a high Beta stock. For example, trading in the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX ST ETN (Ticker: XIV) has grown in popularity as it has considerably outperformed major US equity indexes in the present bull market. Presently XIV’s 5-year monthly Beta to the S&P 500 is 4.78, which given its significant outperformance, seems to make sense.[1]

But lets look a little closer at the XIV vs. equity performance. In making a comparison I’ll use the S&P 500 Total Return Index (SPTR) rather than the S&P 500 Index (SPX) because over a 5-year period the value of the dividends from the SPX do make a meaningful difference to the investment’s performance. Over the last 5 years the SPTR has gained 93%, while over the same period the XIV has gained around 456% - a return very close to what the Beta to the SPX would suggest.[2] So could an investor with $100 invested in the SPTR have done better with $21 (beta adjustment of 100/4.78) invested in XIV? Well, possibly.

One advantage of the XIV SRS would have been that only $21 rather than $100 would have been put at risk, and the investor’s maximum downside would therefore have been limited to $21 in the most extreme case. This is an important observation, because while it is easy in an extended bull market to forget, 21% drawdowns in the equity market are not that uncommon, and have actually happened 12 times since 1929.[3] Limiting maximum drawdown could therefore be seen as a key advantage of this kind of strategy by some risk adverse investors.

S&P 500 Drawdown and return statistics [4]

But XIV’s headline return over the last five years only tells us part of the story. While XIV may have outperformed the SPTR by more than 5x, XIV’s daily volatility may have proved difficult for some investors to stomach. Over the same period that the SPTR rose 93%, it suffered a maximum drawdown measured daily of just 13%, while over the same period, XIV suffered a more nerve-racking 67.8% drawdown.[5]

But what if this drawdown could have been reduced? What if the advantages of limiting maximum drawdown to just 21% could have been enhanced by employing some sort of dynamic XIV strategy rather than simply buying and holding the ETN?

Numerous XIV strategies exist, and many can be found for sale online – providers like VIX Strategies and Volatility Trading Strategies being among the leaders. Many of these strategies are based on one or another interpretation of Tony Cooper’s seminal 2013 paper ‘Easy Volatility Investing’, and while I won't go into the details of Cooper's strategies, I do encourage everyone to read his paper and have included a link to it here.[6] In that paper, Cooper points out four competing approaches that he argues might outperform a buy and hold XIV strategy - approaches he categorizes as 'Momentum', 'Roll Yield', 'Volatility Risk Premium', and 'Hedged'. Indeed, many of these strategies would have outperformed XIV considerably, and some could even have been considered less risky than buying and holding XIV.

So what if a conservative version of Cooper’s strategies could be used as an SRS instead of XIV?Well, earlier this year, Invest In Vol launched the Balanced Volatility Strategy (BVS) that combined the returns of three unique volatility trading strategies to harness what Cooper defined as the Volatility Risk Premium (VRP), or in Cooper’s words ‘the premium that an investor in some asset pays to reduce exposure to the volatility of the future returns of that asset’.[7]

Since its launch, the BVS has performed as one might expect for a conservative VRP, returning 10.95% after fees verses XIV’s 22.99%.[8] But BVS’s relative underperformance verses XIV is eclipsed by its relative drawdown over the same period. Since inception BVS has suffered a maximum drawdown measured daily of just 3.21% (Sep 8), compared with a maximum drawdown in XIV over the same period of 25.47% (Aug 16).[9] Given this ratio, one could have held an almost 8 times larger BVS position over the period to have experienced the same maximum drawdown as XIV.

Invest in Vol is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser that offers retail and institutional clients access to a selection of managed volatility strategies in one account.


[1] Reported by Google Finance as Beta = 4.78 on October 6th 2017.

[2] Data from Yahoo Finance. Performance of S&P500TR and XIV 10/5/12 – 10/4/17.

[3] Trend Following, S&P 500 Drawdown and return statistics, available at: https://www.trendfollowing.com/pdfs/sp_stats%201.pdf

[4] Trend Following, S&P 500 Drawdown and return statistics, available at: https://www.trendfollowing.com/pdfs/sp_stats%201.pdf

[5] Importantly, given a beta-adjusted portfolio, this drawdown would only have had a -14% impact on the portfolio it replaced. Beta adjusted 67%/4.78 = 14%.

[6] Cooper Tony (2013) Easy Volatility Investing. Available here: https://www.investinvol.com/single-post/2013/04/01/Easy-Volatility-Investing

[7] Cooper Tony (2013) Easy Volatility Investing, pg. 4.

[8] May 31, 2017 to October 4, 2017. Invest in Vol and Yahoo Finance.

[9] May 31, 2017 to October 4, 2017. Invest in Vol and Yahoo Finance.

Disclosure

This is not, and should not be considered investment advice. Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Carefully consider the Strategy's investment objectives, risk factors, charges and expenses before investing. This Strategy is actively managed and there is no guarantee investments selected and strategies employed will achieve the intended results. The Strategy is not diversified, and narrowly focused investments may be subject to higher risk. Strategy is subject to change.

Past performance does not guarantee future results. This information has been provided by Invest In Vol. All material presented is compiled from sources believed to be reliable and current, but accuracy cannot be guaranteed. This is not to be construed as an offer to buy or sell any financial instruments and should not be relied upon as the sole factor in an investment-making decision. References to specific securities and their issuers are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. The views and opinions expressed are those of the portfolio manager at the time of publication and are subject to change. There is no guarantee that these views will come to pass. As with all investments there are associated inherent risks. Please obtain and review all financial material carefully before investing. Investments are subject to change without notice.


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Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal and fluctuation of value. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Carefully consider the investment objectives, risk factors, charges and expenses before investing. Invest In Vol, LLC is the investment advisor for the separately managed accounts (SMAs) and advisory services; it provides investment advisory services to clients and does not sell securities. For a more complete disclosure & definitions click here. For a more complete description of our business, Form ADV 2A, and accompanying brochures, click here.

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