In recent years there has been a distinct change in the market as it relates to the “reaction function” of traders vis-a-vis volatility: whereas in the past (i.e. prior to the 2008 financial crisis) sliding volatility was a clear signal for both risk appreciation and broad market participation, ever since central banks took over both bond and equity markets over the past decade, collapsing vol has been increasingly seen as a warning sign that something is just not right, that central banks as part of their vol suppression strategy are artificially reducing the market’s perception of risk, and as such, high risk prices are artificial.
One need look no further than market action in 2019 where despite fresh record highs in the S&P – mostly the product of the Fed’s sudden tightening bias reversal and subsequent easing by both the US central bank and its global peers – equity outflows have hit an unprecedented pace, with continued stock upside attributable almost exclusively to stock buybacks, forced short squeezes and delta and gamma-imbalanced dealer books, where the higher equities rise, the greater the “forced chase” by dealer to keep bidding stocks even higher. Meanwhile, both institutional and retail investors have continued to flee global equities as the chart below from EPFR summarizing broad asset flows shows.
Another confirmation that low vol is no longer seen as a broad participatory signal are market volumes, which continue to shrink the higher markets rise; an indirect validation of the lack of faith in record asset prices.
While not addressing this topic explicitly, in his latest note, everyone’s favorite credit derivatives post modernist, Deutsche Bank’s Aleksandar Kocic who with every subsequent analysis transforms himself ever closer to the linguistic equivalent of a financial Slavoj Zizek, look at the perception of volatility in recent years, particularly through its circular interplay with broader market leverage, and writes that in the post-central bank era, the “leverage-volatility cycle has been disrupted and its amplitudes attenuated – there are no more booms and busts, just mellow undulations around slower growth and benign inflation.“
Taking a somewhat different approach than our assessment, Kocic writes that in the past, low volatility was a signal of build-up of latent risk due to vol-leverage dynamics, as “low volatility leads to excessive risk taking and misallocation of capital, which ultimately results in forced deleveraging”, and after several cycles the markets learned that these dynamics are an inherent aspect of market functioning. As a result, the vol-leverage trajectory has become “an outward spiral” and “in each subsequent sweep, leverage is higher and risk premia compression more extreme than in the previous episode, leading, naturally, to a deeper crisis and a need for an even more extreme policy response.” Then, resorting to every Austrian’s favorite Schumpeterian “creative destruction” analogy, Kocic writes that if stability is indeed destabilizing, then the main challenge lies not in how to avoid the mistakes, but instead in how to control their costs, and answers that “post-2008, this has been addressed by regulations, and policy adjustments.” In short, central banks step in every time the cycle of vol-leverage dynamics threatens to spiral out of control.
Perhaps as a result of this now constant “Fed put”, which emerged so vividly in late December 2018, Kocic writes that while “in the past, fear has had bad reputation — it stood as a sign of incompleteness, something one needs to outgrow”, the “post-2008 period can be seen effectively as an exoneration of fear”:
Fear has become a sign of wisdom, elevated to a new heuristic or cognitive principle. On the back of this shift in attitude, the resulting excessive caution by both investors and policy makers led to generally lower risk tolerance and has been the leading cause of gradual collapse of market volatility.
While this does not directly address our fundamental thesis, namely that the prevailing sentiment toward low vol has been turned upside down due to central bank intervention, and is no longer a sign of “all clear, the water is warm” by investors but is rather a symbol of foreboding – confirmation that central banks are worried and are therefore artificially suppressing vol – Kocic next looks at just how the leverage-vol cycle broke down within the financial sector, where despite the collapse in vol, leverage never managed to recover.
As such, Kocic believes that the “financial sector was the center of leverage transmission pre-2008” and was essential for converting low volatility into high leverage, which was seen as one of the main engines of growth. This is shown in the chart below, which shows the history of financial subsector of the S&P index overlaid with the levels of volatility on the inverted axis. Periods of low volatility were most profitable for financial institutions as they provided the main engine for conversion of credit into liquidity risk.
And while prior to the 2008 crisis, the “prosperity of financial sector and low volatility show high degree of coordination”, the subsequent departure is a consequence of the changes in the regulatory environment and redistribution of leverage away from the financial into corporate sector, something which Kocic shows in the next chart.
