Do you follow the VIX as a volatility measure? Ever heard of the rule of 16? How about volatility skew? Learn how to apply these concepts to options trading.
Modern investors get frequent updates on where the Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) is trading. Some even refer to the VIX as the “fear index” because it typically rises when the broader stock market falls.
In fact, advanced traders can even trade futures and options on the VIX. But for all the attention it gets, few investors really understand this measure of options volatility, what it means, how to measure it, and finally, how to determine its most accurate value.
The VIX was introduced by the Cboe in 1993 as a weighted measure of the implied volatility (IV) of the S&P 100 Index. In 2003, the VIX expanded to measure the S&P 500 Index (SPX). The VIX quickly evolved into the preeminent measure of investor fear and overall market volatility.
As investors monitor the VIX on a daily and weekly basis, they’re simply watching a number that represents the IV of the SPX. Without getting into a long math discussion involving square roots, let me simplify an interesting aspect of the VIX: the number 16 (or more precisely, 15.87) is approximately the square root of 252 (the number of trading days in a year). This is where the rule of 16 comes from.
While you let that sink in, let’s walk through some hypotheticals. If the VIX is trading at 16, then 68.2% (or two-thirds) of the time, it might trade up or down by less than 1%. The other 31.8% (or one-third) of the time, the SPX might trade up or down by more than 1%.
Now let’s go further. The VIX at 24 might equate to a 1.5% move in the SPX 31.8% (one-third) of the time. A VIX at 32 might equate to a 2% move in the SPX 31.8% (one-third) of the time.
The options rule of 16 works the other way, too—you can “annualize" a daily reading by multiplying it by 16. For example, suppose a stock has had a few moves of 1.8%, and you think a 1.8% daily move might be typical in the near future. If so, you would be expecting an annualized volatility level of 1.8 X 16 = 28.8%. Comparing your expectation to the current IV might indicate whether you believe an option is overpriced, underpriced, or fairly priced.
Now that we’ve discussed the rule of 16, let’s tackle options skew.
Skew shows up when out-of-the-money (OTM) put IV is at a higher level than OTM call volatility, causing higher premiums on the put side. This comes from the perception that stocks fall faster than they rise.
The options volatility skew illustrates which direction the implied risk lies in an underlying. There is, of course, a supply and demand variable that determines if there’s a skew and how severe that skew (or IV differential) is. Without this demand, skew would not exist, because supply and demand for options is the clearest driver of IV.
Recognizing the existence of skew is the first step to considering it in your trading. With extra premium in OTM puts and conversely lower premiums in OTM calls, strikes can be chosen to potentially enhance trades using the divergence that skew imposes on options markets. Skew allows investors to push the put strike further out than a corresponding call side, providing less downside exposure.
In rare but very informative cases (stock splits or potentially positive news events), skew can flatten or even slightly shift positive to the call side (OTM calls with higher IV than OTM puts).
And what about the options world beyond equities, such as options on futures? Some products can behave, and thus be priced, quite differently. Options on commodities such as corn, cattle, and crude oil, for example, might have a natural upside skew, with OTM calls having a higher IV than OTM puts. It makes sense, right? Food and energy scarcity can lead to frenzied buying.
Other contracts, such as some foreign currencies, have no “natural" options skew, and skew can vary depending on market conditions, expectations, and the supply and demand of upside versus downside options.
General measurements of volatility such as the Cboe VIX, the rule of 16, and options skew don’t necessarily tell the entire story as to whether an option might be overpriced or underpriced. Rather, they should be considered in the context of the bigger picture. Is a company or one of its competitors about to report earnings, declare a dividend, or take other corporate action? Is there a merger or acquisition in the works?
And remember, a volatility reading only defines a statistical tendency. It’s the odds of a particular occurrence, and not a sure thing. But understanding VIX, skew, and the rule of 16 can at least offer some perspective to help make sense of the numbers.
Access live and on-demand programming from our media affiliate, TD Ameritrade Network, which can be accessed via the thinkorswim® platform, Mobile Trader app, or on the TD Ameritrade Network page.
The TD Ameritrade Network is brought to you by TD Ameritrade Media Productions Company. TD Ameritrade Media Productions Company and TD Ameritrade, Inc. are separate but affiliated subsidiaries of TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation.
for thinkMoney ®
Financial Communications Society 2016
for Ticker Tape
Content Marketing Awards 2016
Market volatility, volume, and system availability may delay account access and trade executions.
Past performance of a security or strategy does not guarantee future results or success.
Options are not suitable for all investors as the special risks inherent to options trading may expose investors to potentially rapid and substantial losses. Options trading subject to TD Ameritrade review and approval. Please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options before investing in options.
Supporting documentation for any claims, comparisons, statistics, or other technical data will be supplied upon request.
The information is not intended to be investment advice or construed as a recommendation or endorsement of any particular investment or investment strategy, and is for illustrative purposes only. Be sure to understand all risks involved with each strategy, including commission costs, before attempting to place any trade. Clients must consider all relevant risk factors, including their own personal financial situations, before trading.
This is not an offer or solicitation in any jurisdiction where we are not authorized to do business or where such offer or solicitation would be contrary to the local laws and regulations of that jurisdiction, including, but not limited to persons residing in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, UK, and the countries of the European Union.
TD Ameritrade, Inc., member FINRA/SIPC. TD Ameritrade is a trademark jointly owned by TD Ameritrade IP Company, Inc. and The Toronto-Dominion Bank. © 2019 TD Ameritrade.