Investors had taken most of the summer off as the S&P/TSX stock index drifted aimlessly, trading between 15,500 in May and 15,000 at the end of August, but since then it has undergone a steep 7.5% increase. Of course for those investors who closely follow the market, it seemed to be moving in all kinds of directions, falling for a week, rallying for two and jumping about like a chicken on a hot tin roof the rest of the time.
If investors were to glance at volatility measures however, they would come away yawning. The so-called “fear gauge” has been nothing but a sea of tranquility. The best level of fear gauge for the Canadian stock market is the Montreal Exchange’s Implied Volatility Index VIXc (or MVX prior to October 2010) which measures the implied volatility of the iShares CDN S&P/TSX 60 Fund (XIU). VIXc is a good proxy of investor sentiment for the Canadian equity market: the higher the Index, the higher the risk of market turmoil. A rising Index therefore reflects the heightened fears of investors for the coming month. A high VIXc is not necessarily bearish for stocks, as it measures the fear of volatility both to the upside as well as the downside. The highest VIXc readings will occur when investors anticipate large moves in either direction. Only when investors anticipate neither significant downside risk nor significant upside, will the VIXc be low.
The chart below shows the VIXc values as well as the S&P/TSX Stock Index. Currently the VIXc is trading around 8.2 which is very low and confirms that the market is not anticipating any dramatic swing in volatility for the foreseeable future. Low levels of implied volatility are often good periods to enter the market as the risks are relatively low. Equity markets tend to disconnect from their underlying values in periods of high volatility as investors scramble quickly to trade those shares that are coming in or going out of favour. On the other hand, a peak in volatility in down markets can be a useful indicator as it closely precedes a market bottom. Think of 2008 when the VIXc spiked to 88 nine days before the market bottomed, in 2011 the VIXc spiked to 37 the day before the market bottomed and in 2015 the VIXc spiked to the 33 which was the day the market bottomed. Following the years the Canadian stock market experienced significant declines, the VIXc shone the light on the pending major stock market recovery.
Another factor to consider when assessing the timing of a move to equities is the current cash on hand. Not only are retail investors switching from cash and bonds into equities, but hedge funds and institutional managers have been moving this way for some time. Back in 2009 hedge funds and experienced investment managers were well ahead of the retail crowd in buying up equities early in the rally, as they covered short positions and began accumulating long positions. The amount of cash on the sidelines currently has the potential to drive forward a long term equity rally. While it is difficult to say when a rally will begin, savvy investors may want to use this period of low volatility to add to equity levels.