Schaeffer's Market Mashup Podcast Zooms in on the VIX and Election Volatility

What the options market is implying about the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

Managing Editor
Nov 2, 2020 at 7:32 AM
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Four days from the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, Patrick sits down with Dave Kovtun, Institutional Sales and Options Specialist at Jane Street and Henry Schwartz, Head of Product Intelligence at Cboe Global Markets for a special episode of Schaeffer's Market Mashup podcast. Dave, Henry, and Patrick talk what the options market is implying about the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election (7:45), scheduled volatility and unscheduled volatility (20:08), and what to expect once the election is over and we enter 2021 (27:40)


Transcript of Schaeffer's Market Mashup Podcast: November 2, 2020

Patrick: Alright, ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Schaeffer's Market Mashup. I am very excited for this week's episode. Please, welcome back head of product intelligence at CBOE global markets, Henry Schwartz, and the new guy, David Kovtun, institutional sales and options specialist at Jane Street.

David Kovtun: Hey guys. 

Henry Schwartz: Patrick good to be with you.

Patrick: So, to make it easier on listeners. How about we just have you guys introduce each other, you know, feel free to do a little Alan Parsons project introduction and maybe gas up your guys' Heights, athletic abilities. Let's see what you guys got.

Henry Schwartz: This is a funny team builder. Okay, so Dave Kovtun is with us from Jane street group, which is a one of the most active option and ETF market makers on the street. You might have to edit this and fix it. Dave has been in the business for almost 45 years. Alright, maybe about 15 or 20 years and knows the ins and outs on the trading and the brokers side. And he's a really nice guy.

Patrick: Wonderful. It sounds like a power forward.

Dave Kovtun: Henry, appreciate that nice intro 15, 20 pretty good markets. Been 22 years in the business as a trader and an institutional salesperson and did join Jane street in the middle of 2018. And across from me, we've got Henry Schwartz, been following his work for a long time. All the insights he's shared with us through the business he built the trade alert and it's been great. What did we say? 5 - 10, Henry on a good day?

Henry Schwartz: With platform [unclear 02:10] absolutely.                    

Dave Kovtun: Excellent. But no, it's great to be here.          

Patrick: Wow.

Am I the tallest person on the podcast right now? That is I check in at six feet.

Dave Kovtun:  Really? You do not sound that tall.

Patrick: I know I'm six feet, 150 pounds soaking wet, but yeah, there you go. 

Dave Kovtun: Wow, bless you.     

Henry Schwartz: At least I outweigh you.

Patrick: I feel really good right now. Anyway, it is Friday, October 30th. We are four days from a very important historic market moving event. People are talking about it, everyone is running around wildly screaming and the panic buttons are being hit. Of course, I'm talking about the NFL trade deadline. I really thought about avoiding the dumb, like oh, there's something important going on next week, dad joke. But since I feel like those have jumped the shark these days, but I couldn't resist. I think it's because the bangles made like their first in season trade in a decade earlier. So anyway, it has been a heck of a week leading up to the 2020 election in the three days of this trading week, the Dow has lost 1800 points and is down triple digits again today.

But this episode will be focused on VOL and the VIX back on March 16th; the CBOE VOL index hit a new all-time closing high of 82.69. And in the months leading up to the election, expected VOL has been driven significantly higher when compared to election years of the past. But now there's been a shift over the past few weeks and there's been a lot going on. And I think it's great to have two VOL experts here to articulate what on earth is going on, without further ado, let's start at the beginning. What has changed in terms of VOL sentiment when comparing the past few weeks to the uncertainty we witnessed in the marketplace for the first six months of 2020 Henry how about you take that one first

Henry Schwartz: Well, sure. I mean the beginning of this year well, the very beginning of the year was nice and mellow. We came in and you know, at the money VOL and VIX was kind of in that the high teen range which, you know really is kind of the long-term average. And then obviously COVID took us all for a shocking ride. You know, we saw that, that all time new closing, I for VIX over 82 you know, we hadn't seen that since 2008. So you know, everybody kind of did what, you know, truly went into panic mode. There was a month there, you know, the March was very ugly in terms of performance was a really challenging one in terms of liquidity for the options markets and you know, things kind of stabilized.

