We often say the VIX measures fear as well as ambient volatility. But after the last few years of longing for the market mood to get back to normal, this is a great moment to reflect on how “normal” really feels.
Standard & Poor’s says the median read on the VIX is still a little above 17, which is a level we really haven’t seen since this wild year got started. If you’re looking for “normal,” wait for the VIX to recede back to where it was at the start of January.
It will happen. Because we’re taking the median here, we have statistical guidance that Wall Street spends half its time wrestling with higher volatility . . . and the other half basking in relative quiet.
Try to remember how you felt at the start of the year. Were you excited or nervous? That’s your gauge of how a normal day in the market lines up with YOUR nerves right now.
And the only right answer is the honest one. If you spent that week grinding your teeth, go back a little farther to the late October earnings season, when the VIX got all the way down to 15.
Did those weeks feel good and hit the right balance between boredom and exhilaration? If so, great. Otherwise, what the VIX is really saying is that the market is too unsettled to make you happy.
Everyone has a pain point. When the VIX gets too high for your comfort, you don’t have to run all the way to cash for shelter . . . there are always going to be less volatile corners of the market that can give you the experience you need.
I have to say that “value” sectors and dividend-paying stocks have earned their reputation as relatively serene pockets of safety in stormy cycles. That’s why my Value Authority has such a loyal following.
But maybe you’re loving this market environment because you’ve figured out that the long-term returns are worth the day-to-day headaches. You have high conviction and enough courage to plow through obstacles along the way to your goal.
In that scenario, congratulations. Volatility has been a little elevated in the last few months but it’s all part of the regular market weather.
Even the recent VIX spike going into the recent Fed meeting was “normal” compared to previous shocks and storms going back to 2004. Yes, the extremes (2008, 2020) were extreme, but long-term investors know now that they can survive even those grueling seasons.
And remember, the VIX theoretically goes as low as 0 and as high as 100. The mathematical middle of those limits is 50.
Barely two years ago, the fear index hit a lifetime high of 82, which implies that the S&P 500 will move about 4.6% a day in the coming month. That’s almost as bad as it gets.
The moves don’t get much wilder without triggering market trading halts. And even if every single day in that month points down, the VIX at that level already prices in something like the end of the world . . . taking the value of American companies down to near zero.
It didn’t happen. There’s little point in betting that it will, because in that kind of apocalyptic scenario it’s likely that your winnings will be meaningless even if you find a way to collect.
What really happened is that fear in the market approached absolute maximum. The pandemic scared people. Many wanted cash to ride out the storm and they all grabbed it at once.
That’s a volatility spike. The VIX shot up to an extreme level and the last few years have gradually taken it back down to something like normal.
Then the Fed raised the fear level again. Nobody knew what would happen when overnight interest rates edged back above zero for the first time since 2020 . . . was the post-pandemic economy strong enough to bear the weight?
Everyone reading this knows the answer. We survived the pandemic shock. We survived the Fed. That’s a huge relief.
Someone who held their breath and held onto the S&P 500 across every single VIX spike going back to the index’s birth in 2004 would have quadrupled their money. I think that’s worth it.
That’s a normal reward for taking on the risk of the entire VIX cycle . . . the long calm periods as well as the short and unnerving spikes. It’s about 6.5% a year compounded.
And that’s just the “random walk” of buying the index and holding. Someone who picked individual stocks could have done better. They could also have done worse.
If you think the next 20 years will be roughly as choppy as the last few decades, that’s what history suggests a “normal” market environment delivers. And if we’re going into a more volatile cycle, the right stock picks can outperform, provide a smoother ride or both.
Pick your spots. I’ll be talking more about whether the VIX itself has become distorted as investors get tired of shock after shock . . . as far as I’m concerned, this is an opportunity.