Cross-Pollination: Volatility & Options

by on February 1, 2015  •  In 36South

In our continual search for differentiation in this fiercely competitive investment biosphere, we remain intrigued by the idea of cross-pollination between investment strategies. After all, regardless of strategy, all investors share a common goal: capital compounding through the creation of return asymmetry over time.

Fundamental investors often shy away from options and volatility, labeling them as too complicated and esoteric. Are they truly that complicated, or merely made to seem so by industry participants enamored with jargon and befuddlement?

In this brief video (8:30-8:35am time slot), Richard “Jerry” Haworth of 36South shares a few thoughts & observations on options and volatility that all investors can incorporate into their portfolios.

Summary Highlights:

Options (a type of “volatility assets”) are a potentially rich source of alpha since pricing in options market are mainly based on models, not fundamental analysis. Occasionally massive mispricings occur, especially in long-dated options.

Most wealth is generated by luck or asymmetry of risk & return. Most options have asymmetry. Long options positions (especially long-dated) behave like “perfect traders” – they always obey stop loss (downside is limited by premium outlay) and positions are allowed to run when working in your favor (especially as delta improves for out-of-the-money options).

Options also have natural embedded leverage (especially out-of-the-money), providing cheap convexity. Better than debt, because it’s non-recourse – max loss is limited to premium outlay.

Volatility (a $65 trillion notional market) is counter intuitive – people tend to sell vol when low, and buy when high – great for contraians who like to buy low and sell high. Natural human behavioral bias makes it so this phenomenon will never go away.

Portfolio managers are in the “business of future-proofing people’s portfolios” – seeking to maximize return while minimizing risk and correlation. The “further you get away from $0 the more you are future-proofing a portfolio…” But this is extremely difficult to implement well, especially in low interest rate environment where future expected returns are difficult to find.

Short-term downside volatility is noise. But long-term volatility on the downside is permanent loss of capital – counter to goal of “future-proofing” portfolios. When people think about risk, they tend to use volatility as proxy for risk, but this is a very limiting definition. Volatility has been minimized by low rates, which has lead people to mistakenly think that we’ve minimized risk since we’ve minimized volatility. Classic mistake: people are now taking on “risk and correlation that they don’t see…for returns that they do see.”

Correlation – only important in crisis, no one cares about correlation when asset prices going up. Perceived vs. Actual Correlation: dangerous when you think you have a “diversified” portfolio (with low correlation between assets) when in reality correlation of assets in portfolio actually very high. People focus on minimizing correlation, but often fail when truly need minimized correlation (example: during a systemic crisis).

Writing / shorting volatility (such as selling options) in a portfolio increases yield & adds to expected return, but makes correlation and risk more concave, with a tendency to snowballs to downside. Whereas long volatility assets are convex, it takes slightly from return (cuz premium outlay) but offers uncapped expected return on the upside.

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