And we kind of got into this little bit of a routine you know, with VIX kind of hanging around near 30 for really the rest of the year. And then you know, things actually kind of started to stabilize and it almost looked like people were really looking past the election. You know, at the beginning of October when the polls started to tip and we went from the situation where there was an implied kind of prolonged period of exceptional VOL. Post-election, too things feeling a little bit more normal, you know, and the Trump structure, reflecting that. And although the last couple of days, you know, this sell off has, certainly lifted an implied VOL with VIXs. The, specifically looking at that the election bump is what we were calling it at the moment it's not looking like there’s any dire fear of this protracted contested election at the moment. I don't know, Dave, do you agree with that? 

Dave Kovtun: Well, yeah, I know a couple of things to unpack there. I mean, I just love in the middle. You said, you know, after the March blow up, and then the VIX kind of just hung around 30. Like, I don't think we can kind of overstate what that means. The VIX hanging around 30 for the better part of the year because if we think back to like every time the markets had a drawdown kind of this decade, most of the time, what is the playbook been? It's basically monetize your put options, sell your options, you're in the money puts while you can, because the reversion, the snapback was so quick, you would get these like screaming rallies. VOL would go back down to, you know, VIX 12, VIX 13. The fact that it is consistently held around 30, I think is remarkable.

And like, I don't think we can under [unclear 07:07] that enough. And it's really kind of set the backdrop for this election. And if you look at like, just the day we're having today, I got, I couldn't close my Bloomberg just cause God forbid we dropped another 50 handles, but that kind of base VOL, the VOL before you even talk about the event is so elevated right now. It's really got all option premiums up. So, you know, while the actual event premium may not be crazy when added to the kind of existing base VOL you know, these options are not cheap.

Patrick: Right. So to be clear, what does that indicate about the options market, of the option markets view of this 2020 presidential election and how does this sentiment come through in directional cues?

Dave Kovtun: Sure. Yeah, no, Henry was talking about kind of protracted event and I know, you know, kind of the last month or two people have been nervous about this thing really dragging on. We kind of break down those weekly options. I mean, it's amazing nowadays SPX options expire every Monday, every Wednesday, every Friday, every week of the year. That allows one to be really granular, right? You can break down these really narrow windows and say, what is the VOL implied between Monday and Wednesday? What's the VOL implied between Wednesday and Friday? When we think about kind of the VOL surface at Jane Street, we think about this baseball, this VOL that's been just really, really elevated since March. And that's kind of contributing approximately half to that option premium that an investor is paying and then the XS is the event VOL. And we kind of see that event VOL contribute into options pricing around to November 9th. 

So while it doesn't look like it's going to be this long drawn out thing, the option market, it's definitely looking for some sort of post-election uncertainty, controversy in that kind of Wednesday, Thursday, Friday window, you know, in a kind of typical election get your votes in Tuesday. They call it late Tuesday, early Wednesday, you get a concession speech by the loser and now, you know, the market will totally discount them into market prices on Wednesday. This time doesn't look so simple so I guess the interesting thing about that is if you're looking at this selection, you say, you know what, I think this thing is more of a done deal one way or another. And I think it might go smoothly and we might get a result, good clean result on Tuesday night, and we price it on Wednesday. You know, you might have a trade to do in terms of selling that foreign VOL in between Thursday and Friday. And obviously that's a risky trade anytime you're short in VOL, but I think it's important to understand the option of the market's willing to compensate someone kind of for taking the other side that this thing might just play out kind of cut dry.

Patrick: No, that's fascinating. And I love the way you broke that down on a per day basis. I feel like that's very easily distinguishable for investors to kind of look and articulate Henry, what else do you got on that?