This transition of leverage away from the financial to other sectors had singificant consequences for all aspect of risk prices, and naturally, for volatility. As Kocic explains the “rationale of this maneuver” when it comes to credit risk, “corporate sector is more transparent than the combination of households and financial sectors together. By resyphoning leverage from financials and households to corporates and government, risk has been made less systemic and the margin of error in assessing and monitoring the aggregate credit risk and its misrepresentations in the markets have been reduced.”
Superficially, this is good news, because as a result of the decline in financial sector leverage, “there are no longer casualties of big “collisions”, only parking accidents” as Kocic puts it:
This redistribution of leverage has put the speed limit on possible future encounters with forced deleveraging associated with booms and busts. There are no longer casualties of big “collisions”, only parking accidents.
And yet, going back to the Schumpeter analogy above, if the system is preemptively absolved from the risk of crashes, it also remove the potential for substantial real growth, or as the DB strategist puts it, “reducing and constraining the leverage of financial sector also confines its propagation into the economy. Although stabilizing, in the existing paradigm, this appears to stifle growth — by preventing bad behavior, in the economy which is dependent on financialization, the system is deprived of one of the main engines of growth.”
How do interest rates fit into this?
While the above discussion explains the drift in the traditional relationship between leverage and volatility, there is another distinct historical correlation between the yield curve (which in recent months has gotten abnormal focus due to its inversion) and volatility surface which recently have “topologically converged to each other”, or as Kocic explains, “the curve is on the verge of inversion and the surface on the verge of disinversion” and elaborates as follows: “While Inverted curve appears ominous (at least, in the eyes of the market), disinverted vol surface is soothing — it predicts persistent and uninterrupted calm”, even though we would disagree with this simplistic assessment of the vol surface which, as most traders will admit, reflect nothing more than central bank vol suppression, and therefore the more “normal” the vol surface appears, paradoxically the greater the level of underlying angst.
In fact, we are disappointed that Kocic seems to agree with the far more simplistic explanation, on which absolves the yield curve inversion of any ominous signaling, while suggesting that the disinverted vol surface should be taken at face value, and that any lingering concerns about low vol, or the “residual (consensus) discomfort before ominously low vol” is merely a “consequence of the aftertaste of previous crises when the current regulations were absent.”
Perhaps Kocic was listening to the latest Zizek audiobook when central banks injected their $20th trillion of liquidity in the artificial “markets” or when now chair Powell was making the stunning admission in 2012 that the Fed has a “short volatility position” to appreciate just how naive such an argument is, especially when other traders see right the farce of low vol and also right through the superficial sophistry of anyone who tries to underscore just how credible low volatility is… but we digress.
What is more interesting is not Kocic’s philosophical beliefs in what vol may or may not be telling us, but his quantification of the correlation between the vol surface and the yield curve… and how this has changed over time.
As the DB strategist writes, while the shape of curve and volatility term structure have a logical connection, “their relationship has undergone structural shifts as a consequence of significant changes in the market structure and conditions.” To wit, Kocic highlights three distinct regimes between these two key market vairables.
This is shown in the next chart which highlights the interplay between inversion of the vol surface and the 10s/30s slope of the curve. When seen in this context, Kocic claims that the current flattening of the yield curve is consistent with the surface if taken for what it really is, i.e. as a result of compression of risk premia, rather than a forecast of recession.
Looking at the three temporal regimes defined by Kocic, we start with…
Pre-2008: here, in this pre-central bank time, vol and curve were unified by carry. Kocic explains: “While logically the two are related, the transmission that reinforced that bond was mortgage convexity hedging. As both recession and mortgage prepayment are low rates phenomena, bid for rates volatility was reinforced in recessionary markets as mortgage hedgers became more active. Curve moved in bull steepening and bear flattening mode. Volatile bull steepening and calm bear flatteners associated with rate hikes were the stylized facts of that period.”
Post-2008: To the DB strategist, this period marks “the period of nationalization of negative mortgage convexity and severance of the traditional transmission mechanisms as well as the structural shift between the curve and vol interaction.” The front end of the curve was anchored and the referendum on effectiveness of the monetary policy was expressed by the back end. Bull flatteners marked volatile risk-off episodes while bear steepeners, being a positive verdict on QE, were calming, risk-on modes.
Describing the post-2008 phase in other words, the post-QE period “marks a gradual and systematic curve flattening while vol remained low and surface disinverted” amid the collapse of risk premia. To make his point that the yield curve is no longer signal but merely noise, i.e., it chases vol, Kocic claims that “the curve has converged to where volatility surface has already settled. The flattening pressure was a function of the tight fiscal policy, regulations, and supply shocks in oil.” As such the post-2014 sub-period marks “a systematic compression of risk premia across the board with markets continuing to align with slower growth, lack of excitement across extended horizons and a likely shift towards more aggressive savings.”
