The VIX Risk Worth Keeping On Your Radar

VIX futures options are expiring this week, while large speculators are covering their record short VIX position

Senior Vice President of Research
Feb 13, 2017 at 8:44 AM
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"With stocks rallying post-election, then stalling after the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) rate hike and forecast adjustment in mid-December, and now rallying again post-inauguration (and coincident with several executive orders on Trump's first official full day in office), the 'Trump rally' could be back, as market participants focus on the administration's moves in the first 100 days in office... There are certainly risks worth mentioning, but the most important data point to keep in mind is that equity benchmarks are at, or just below, all-time highs. In that respect, you should not disturb bullish positions."
    -- Monday Morning Outlook, January 30, 2017

"... we are in that two-week window preceding standard options expiration in which equity action is more vulnerable than usual to the influence of options open interest that has built up on indexes and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY - 229.34)... we are paying close attention to the SPY 230 and 232 call strikes. Our data indicates this open interest was primarily accumulated by option buyers, so there is the potential that the 232 strike -- equivalent to SPX 2,320 -- acts as a magnet if there is a catalyst to push SPY through the call-heavy 230 strike."
    -- Monday Morning Outlook, February 6, 2017

"We're going to ... lower the overall tax burden on American businesses big-league. That's coming along very well. We're way ahead of schedule, I believe. We're going to be announcing something, I would say, over the next two or three weeks."
    -- President Donald Trump, February 9, 2017

As I mentioned two weeks ago, the "Trump rally" could be back, after about a month-long pause immediately after the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised the fed funds rate and its forecast for the number of rate hikes in 2017. I suggested that after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, investors might shift their focus from the Fed to what is currently being perceived as policies that could be good for the economy and American businesses -- including deregulation, fairer trade, and tax reform.

With round numbers in play on several stock market benchmarks -- specifically, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA - 20,269.37), S&P 500 Index (SPX - 2,316.10), and S&P MidCap 400 Index (MID - 1,720.84), stocks moved sideways after an initial pop during Trump's first week in office.

After that initial post-inauguration stock surge, investors turned briefly back to monetary policy, as the SPX pulled back to the 2,270 area ahead of the Feb. 1 FOMC decision. I had observed the importance of this level in prior weeks, as (1) this was the index's mid-December close the day before the Fed's rate hike; and (2) this level acted as resistance in the second half of December and much of January. After the unsurprising outcome of that meeting, the SPX rallied again, but stalled just below the 2,300 century mark until Thursday.

On Thursday, bulls took the upper hand, after President Trump suggested lower corporate taxes could be coming very soon. Perhaps this was the catalyst that was needed to push the SPX above the round 2,300 level, and the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY - 231.51) above the call-heavy 230 strike that we had discussed last week. In fact, as I indicated, the call open interest buildup at the 230 and 232 strikes could act as magnets, as the sellers of those calls are forced to buy S&P futures when the SPY approaches such strikes. That said, Friday's follow-through buying was of little surprise, as the 232 strike came into play.

spy 30 minute chart 0210

As the SPX chart below indicates, equities have generally responded favorably when the White House is in focus, but have not made notable headway when monetary policy shifts back into the spotlight. I note this because we enter standard options expiration week with the possibility of investors refocusing again on monetary policy, as they weigh Saturday's remarks by Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer to start the week, and then look ahead to Fed Chair Janet Yellen's Tuesday Senate testimony and Wednesday House testimony. Additionally, multiple Fed governors will be weighing in with their own views in the middle of the week.

spx daily chart 0210

That potential shift to the monetary policy outlook this week comes as the SPY trades just below the call-heavy 232 strike -- the last major call strike "magnet," when looking at combined open interest for this Friday's standard options expiration and the following Friday's weekly 2/24 expiration series. In other words, from an options perspective, there is little upside beyond the SPY 232 strike in the immediate days ahead.

In fact, if traders perceive any negative news from Yellen or other Fed officials, long S&P futures positions associated with these big open interest calls could be unwound, generating a swift, sharp sell-off back below the SPY 230 strike. As a side note, the Russell 2000 Index (RUT - 1,388.84) enters this week trading at its early December 2016 all-time closing high, which has been an area of resistance since then.

The good news, from an options-related perspective, is that the SPY does not appear vulnerable to big put open interest strikes acting as magnets, which occurred multiple times throughout 2015 and 2016. The SPY is most vulnerable to these "delta hedging" sell-offs when big put open interest strikes reside immediately below the SPY's current price in the days preceding expiration, which is not the case at present.

spy options open interest 0210

Also of interest is CBOE Volatility Index (VIX - 10.85) futures call open interest, which -- at 7.1 million contracts -- comes into this week at its highest level since August 2015. But on Wednesday morning, more than 3 million of those calls, or 45%, are set to expire. As I said last month, it is usually after a huge number of VIX calls expire that we are most vulnerable to a volatility pop, and volatility pops usually occur in the realm of market weakness.

The latest Commitments of Traders (CoT) data shows large speculators' short positions on VIX futures are coming off a record level -- and if some of these speculators have February VIX calls as a hedge, that means the hedge is no longer in place as of this Wednesday. And the last time large speculators began covering from a record short position, in September 2016, the VIX spiked, as you can see on the chart below. This is a risk worth keeping on your radar, especially if the market gets spooked by the Fed or by disappointing news out of the White House.

COT lg spec vix futures 0210

With these risks in mind, we continue to recommend not disturbing bullish positions, particularly with equity benchmarks still trading at or near record levels. But there has been a lot of short covering, so the market will likely need another source of fuel to make another significant leg higher in the immediate days ahead.

A short-term strategy to consider, given the risks mentioned and an unwillingness to fight the trend higher, is the purchase of in-the-money call options as a "stock replacement" strategy. In other words, for every 100 shares of stock that you sell, you purchase one in-the-money call option on that underlying. In this manner, you can still participate in a continued trend higher, while at the same time decreasing your dollars at risk.   

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