Henry Schwartz: Well I agree. And the, you know, thinking about it, you know, it's easy for VOL to kind of swamp people with, you know, and, math and, but, you know, if you take it at the simplest level, right, when, you know, when you're talking about annualized VOL. You can divide it by 16 to get the daily VOL rights where root 2 52. So you know, with, at the money VOL in the 30 something range, you know, you're looking at you know, 2% moves right at the money VOL around 16, and you're looking at about 1% moves, kind of, you know, typical right, because standard deviation. And so looking at where that the elevated near-term comes back down and it determines the term structure does let you see kind of where people are expecting and where the market is expecting the swings to be larger.         

And I was just listening to Amy Wolf from RBC was on Bloomberg yesterday, I think, and you've asked her, like, what does this market want? And she said, look, the market just wants a clear decision that doesn't want things to get ugly. And you know, currently we definitely are looking at, you know, swings, you know, closer to you know, the 3% range for a few days after expiration. In fact, you know, SPX over the beginning of this week, there were some pretty big trades using the November 6th, November 4th expiration, which I thought was really funny. Because that would be a, you know, a really decisive election, it's all clear by the morning.

Patrick: That's chaotic. 

Henry Schwartz: Yeah and then, and these happened to be upside call spreads, but and then some for the sixth and you know, we haven't seen a ton of positioning out longer except for what we saw in VIX which was those big February and March PUT spreads. Which, you know, that's another kind of vote for things stabilizing, but that one was a little, much longer time horizon, you know, maybe they were trying to cover the fact that things might get ugly for a month or two, and then smooth out early next year.

Patrick: Right. So for some historical context at the 2000 election was the last one that was decided, I think it went until the first week of December. So, you know, maybe that's kind of what those people in the end are leaning towards, who can say at this point. But I do want to compare specifically how this year stacks up from an options perspective to the 2016 setup?

Dave Kovtun: Yeah, absolutely. And just to echo Henry with that, those call spreads that's definitely some of the biggest trading we've seen. They kind of attach around 3,500, so they've gotten a little bit of a setback just given that we've sold off the last couple of days, but that's definitely a position to watch in the S and P. In terms of kind of thinking about the setup versus 2016, kind of two major differences, right, 2016, I think we're all guilty of a little revisionist history and that we think about Brexit. And we think about the night that the election, you know, when they called Florida and S and P futures, like went and do a nose dive, and we kind of think of it as this really high VOL year. But if you go back and look at it, you know, we recouped those Brexit losses pretty quickly.

And from like mid-July all the way to the doorstep of the election, like November, you know, up to say November 1st, the VIX only averaged around 13 or so in that period, like realized VOL was quite low you know, thinking around 11. So it wasn't that sustained high VOL and I can't emphasize enough how remarkable it is that we've held high VOL all year, this year. So it's just a totally different kind of base point that we were going into and, you know, those terms, structure charts that Henry referred to earlier we were looking at those together earlier this week. I mean, I think at the money VOL in S and P going in 2016 was still just in its kind of mid-teens. And as we're recording this, the VIX is at 44 four 0 right now.

So totally kind of different environment. It was just a lot cheaper on an absolute basis to buy options for 2016. I don't think it felt to investors like such a commitment, like to take a shot at one way or another on a long option strategy. It, when VOL is at four and the VIX is at 40, it can feel pretty punitive if you buy a bunch of options and then the market moves against you right away, like in the case of these call spreads. You know, that's a pretty big mark to market loss right away. So I think the high VOL definitely has some people sitting on the sidelines. I also just want to touch on what we talk about the skewness, when we think about skewer, essentially just comparing out of the money options against other out of the money options say PUTS versus CALLS.

And that's really the options market way of saying if there's going to be a big event, which way is that big move likely to be you know, higher or lower? 2016 was definitely kind of a downside risk set up. Like the kind of conventional wisdom was, you know, if Hillary Clinton wins the election the market might rally say a percent and a half. If Trump wins the election seemed a lot less likely. He was like 20% and a lot of the prediction markets in polls the market might go down four and a half percent. So really asymmetric and the setup this time well, I guess thinking back, we got it as a market collective, the collective wisdom of the market was totally wrong. In fact, the underdog did win yet stocks ended up ripping. So I think the market kind of

collectively feels chastened by the whole experience. And if you try to look into the skew this time about whether it looks like an upside or downside kind of fear, it's a lot less clear, kind of all options are pretty elevated. And I don't think the market wants to kind of simplify the framework like this candidate good, that candidate, bad. I just don't think it's that simple.

