Trade: Long XIV (short term trade) Current price: 31.86 Expected price: 41.46 Upside: 30% Time horizon: 2 to 6 months
VIX measures 30 days implied volatility of the S&P 500 options. It rises when markets are down and can increase significantly in a day depending on the velocity of the fall. When VIX remains normal to low, we see contango in the VIX futures, which means future prices are above spot price. In contango, future prices (which are at a premium to spot price) can be shorted and covered on or before the contract expiration to make a profit (aka roll yield), as future prices decline to converge with spot price when they get closer to expiration date (see figure below).
When VIX spikes, we see backwardation in the VIX futures. In backwardation future prices trade below spot prices and one can play exactly opposite to contango (go long futures and cover the position on or before the contract expiration) to make a profit.
However, for volatility (VIX), there are two important points to consider:
1) Mean-reversion: VIX is the most mean-reverting thing and even in the worst recessions, it hasn’t stayed at elevated levels. It would spike up and then go back to its mean or lower than mean. Below table shows percentage of times VIX has spiked since its inception in Jan 1990 (24 years of historical data), and has remained at those levels.
From the table above, it is clear that when VIX level reaches 22 or more, shorting VIX becomes a high probability bet, at least historically. As of 10 October 2014, VIX closed at 21.24. Historically VIX has been at or above those levels only 34% of the times, which means approximately 66% of the times its been below 21.24. Also, at these elevated levels probability of increasing even higher decreases exponentially. For example, as evident in the table above, historically VIX of 22 and above has been recorded only 31% of the times; but 24 and above only 23% of the times. In essence, if VIX spikes up at levels above 22ish, the probability that it will go even higher reduces significantly. As long as there is no imminent recession in the short term, the spikes do not remain at elevated levels and mean revert soon. Even if S&P 500 index does not increase, overtime volatility would decline, which means VIX would go down.
2) Contango: The other advantage of shorting VIX (volatility products) at these high levels is that, historically, VIX futures have been in contango more than 70% of the time and in backwardation less than 30%. As mentioned above, Contango is good for shorting VIX futures. As you can see in the below chart, from 2009 until current date (October 2014), VIX has mostly been in Contango. That means shorting VIX would mostly make money due to roll yield. As of 10 October 2014, VIX was in backwardation, closing at 21.24. Backwardation in the volatility exists during turbulent times, and the VIX spikes and exceeds the price of one or more of its futures contracts. However all turbulent events, big or small, are temporary. When they fade VIX returns to its normal level.
Strategy: XIV is an ETN that tries to replicate the inverse of the daily performance of VIX. XIV shorts varying amounts of the front and second month VIX futures contracts and covers at expiration. Because of this, XIV collects roll yield, which can be positive or negative depending on whether the VIX term structure is in contango or backwardation, respectively. Since more than 70% of the time VIX is in contango (as mentioned in point 2 above), XIV generates positive yield most of the times.
However, since XIV is an inverse ETN and is rebalanced every day, this results in a quite a bit of time decay. XIV has a high volatility, which also means bigger time decay losses.
That said, XIV can be very interesting for short-term trades if you buy it on VIX spikes and sell it in a few months when volatility subsides, due to its mean-reversion nature. Going long XIV when VIX is in backwardation has proven to be an extremely lucrative strategy as backwardation in volatility market do not last that long. With a drastic VIX spike, as we saw on 10 October 2014, VIX entered in backwardation, closing at 21.24. As mentioned above, historically VIX has been at or above those levels only 34% of the times, which means approximately 66% of the times its been below 21.24. This means shorting VIX (volatility related products) or going long XIV is a high probability bet. Current fall in the market is a correction and VIX should revert back to lower levels. If it does, XIV could see an upside of 30% or more in 3 to 6 months.
The trade could benefit in 2 ways,
Lastly, the below chart shows a 50 day 3 standard deviation event for XIV, which has never sustained and prices have always risen from such a dramatic decline (mainly due to VIX mean-reversion and that historically VIX futures have been in contango more than 70% of the time).
source: Yahoo finance
Disclosure: Long XIV