How The Entire Short Volatility ETF Complex Could Be Wiped Out Overnight

Excerpted from Artemis Capital Management letter to investors,

Global central banking has artificially incentivized bets on mean reversion resulting in tremendous demand to short volatility.  The growth of short volatility exchange traded products (“ETPs”) since 2012 is nothing short of extraordinary and at the end of August, total short volatility assets exceeded long for only the second time in history. The rise of this short complex is intrinsically linked to the recent schizophrenic behavior of the VIX and adds significant shadow convexity to markets.

Velocity Shares Daily Inverse VIX (“XIV”) is the largest of these short VIX ETPs and has a cult-like following among day traders. Although the product has gained +111% since 2012, when decomposed on a risk-adjusted basis, it basically resembles a 3x levered position in the S&P 500 index with more risk. As the short and leveraged volatility complex becomes more dominant it is contributing to dangerous self-reinforcing feedback loops with unknowable consequences.

Many retail investors simply do not understand that short and leveraged volatility ETPs rebalance non-linearly (see below). To the casual observer it may appear that short and long assets counterbalance one another but this is not the case. For example if the first two VIX futures move 20% higher the short volatility ETP providers must buy an estimated 33% more volatility (vs. 25% for long) to balance that exposure. The first rule of derivatives hedging is that you never hedge a non-linear risk with a linear tool.  The mismatch means a large move in spot-volatility in either direction requires excessive buying or selling pressure whenever short volatility assets are dominant. Therein lies the problem. Falling volatility begets falling volatility and rising volatility begets rising volatility.

The great unknown is that this massive short volatility animal that appears tame given a regular diet of central bank liquidity may turn wild when that liquidity is removed. The wrong ‘risk-off’ event may expose a hidden liquidity gap in the short VIX complex that could unleash a monster. Artemis has attempted to quantify this theoretical liquidity gap by gauging the percentage of VIX open interest and volume required by exchange-traded products for rebalancing.

During recent market stress points such as October 2014 and August 2015 the short and leveraged volatility ETP complex required upward of 40-50% of the total liquidity of VIX futures as measured by average trading volume and open interest. Consider that the largest one day VIX move in history was the +64% jump that occurred on February 27, 2007 when the VIX went from 11.15 to 18.31. This was not even a period of high financial stress! If a similar volatility spike occurred today, given the current size of the short VIX complex, the ETPs by themselves would require an estimated 95% of the liquidity for rebalancing!

This would drive the price of the VIX futures up further exacerbating the nonlinearity. The VIX futures market may struggle to absorb the demand for long volatility. Dealers seeking to plug the liquidity gap would purchase S&P 500 options and forward variance swaps. The excess buying pressure exerted from the short-volatility complex would then push spot-VIX higher contributing to panic selling in the underlying S&P 500 index and a vicious and self-reinforcing cycle of fear followed by horror.

The recent bi-polar behavior in spot-VIX empirically supports the theory that a structural weakness now exists in this market by crowding of short volatility players. The shot across the bow for the short volatility complex came during the August 24th correction when SPX futures opened limit down and the CBOE struggled for 30 minutes to calculate the VIX. By the time the VIX level was finally calculated it opened 25 points higher at 53.29, before falling to 28 intra-day, then rebounding to 40.74 by the close, with the S&P 500 index down -3.9%.

At the time of the crash, the assets in long VIX ETPs outnumbered shorts on a two to one basis however, the complex still required an estimated 25% to 46% of market liquidity between August 21 and 24th.  Markets delivered historic volatility-of-volatility despite relatively mild historical declines in the S&P 500 index.  It is important to understand that markets have experienced much more dramatic oneday losses across history than what occurred in August 2015. For example on August 8th 2011, the market suffered a oneday decline of -6.7%. September to December 2008 experienced ten declines of more than -5%, and on Black Monday 1987, the market fell an incredible -20.5% in one day. During the Black Monday 1987 crash implied volatility in the S&P 100 index more than tripled going from 36.37 to 150.19.

If the VIX experienced any of these historic moves at current levels of short convexity the entire $2bn+ short volatility ETP complex would likely be wiped out overnight.

Short volatility sellers ridicule the fact that the prospectus for the iPath Long Volatility ST Index (VXX) clearly states that the ETF has an expected long-term return of zero. They should ask themselves, is it better to know with certainty you are going to go bankrupt slowly, or be completely ignorant of the fact you will go bankrupt suddenly.