Patrick: Yeah, and before you go, Henry, I think it's interesting what you mentioned there, Dave, about they're being chastened. It's almost as if they're kind of, they don't want, they're going the other way now. They're trying to learn from the lesson and so that's kind of switching now to the tail end of it.

Dave Kovtun: Well, I agree it's kind of night and day and it may be an over you know, an overreaction in a way you know, you've had, it's been such a volatile year and you know, Dave's right. The implied VOL has held at levels, we haven't seen in that prolonged levels, we haven't really ever seen. Yeah, even though realized for some pretty long stretches where it was not that high, which kind of tells you either the very, you know, people are afraid to sell or they're unable to sell options. I mean, if the market is realizing kind of, you know, VOL in its teens, but the implied VOL, you know, VIX is way, way above that by more than 7, 8, 9, 10 points. You would expect some premium sellers to show up because in a way it's like watching, you know, watching opportunity go by and you say, oh man, I would have been okay if I sold some premium last week.

And then another week goes by, you're like, ah, I should have sold some premium and sooner or later somebody will pull the trigger. And we really haven't seen much of that right. You know, and even those VIX downside trades, they're long premium trades. So that's selling VOL, they're buying a put spread that will make money if VOL goes down, which is a little different, right. If, you really were so convicted that, you know, that VOL was going to drop you know, you might sell VIX calls instead of buying VIX put spreads. So, you know, I think structurally, you know, and this is also related to kind of how 2018 blew out some of the premium sellers and the, you know, when we saw the big CTPs implode or a couple of them, at least. Some of the sellers are just out of business or sitting out.

And I think a lot of people are on the sidelines waiting for, you know, this year to be done you know, in so many ways that people are just done with this whole thing. And I think people want to see how it goes. And then, you know, I think when they, if they feel like the water is safe, they're going to jump back in, which really might be an opportunity. I mean, I don't know the last kind of pundits that I've or heard have been talking about how, you know, either candidate winning is kind of a plus for the market, you know, if it's Biden, it's stimulus related and if it's Trump it's you know, tax-related, and kind of a repeat of what we saw for the fast past four years. So you know to me, it's kind of funky if they're saying, well, either, you know, as long as one side wins, it's good for the market, at least in the immediate term. You know, it's interesting to see that, and then, you know, have a couple of days, you know, we've had you know, this week has been rough on the market, you know this is just a 3 or 4% pull back before the election. And, you know, and we go shooting higher or kind of something else is going on.

Patrick: And I do want to take a step back here and, you know, there's a difference between scheduled VOL events, like the earnings and an election. And as I am about to coin, kind of like the wrench into the wrench, these unscheduled events, such as the COVID 19 pandemic, how is the market reading these different types of events?

Dave Kovtun: Sure. Yeah, I think that's a key concept. When you think about kind of the scheduled versus the unscheduled. I mean, we're here talking about the election and we're all braced for it, right? Like, no one's taking vacation next week you know; it's all hands on deck. Like that's just the fact that we can kind of see it coming and though you, it might be kind of sloppy the way it plays out. Maybe there'll be some controversy yeah; everyone's kind of steeled for it. And the market, you know, be in that vicious discounter that it is, it's given people the opportunity to weigh in on both sides, you know, long and short the direction long and short the VOL. Whereas, you know, and the options like, I think the NOV options got listed back in July. So like the day they got listed you know, the SPX, November options, we said, those are the election options, but you go back to like late January, and we're all sitting around on the trading desk when we used to work in offices and these crowded environments when we're sitting there in late January.

And we're looking at the Marches, you know, no one called the Marches, the COVID options. And I think that's key when the market doesn't have time to discount, when the market doesn't have time to let you know, buyers and sellers weigh in and kind of handicap an event. The effects are much more profound I mean, when you think about, you know, concepts that came from the book, the black Swan, and, you know, that's a common phrase these days. I think one of the key ideas from it was, you know, by definition, the kind of major impact in events, we don't even know what they are yet. They kind of come out of nowhere so, I think it is important for people to kind of step back and say, you know, this is a crazy election, but it is a known unknown, at least.

