From Credit Trader
CBOEs recent introduction of the SKEW Index brings the realities of the options market (and real fear indexes) to retail investor's eyes. With so much attention paid to the VIX (the anachronsitic FEAR index) and especially its dropping over the last few months, investors are led to believe that risk is reducing but lo and behold, as many Pros know, the cost of protecting against a much more serious drop (or tail event) has increased quite notably with out-of-the-money options vols rising notably. The chart below shows this quite clearly as VIX (At-the-money vol) ebbs away (red arrows) as the day-to-day vol of more 'normal' mark-to-market movements is culled thanks to the liquidity fueled effervescence, the rise in out of the money (or crisis/event risk) vol has risen dramatically (white arrows). This can only go on so long as vol arbitrageurs will creep up the moneyness curve (to hedge the tail risk) and eventually impact the ATM. This happened in early 2010 and is happening again currently.
The recent moves in the major credit indices also fits with this world view as any smarter-than-the-average bear capital structure arbitrageur knows that the skew (and specifically the out of the money vol market) has a much better relationship with credit than the near-the-money. One other potential way to think of this (hattip to Artemis recent article on this) is that the skew better represents the real market value of the Bernanke Put (i.e. how much is the market pricing in the never-ending story of a Fed-provided safety net) - perhaps notable that the SKEW began to rise very shortly after Jackson Hole and the QE2 plan came online.