The return of market volatility on Monday, 5 February 2018, was dramatic. The 20 point jump in VIX, a traded measure of expected stock market volatility—best thought of as the price of insurance against a market crash—was the largest daily increase since the 1987 stock market crash.
A number of leveraged volatility-linked exchange-traded products (ETPs) were implicated in the market commentary that followed. But a clear cut picture was hard to discern. The following forensic analysis by the Bank of International Settlements’ Quarterly Review clarified the dynamic at play:
Issuers of leveraged volatility ETPs take long positions in VIX futures to magnify returns relative to the VIX – for example, a 2X VIX ETP with $200 million in assets would double the daily gains or losses for its investors by using leverage to build a $400 million notional position in VIX futures. Inverse volatility ETPs take short positions in VIX futures so as to allow investors to bet on lower volatility. To maintain target exposure, issuers of leveraged and inverse ETPs rebalance portfolios on a daily basis by trading VIX-related derivatives, usually in the last hour of the trading day.…Given the historical tendency of volatility increases to be rather sharp, such strategies can amount to “collecting pennies in front of a steamroller”.…
Given the rise in the VIX earlier in the day, market participants could expect leveraged long volatility ETPs to rebalance their holdings by buying more VIX futures at the end of the day to maintain their target daily exposure (eg twice or three times their assets). They also knew that inverse volatility ETPs would have to buy VIX futures to cover the losses on their short position in VIX futures. So, both long and short volatility ETPs had to buy VIX futures. The rebalancing by both types of funds takes place right before 16:15, when they publish their daily net asset value. Hence, because the VIX had already been rising since the previous trading day, market participants knew that both types of ETP would be positioned on the same side of the VIX futures market right after New York equity market close. The scene was set.
There were signs that other market participants began bidding up VIX futures prices at around 15:30 in anticipation of the end-of-day rebalancing by volatility ETPs (Graph A2, left-hand panel). Due to the mechanical nature of the rebalancing, a higher VIX futures price necessitated even greater VIX futures purchases by the ETPs, creating a feedback loop. Transaction data show a spike in trading volume to 115,862 VIX futures contracts, or roughly one quarter of the entire market, and at highly inflated prices, within one minute at 16:08. The value of one of the inverse volatility ETPs, XIV, fell 84% and the product was subsequently terminated.