Warren Buffett is famous for saying that you should be greedy when others are fearful. One way investors can satisfy their inner greed during times of trouble is to invest in fear itself -- and you're likely to have many more chances to buy fear-based investments in the near future.
Nothing to fear but fear itself
The Chicago Board Options Exchange unit of CBOE Holdings
The CBOE's plans include tracking for both select individual stocks as well as popular exchange-traded funds. In particular, the CBOE has asked the Securities and Exchange Commission for permission to allow options tied to indexes it recently created on five individual stocks. The stocks that could soon have their own volatility-based options include Apple
Presumably, the ETF-based volatility indexes will pave the way for future SEC filings for options trading similar to what the exchange has filed for with its individual-stock volatility measures. In addition, where there's an index, there's a benchmark that a prospective new ETF could eventually track. Soon, you could have several new ETFs with ties to each of these volatility indexes.
The big question you need to ask yourself is what purpose volatility-based investments serve. Although some believe they add diversification, currently available choices haven't performed very well over long periods of time.
A perfectly bad investment
For proof, all you have to do is look at the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN
Over the course of its two-year history, though, the iPath ETN has lost well over 90% of its value, suffering a reverse stock split and destroying anyone who used the investment for the long haul. Part of that fall came from the ETN's poor timing; it came out in January 2009, near the height of the market meltdown when volatility was at very high levels.
But much of the loss came from a phenomenon that has plagued commodity-based ETFs: contango. The iPath ETN uses futures and therefore has to trade in and out of new contracts as old ones expire. Over time, because of the relative prices of current- and future-month futures, the ETN's value has steadily eroded. A similar ETF that has a longer-term approach and trades in and out of futures contracts less frequently, the iPath S&P 500 VIX Medium-Term Futures ETN, has had less trouble with value erosion, but it's still down more than 40% since its early 2009 inception.
Even for short-term investors, VIX-based investments haven't been all that useful. The iPath ETN's correlation to the S&P has been almost perfectly negative; that is, volatility rises when the S&P falls and vice versa. That may sound useful, but if that negative correlation is perfect, all the two investments do is cancel each other out, leaving investors with the frictional costs of expenses and futures-related contango.
Arguably, volatility-tracking investments might be more useful with a narrower focus on niche ETFs or individual stocks. There, overall volatility can increase or decrease independent of the stock's movements, such as immediately before an earnings announcement or other important news event.
But what it really boils down to is this: Looking at volatility takes your attention away from the companies you're investing in and instead shifts your focus to short-term share prices. That's not what most long-term investors really want or need.
Don't be afraid
If the current correction turns into a longer bout of bearishness, then you can definitely expect to see a lot more volatility-linked investments. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how well they do in the short run, their longer track record suggests a much less auspicious end result for your portfolio.
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