Going back to his analogy that we no live in a period where “there are no longer casualties of big “collisions”, only parking accidents”, Kocic next argues that this mode of curve repricing is consistent with the expectations of mild shocks and their persistent effect, and that the vol market “has captured this through low mean reversion, with lower vol and surface inversion remaining in a tight range, while other risk premia collapsed (Figure).”
Assuming this take is accurate, what does it imply for the future of volatility?
In the context of the reflexive relationship between vol and yield, at this point, volatility would appear to be a prisoner of the curve. Regressing to an analogy he has repeatedly used in the past, Kocic argues that the spread between short and long rate – “the playground that defines the range of what can possibly happen” – is now so tight that it does not allow any substantial range in rates, and therefore no meaningful rise in volatility.
The logical next question is what could prompt a spike in the spread in rates, to which the “derivative(s) Zizek” writes that “outside of tail risk, the first step in creating conditions for bear steepeners is a move towards tolerating higher inflation. This could be achieved by a change of inflation targeting policy. Additional disorder could follow the relaxing of the regulatory constraints, which would free bank balance sheets and boost the credit impulse that could possibly stimulate investment and in turn lead to higher productivity growth.”
However, a problem emerges, as the demand-side has to be addressed at the same time. Indeed, the new technologies that would attract investment now destroy more jobs than they create as “the old paradigm does not seem to be capable of achieving these goals; it has failed to deliver desired results, while the new one is politically difficult to pass.” This, then brings us to the above core argument, namely that any effort in this direction is a source of further political volatility and dissipation of consensus which further stifles change. Paradoxically, one event that could restore some vol is an easier Fed, or as Kocic explains:
Adjustment of monetary policy through rate cuts would free some room for rates to move by opening the policy gap, the spread between long rate and near-term Fed expectations, from below. This is a temporary rise in realized volatility but without steepening of the long end of the curve.
Which brings us to the conclusion: barring the abovementioned “fat tail”, Kocic asks “have we reached the end” of the post-2008 phase of collapsing vol and flattening yield curve, and parallel to that “what could create conditions for volatility return?”
The answer here is that while there are two directions of curve-vol reshaping, Kocic argues that the main boost for volatility “is to liberate the right side of the (rates) distribution” which would mean “that higher rates and steeper curve have to be allowed.” In this mode, gamma would lead the way followed by the disinversion of the long-dated sector. The chart below shows two directions of change, i.e. curve first needs to steepen before realized volatility can rise.
This is also the “vol shift mode that could take us closer to the tail risk as concentrated risks in the corporates.” Incidentally, this takes us back full circle to what so many analysts believe will be the source of the next crisis: the wholesale prolapse of the BBB-rated investment grade space, a tsunami of “fallen angels” that would obliterate the junk bond market as it more than doubles in size overnight from $1.1 trillion, and catalyzes the next financial crash. Or, as Kocic puts it, “the global hunt for yield has encouraged investors to move down the credit spectrum to enhance returns. Within the IG universe, BBB issuance has grown significantly.” This is shown in the chart below, which shows that more than 50% of the entire IG index is now BBB-rated.
To Kocic, this is also the most negatively convex sector which is sensitive to spread wideners in steepening sell off. In other words, a possible wholesale downgrade to BB or lower would result in disorderly unwind of positions of the IG money managers which would be capable of raising volatility significantly. From there it would promptly spread to the rest of the market, and global economy, and lead to the next financial crisis. What happens to vol then should be clear to anyone.
The good news is that, at least in the near term, it appears that not much can go wrong as “there seems to be an embedded mechanism that dampens the volatility away from the upper left corner.” In fact, and ironically, at this moment it appears that the Fed seems to be the only source of shocks with their effects localized at the front end of the curve and the upper left corner of the volatility surface. For long tenor vol (gamma or vega alike) to revive, we need bear steepening of the curve.
That said, to Kocic the worst case scenario, as note above, is a bear-steepener, which “is seen as tail risk that would cause the most violent repricing in credit.” Which incidentally is precisely what we said one month ago, if with far fewer words in “Curve Inversion Is Bad, But It’s The Steepening After That Kills.”