The High Stakes of Low Volatility

by Ted Hart

As mentioned in our lead article, the S&P 500 is up 14.3% this year through the third quarter. With that gain, the market has witnessed the second-longest period without a 3% pullback since 1928. If this streak continues through October, the S&P 500 will set the record for longest such period. On top of that, the average range between daily highs and lows on the index is also hitting historical bottoms. Investors are attributing this low volatility to a number of factors, some of which include passive and quantitative investing strategies. In fact, many of these approaches might be providing investors competitive returns. However, all of them ignore company fundamentals and can often push stocks higher without any regard for how a company or an industry is performing. Money has poured into these strategies in the past few years. As volatility inevitably rises, these trades should begin to unwind.

Passive investing is the most basic form of this investment trend and simply involves investing money in a stock market index, such as the S&P 500. This strategy has rewarded investors over the course of the bull market, but despite having low fees, it still has a few flaws. To maintain the proportional stock weightings of a given index, the fund or ETF provider must buy shares in stocks that have increased, and sell shares in stocks that have decreased. This can lead to overvaluation of the companies that are consistently bought (think Netflix). In addition, because of the flows to passive investment vehicles, Goldman Sachs estimates that the average stock in the S&P 500 trades on fundamental news only 77% of the time, down from 95% ten years ago. When the markets eventually turn south and investors pull their money from these indexed products, the forced selling will likely create a cascade effect as index fund suppliers are forced to sell securities to meet investor redemptions.

Risk parity is another investment strategy that often ignores company fundamentals and feeds off low volatility. Risk parity investors make investments in a company, index, or asset class based on volatility. The strategy targets a specific volatility measure and will typically be buying securities as the volatility is declining and selling securities when volatility rises above the target. Recently, risk parity strategies have pointed to holding more stocks than bonds as the volatility of stocks has significantly declined. As volatility increases, the recent trends should flip as risk parity strategies begin selling stocks and proceed to buy bonds to “pare the risk.” Many investors believe that because risk parity strategies have grown, the forced selling could create a sharp selloff in stocks – possibly creating an opportunity for the patient investor.

While these strategies continue to push stocks higher and investors likely buy every dip in the market, market liquidity is also plentiful. As a result, buyers of stocks and ETFs are not having difficulty finding sellers and vice versa – sellers of stocks and ETFs are easily finding buyers. In fact, since the Federal Reserve started tracking the data, the M2 money supply (which includes checking accounts and mutual funds) as a percentage of nominal GDP has never been higher. The elevated levels of liquidity in the markets can be the result of many factors, including the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing policy and low interest rates. QE, as it is known, took the Fed’s balance sheet from just under $1 trillion in 2009 to over $4 trillion today. Also adding to liquidity are additional flows into ETFs, particularly from the retail investor.

No matter what the cause of low volatility and rising markets, we at Tufton continue to search for new investment ideas and monitor our buy prices. As one investor said, “Investments are the only business where when things go on sale, everyone runs out of the store.” Whenever that happens, we will be right at the front door.