Patrick: It's a good point. Yeah, I like that. Henry, what have you got?

Henry Schwartz: Yeah, I would just reiterate, I mean, uncertainty is part of life and it's part of trading, but there is a big difference between something like earnings, you know, you have a date, everybody's going to get it.  Get that information, you know, they're going to process it and, you know, the market will recalibrate and then we'll go on. And, you know, if the market is able to absorb that information and these unknown unknowns or things where, you know, nobody knows kind of how this economic impact is going to be a blip or be a multi-year prolonged rough environment. It's toss up I mean, so that I think is part of why you see VOL, where it is, because, you know, the kind of potential outcomes. You know, six months, a year down the road, or really, nobody knows, you know, people might argue, this is how it's going to go, but we don't know right. So that makes people nervous, you know, it really does. And that's you know, that's what we've seen.

Patrick: Yeah, and to build on that, do you see VOL normalizing even in the post-election cycles now? Or is this going to be something that we're dealing with for a prolonged period of time?

Henry Schwartz: 
Well, I mean, I'll take a stab at it. I do think that a lot of people are waiting for this election to pass so that they can try to, you know, get back to work. you know, the COVID situation you know, people are, you know, getting used to as much as it sucks you know, people have adapted their lives to it and, you know, there's some winners and some losers for sure. but, you know, kind of, we're still going on. So I do think that you will see you know, possibly, you know, and I think it has a lot to do with how the election goes. If it's kind of clear, then I think you may see, you know, a five to 10 point drop in VIX in that, especially in that, you know, 3, 6, 9 months zone very quickly because as much as nobody wants to sell it, nobody wants to buy it either.

Because you look at that, you're like, well, gee, you know, owning long-term VOL  at the 20 something percent range has been a terrible trade most of the time. So as soon as, you know the liquidity community starts to pick up some positions there they're going to drop it like a stone. And I do, I think that's what's going to happen. And it would only take a couple of sellers you know and that, VIX put-spread, might've just been kind of the tip of things. You know they're not making any money yet, but if we start to sell down there and things start to settle down they will. And if the flow starts coming one direction the pricing will adjust very quickly. 

Dave Kovtun: Henry, that's such a great point about this middle area that we're in right now, where it's like, the options premium feels too high to buy, but it's too scary to sell. And then I think the market can get paralyzed a lot of times more in that middle ground. And I think those VIX trades that Henry, that you're flagging are fascinated. You know, I think it speaks to the ways people are trying to short VOL, you know, to the extent people are selling VOL right now using structures that are a lot more premium conscious. You know, and they're not selling VIX futures outright, they're not selling calls outright. So that, that could leave you what you can buy a put outright. But, you know, that's also not cheap. So the fact that someone would do a one by two in big size where they're writing twice as many puts, they're basically saying, I think VOL's going to come down, but not too fast. That's a pretty specific bet, but I think what they used 17, I think it was the bottom strike.

So yeah, it seems like a reasonable kind of line to draw on the downside and just generally more spreading type structures, I think will go, they will have more popularity after the election because like that event premium is going to come out. But, you know, we still see baseball fairly elevated it's not going to be, you know, back to 2016 levels where we're just options look absolutely cheap. So I do think investors will look for ways to defray costs, whether that means trading, put spreads, call spreads, butterflies, or getting even more creative with like kind of in-between ratios. You know, buy one, sell one and a half or things like that. You know, to the extent people are using kind of short VOL strategies.

Patrick: In shameless plug, but that's why, you know, Schaeffer's focuses on options is we, you know, we always talk about their flexibility and the ability to customize your trade. And for the past 10 minutes, that's everything we've talked about. And you guys already answered what I think will be the wrap up question, but how do you guys see, you know, market VOL for this unscheduled future of 2021? Because let's be honest that the COVID stuff will probably be in our lives for, looks like to be about a year. How do you see it playing into 2021 and beyond?

