Measuring the Level of Stress in the Market

According to WedMD, there are two types of stress:

  • Acute (temporary) stress, which your body recovers from quickly
  • Chronic (long term) stress, which can lead to serious health problems

Applying this rational to market declines:

  • Acute stress: no recession is imminent and the market should recover its losses
  • Chronic stress: recession risk is high and a large decline in equities is expected

Currently, the market is going through a higher level of acute stress. Please note, I do mean, “going through” because the market has not yet exited this period of increased stress.

In this post:

  • Process for measuring the level of stress in the market
  • Historical analysis of the VIX spread
  • The current level of stress in the market
  • Longer term expectation of volatility

Process for Measuring the Level of Stress in the Market

I measure the amount of stress in the market by analyzing the VIX futures curve, specifically the 1st and 2nd month contracts. On Bloomberg, these would be UX1 and UX2 for the generic (continuous) contracts.

Looking at the chart below, I would use the following checklist to analyze the spread between UX2 and UX1:

UX2-UX1 (white), S&P 500 (yellow)

Source: Bloomberg

ISM Manufacturing

Source: Bloomberg

Historical Analysis of the VIX Spread

The following is a brief description of what has occurred since the VIX futures began trading in 2004.

Keep in mind, when bouts of stress appear in the market, the periods of high stress have occurred after ISM has peaked and is declining. There are occurrences of low stress periods when ISM is increasing but the market tends to absorb these incidents easier. I don’t show nor discuss the direction of ISM in the following analysis so please reference the previous chart.

March 2004 – January 2006

After a volatile start to trading, the spread peaked in August and gradually decreased until reaching backwardation in March 2005.

The spread recovered until July 2005 when it began to decline once more until October 2005. October was also the first time we saw a retest in the lows of the spread a few weeks later, which we typically see in higher stress periods.

Source: Bloomberg

December 2005 – January 2008

After peaking in December, spreads declined until reaching a low of -2.00 before retesting the lows of the spread eights weeks later. This marked the first high stress period for the market during the decline of ISM.

After recovering, the spread decreased for another ten months before falling to -4.00. The spikes in the spread seen in September and October 2007 are examples of the problem associated with only using continuous futures in high stress periods. More on this later.

Source: Bloomberg

January 2007 – October 2008

After recovering from August 2007, the spread stayed at or near 0.00 until March 2008. The higher lows seen in January and March 2008 and again in July 2008 showed that the market was beginning to heal despite the S&P making new lows. However, this all changed September 2008 with Lehman Brothers.

Source: Bloomberg

October 2008 – January 2010

After seeing the large decline in the spread in October 2008, the stress in the market slowly began to dissipate and grind its way out of backwardation. If an investor was only looking at the price of the S&P, they would have missed the healing process the market was undertaking.

Source: Bloomberg

January 2010 – January 2012

Exiting the recession, we had a short-term scare with the spread declining to -1.00 before seeing a much larger decline in 2011 associated with the US Debt Ceiling Crisis and the European Banking Crisis.

Source: Bloomberg

November 2011 – January 2014

This time frame had little to no stress, similar to what the market went through from February 2016 until January 2018. The area circled is the Taper Tantrum.

Source: Bloomberg

July 2013 – June 2015

This time frame showed more stress in the spread than the previous period but again, nothing strenuous. October 2014 was the US Treasury Flash Crash, which took place only a few weeks after Mario Draghi announced that the ECB was going to begin Quantitative Easing (QE). Additionally, we had the Russian Ruble Crisis peak January 2015.

Source: Bloomberg

March 2015 – May 2017

The spread gradually moved lower from the March highs before seeing a tremendous drop after China devalued the Yuan. A few months later, we had another decline in the spread when there was a growing concern about the stability of the European Banks. Finally, the decline in June 2016 was when the UK voted to leave the EU.

An important note is that each decline in the spread was not as low as the previous (i.e. Aug ’15 > Sept ’15 > Jan ’16 > June ’16 > Nov ‘16) and ISM bottomed in January 2016. Meaning, the market and economy was gaining strength and was able to absorb the new concerns easier than previously.

Source: Bloomberg

December 2015 – February 2018

The spread increased from the August 2015 lows and eventually peaked in July 2016 after the UK vote. After peaking, we saw the spread slowly decline and face little to no stress for the next 18 months, which is similar to what we saw after the European Banking Crisis in 2011.

Source: Bloomberg

Current Level of Stress in the Market

Following the continuous (generic) futures contracts can be good when looking for a general idea of stress in the market.

As noted previously, there are problems with only using the continuous futures. First, there can be sudden spikes in the data as Bloomberg transitions from one set of contracts to the next. Second, when we are in stressful periods, like we are now, it is best to look at the specific contracts for “healing points”.

To solve this issue, during periods of concern or stress I look at the two nearest spreads so I can see how the current and upcoming spread is developing.

The next chart shows the current 2nd month contract (UXJ8) minus the current 1st month contract (UXH8). The immediate short term healing point that needs to be exceeded is 0.20. More importantly, the longer term healing point is 0.60.

Source: Bloomberg

The next chart is the current 3rd month contract (UXK8) minus the current 2nd month contract (UXJ8). The immediate short term healing point is 0.15 and the longer term healing point is 0.60.

UXK8 – UXJ8 

Source: Bloomberg

Based upon prior periods that had the spread decline to -2.00 along with no recession (i.e. 2006, 2011, 2015), we will not pass 0.60 without retesting the lows of the spread. During these previous periods, we saw 3-4 weeks of calm from the lows before the market began to succumb to the sustained level of stress in the market. Meaning, the probability of a short-term market peak is increasing since the spread bottomed February 5th.

Longer Term Expectation of Volatility

When ISM peaked in the past, we tended to see bouts of high stress every 8-12 months. Between these periods of high stress, volatility declined back to low levels and the spread would increase to 1.00 or higher.

The only way we will see high stress remain constant is if we are heading into a recession, which I don’t foresee at this time.

Therefore, my base case is the first scenario since ISM peaked in September 2017. Updates on the volatility spread will be discussed in future posts since this has become a relevant topic once more.