Tuesday, 28 October 2008

What Creates Volatility?

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times is one of the better financial journalists, perhaps the best. She was the first to make heads and tails of the structured investment vehicles before many who should have known better had any idea what an SIV was.

But reporters only report what they see and hear. And that, when it comes to the analysis of financial events, is not sufficient. The outward appearance of events has a driving force that remains hidden from the naked eye.

So there she was in her today’s column, writing about the return of unprecedented volatility which “has left many investors and bankers utterly dazed and confused”. Throughout the article, her focus remained entirely on people: “[The situation] remains a delicate war of investor psychology and computer models.”

The subject of finance is not people. It is capital in circulation. So, how do we explain the volatility if the people are taken out of the explanation?

By way of answer, here are a few quotes from Vol. 1 of Speculative Capital:
We use the term “speculative capital” to refer to capital employed in arbitrage. Such capital is not a single entity. Nor does it have a command and control center. A large number of private fund managers and institutions control various pools of speculative capital. They all have access to the same information. When a profit opportunity opens up or is created, they direct their capital towards the same target. If the British pound, for example, seems vulnerable, hundreds of funds would bet on its devaluation using swaps, forwards, options and futures.

The rush of fund managers to position themselves in a profitable arbitrage situation overshadows the mathematical exactness of the arbitrage, with the result that the target is overshot; the undervalued currency becomes relatively overvalued. So the process is repeated in reverse. As a result, we have the constant ebbs and flows of money directed from one market to another that seeks to arbitrage the spreads and, in doing so, restore “equilibrium” to the markets.

But if the equilibrium is restored, there can be no arbitrage opportunities and speculative capital must sit idle. Idleness brings no profits and speculative capital cannot self-destruct in this way. So it looks for new “inefficiencies” and in doing so, it disturbs the prevailing equilibrium and creates volatility. Volatility is the result of the attempts of speculative capital to restore equilibrium to markets.
That was the theoretical development. As for the evidence from the markets:
The spreading of volatility from one market to another–from foreign exchange to stock market–is the logical consequence of the operation of speculative capital. Speculative capital is born in the currency market. This market is large, liquid, and lends itself easily to arbitraging: buying the stronger currency and selling the weaker one. But no market is constantly turbulent. So speculative capital probes other markets and, finding arbitrage opportunities in them, invades them. In the US, the intrusion of speculative capital into the equities and fixed income markets is a fait accompli, with the result that the volatility in these markets has drastically increased. The New York Times reports on the increased volatility in mid-1997:
The [stock] market acts as if it is confronting storms blowing every which way. One day prices soar; the next day they sink just as fast. And then they lift off again…So far this year [1997], 31 percent of trading days have seen 1 percent moves based on closing figures. If that continues, this could be the most volatile year since 1987.
The Wall Street Journal picks up the same story early in 1998:
Last year [1997], there were 80 trading days during which the Dow rose or fell by more than 1%, up from 18 in 1995 and 43 in 1996. In January [of 1998] alone, 1% price swings were seen on eight trading days, or an average of two of every five trading days.
The trend continues. The same paper reported about the rise in volatility in the last trading month of 1998:
Stock price volatility is getting downright scary…”The sentiment swings in this market are making everybody’s head spin,” says [a technology stock trader]. “It is leading to exceptional volatility. Unprecedented volatility.” … James Stack of InvesTech Research … says that by his calculations, intraday volatility is at its highest level in 65 years.
Why has volatility increased? The Wall Street Journal tries to explain:
While there is a sharp division of opinion on what volatility means for the market’s direction, analysts largely agree on its causes. Topping the list: the quest for new investment ideas … Quick dashes in and out of individual stocks and sectors as fickle investors try out, then discard, new investment ideas has fueled volatility.
“Quick dashes in and out of individual stocks” are the signature activity of speculative capital. But the paper does not know that, so it attributes the problem to “fickle investors.” The tone of the article, furthermore, suggests that the surge in volatility is a passing phenomenon, an anomaly perhaps fueled by a bull market. The issue is further muddled by the frequent nonsensical comments such articles elicit from experts. In the same article, one fund manager dispenses wisdom about the cause of the volatility in the stock market: “Volatility is the price of admission [!] when you buy stocks offering good returns in this environment.”

In the absence of an understanding of why the volatility has increased, decision making becomes increasingly difficult and even seems arbitrary:
When stocks or sectors move in and out of favor in a matter of days, its becomes harder for professional money managers … to cling to their convictions that a stock is a good long-term investment … says … [an] equity strategist: “The fundamentals are very, very hard to understand and analyze, so the market becomes more emotional, and emotion translates into volatility at the micro level.”
The strategist quoted in this story is correct when he observes that an incomprehensible market makes the participants uneasy and emotional, and thus, ultimately, exacerbates the volatility. But the emotional behavior is not the cause of the volatility. Voltaire observed that incantations could indeed kill a flock of sheep if administered with a dose of arsenic. Money managers becoming emotional is the consequence of the operation of speculative capital which creates volatility that money managers do not understand.
These lines were written in 1996-98. A decade later, speculative capital is alive and well, with the credit market as the latest addition to its theater of operations.