Dave Kovtun: Yeah, no, it is kind of the million dollar question, because, you know, we're talking here on Friday the 30th in a week's time, you know, this, the election will hopefully be in the rear view. So it's all about next year and what comes. I mean, there are so many crosscurrents right now, when you think about COVID and you think about the Fang leadership and that's getting tested this week and Fed response. It's a lot more complicated than just the election and then when you take the fact that six month VIX futures are still up in that region, that we really hadn't seen since the fallout from like the European sovereign debt crisis that was back in 2012. For like six months VOL to be elevated that high.

I think you've got to respect the fact that we might be in this high VOL regime for a good time to come. And you know, it'll definitely be interesting to follow those VIX positions that Henry mentioned, and to see kind if we really see like the short VOL trade return to the market in earnest that, you know, seems to generally have taken a step back. But yeah, we're definitely respecting the possibility of a sustained high VOL regime. 

Patrick: Agreed, agreed. 

Henry Schwartz: Well, I guess I'm more of an optimist I expect to see VOLS chill out you know, I expect, and I also am hopeful for decisive and to the election process so that, you know, we'll have one less thing to worry about. And, you know, there are things I'm nervous about. I don't love the dominance of, you know, the Fang stocks in making up such a huge part of market cap. I think that's not right and every once in a while we see kind of a little bit of a correction to that, you know, you'll see Apple and Netflix take a hit and kind of some of the other names finally come up. But, you know, there's a lot of turmoil and, you know, the way that COVID has impacted energy prices, you know, that's playing through right, it's killing you know, travel stocks and oil stocks. And you know, these companies are trying to figure out, is this temporary, or is this, you know, is this a three, four or five year? And, you know, maybe there'll be maybe even after this vaccine and everybody's vaccinated, which, you know, obviously it's going to take a while you know, will there be lingering effects where people now that you realize telecommuting is you know, pretty, you know, can be very functional for certain businesses. You know, maybe that's going to, you know, going to be somewhat permanent for some segments. So you know, I think that VOL will come down and I think the market has a lot of information to digest and you know, there will be some companies that are that adapt and do well and some that are really, really damaged.

Patrick: I agree. It's going to be an interesting 12 months and there's only one way to find out. So to close, I know you guys have some exciting products on each of your ends. If you'd like to just take a quick minute to plug Dave, you can go first.

Dave Kovtun: Sure. No, I just wanted to share, you know, at Jane Street, we provide liquidity listed options, ETFs, and fixed income products to institutional clients around the world. And given everything we've been talking about, we expect it's going to be a busy and volatile week. So we look forward to serving their liquidity needs and it's been great to be here.

Patrick: Well said, well said, Henry

Henry Schwartz: Well, you know, thank you Patrick, for having me on. And, you know, I've been with CBOE for about five or six months now, you know, and we have a pretty amazing suite of offerings, you know, trade alert, which is my baby. But, you know, live o pro and, you know, Silex and Handwork, which does a really top end theoretical value services and just what's available in the data shop. Which is really, you know, I remember years ago, hearing Kathy Clay who runs the entire division saying that CBOE wanted to be the Amazon of options data. And I said, well, that's funny I don't think there's nearly as many people interested in option data as there are in stuff from Amazon. But I'll tell you, you can pop on and if you want to get, you know, the last three months of option flow history in Neo, you can grab it and have that data very quickly. And it's really pretty remarkable. So I'm excited there's just a lot going on in the interplay between the systems that were evolving, you know, within CBOE is making things, you know, better and better.

Patrick: Wow. Yeah, that turns out to be a brilliant analysis there that's hysterical. Well, David and Henry, this was, this has been fun. Probably a nice way to kind of get our mind off the election is to sit and dish about this. You know, you guys, I may tower over you guys on the basketball court, but you guys, definitely towered over me on the, in the realm of volatility. So for that, I thank you in coming on and taking me to school but you guys take care and we'll talk soon.

Dave Kovtun: You too, good chatting with you both.

Patrick: Take care.



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