Financial Planning

How high volatility can offer investors good opportunities to buy

As I was writing this, we were just entering the month of March, following a February filled with so much negativity that I’m sure we would all just like to forget it as soon as possible.

They say that it is always darkest before the dawn, and although this may not be the answer that investors are looking for, it actually is the best advice in terms of what not necessarily to do right now. Sometimes it is better to listen to that worried little voice in your head warning you not to follow the herd. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that the worst it over, and to be honest, my crystal ball is simply not giving me any clear answers at this point. What I’m suggesting is that you should look at the past and how history can help you to think twice before you sell everything because you’re panicked.

A great tool to use in times of high volatility, is the volatility ratio (VR). Each time the volatility index (VIX) of the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) moved to levels of above 40, it was seen as the greatest opportunity to buy in the market, ever. It stayed that way until it moved back to levels of around 10, which normally acts as an indicator that the market is starting to turn.

Before I continue, however, I would like to explain how investors can use volatility not only to determine risk, but also to point out possible investment opportunities and dangers. Volatility is not a directional indicator, but rather a measure used to express changes in pricing as a percentage. If share A’s price rises from 100c to 101c, it indicates a positive change of 1%. If share B’s price moves from 200c to 198c, it is seen as a negative change of 1%. The VR of both of these shares is the same (1%), therefore the VR of share A is equal to that of share B.

The VR can be used to determine the risk of a particular investment. When an investment in a particular share, for example, has a VR of 20, it means that the investment has already moved up and down by 20% during the period in question. This means that if you do decide to buy this share, you don’t only have an opportunity to grow your investment by 20%, you also risk losing 20% of its value. The lower the VR, therefore, the lower the risk, or so it seems.

What this actually tells us, is that emotions play a massive roll in the decision-making process during times of high volatility, and investors then have the tendency to force the market to levels well below its fair value. In times of low volatility on the other hand, investors are so confident that the market will not drop to lower levels that they force it upwards – a lot like the market has behaved during the last 12 months.

The US stock market has always been considered as being in completely oversold territory when the VR reached levels of above 40, while it is considered as saturated when it moves closer to 10.

Until recently, we have seen the VIX trading at levels of around 10% on a regular basis and investors simply refused to believe that the S&P500 could experience a decline. The Coronavirus outbreak, however, has brought this gravy train to an abrupt halt, and it’s not just causing world markets to crash, but also the USA. The S&P500 has declined by 13%, just between 14 and 28 February 2020. And so, for the first time since September 2011, the VIX has closed above 40% at month-end.

Graph 1: CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) (source: Thomson Reuters/Refinitiv and PSG Wealth Old Oak)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not calling the past month’s events nothing to worry about. Clearly the uncertainty factor is still extremely high in stock markets. But historical data is showing us that now is the time to remain cool, calm and collected. Don’t let your emotions and the herd’s actions dictate your decisions. Since 1992, we have only seen the VIX close month-end at above 40% eight times. These included:

  • A massive market collapse in 1998;
  • The build up towards the war in Iraq at the end of 2002; and
  • The Great Recession and market collapse of 2008.

In each of the eight instances where the VIX measured above 40%, it was backed by good reasons. Were any of these reasons good enough to sell your shares, however? Most definitely not.

The S&P500 Index delivered the following average returns over the following periods after each of the eight occurrences:

  • 6-month returns: 20.5%
  • 1-year returns: 30.9%
  • 2-year returns: 50.6%

As mentioned before, investors shouldn’t use the VR as a directional indicator, but rather to determine risk and a possible overreaction to market events.

It doesn’t matter how you use the stock market to invest, as long as you make sure that you have done your homework properly and that if you decide to follow the herd, you don’t bite off more risk than you can chew.


The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the writer and not necessarily those of PSG. These opinions do not constitute advice.  This is intended as general information and does not form part of any financial, tax, legal or investment related advice. Although the utmost care has been taken in the research and preparation of this blog, no responsibility can be taken for actions taken based on the information contained in this blog. Since individual needs and risk profiles differ, it is always advisable to consult a qualified financial adviser before taking action.

Schalk Louw
As Portfolio Manager at PSG Wealth Old Oak and with over 20 years’ experience in the investment industry, Schalk has consistently delivered solid returns to his clients and has certainly become one of South Africa’s most well-known strategists. He started his career in 1994 at the stockbroking company, Huysamer Stals (later ABN Amro). He joined SMK Securities in 1997, (later became BoE Personal Stockbrokers) and was later appointed as director and branch manager. In 2001 he co-founded Contego Asset Management and managed the company as CEO up to March 2014, after which he joined PSG Wealth Old Oak. Schalk has also become a regular household name with investors, with his reports being published in many of the national press. He completed his MBA in 2008.

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