4 Ways to Manage Investor Risk Amid Low Volatility

4 Ways to Manage Investor Risk Amid Low Volatility

If you’ve been thinking that stock markets have been pretty quiet in 2017, you are right--it's been more like the merry-go-round and less like a rollercoaster. Through the first seven months of the year, none of three major stock market indexes has fallen by more than 5 percent. And one gauge of market movement, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), which measures investors’ expectation of the ups and downs of the S&P 500 Index over the next month, recently dropped to its lowest level in 24 years. Low VIX readings have tended to be equated with muted anxiety and high stock prices. Amid this environment, you might be wondering what could go wrong? There are always risks that persist and while their existence does not mean that long-term investors should change their game plans, they are a reminder to guard against complacency and to always approach investing with caution.

Inflation Agitation


If the past week’s news cycle did not rattle investors, what will? Oh sure, on Thursday when it seemed like the world was spinning out of control, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), which helps gauge investor fear, surged 32 percent, its biggest jump in more than a year. Then on Friday, it fell 17 percent to 12.06, far below historical norms of around 20. Evidently, geopolitical events are not sufficient to cause more than a one day stock sell-off and flight to quality, most of which was reversed on Friday. So what would it take? Maybe run of the mill inflation, which has been almost absent for the past six years, would spook investors.

Headline inflation (CPI), which includes everything you care about, is up about two percent year over year. I know what you’re thinking: Why would the central bank exclude the stuff that impacts my daily life? Surely when I am spending more on food and gas, I have less money to spend elsewhere in the economy. (A recent Gallup poll found that 1/3 of Americans said higher prices are impinging on their ability to spend on travel, dining out and leisure activities.) But the Fed is not tasked with addressing short-term price increases, like those at the pumps, or even for agricultural items like beef, pork or chocolate -- the central bank can’t be at the mercy of the weather or events in the Middle East.

That’s why during the recovery, when prices have increased sporadically, the Fed downplayed the idea of broad-based inflation, calling the higher readings transitory (like when gas spiked due to the Arab Spring). More recently after the Fed’s June policy meeting, Chair Janet Yellen said that while “Recent readings on, for example, the CPI index have been a bit on the high side,” the data are “noisy.” Translation: Stop worrying about inflation—we have it under control.

The Fed is looking for a gradual increase of core inflation, which excludes food and energy, to a pace of two percent annually. Over the past six years, core inflation as measured by the CPI or by the Fed’s preferred metric, the Commerce Department’s personal consumption expenditures price index (PCE), has remained below that level. But over the past three months, core prices have started to accelerate across a variety of categories, including shelter, airfares, clothing and medical care.

It’s not so far-fetched to see how as the economic recovery accelerates, a chain of events is likely to spur price increases. Here’s what could happen: as the labor market improves, there is likely to be an increase in wages. As people earn more money, they may be willing to spend more. An uptick in spending could be the opening that retailers have been waiting for since the recession and allow them to finally increase prices for all sorts of stuff.

While it is unlikely that any of this would create runaway inflation, despite what some inflation hawks (including the usually wrong CNBC editor Rick Santelli) have been arguing for years. Remember we’re talking about what could spook investors, who are hyper-focused on when the Fed will begin to raise interest rates. It is widely believed that the central bank will begin to nudge up rates at the beginning to the middle of next year. But if prices rise faster than expected, it may prompt the Fed to hike rates sooner and more aggressively than widely expected. If that were to occur, stock investors might take a time out from the bull market and wait to see how things shake out.


  • DJIA: 17,100, up 0.9% on week, up 3.1% YTD
  • S&P 500: 1978, up 0.5% on week, up 7% YTD
  • NASDAQ: 4,432, up 0.4% on week, up 6.1% YTD
  • 10-Year Treasury yield: 2.48% (from 2.52% a week ago)
  • August Crude Oil: $103.13, up 2.3% on week
  • August Gold: $1309.40, down 2% on week
  • AAA Nat'l average price for gallon of regular Gas: $3.58 (from $3.67 a year ago)

THE WEEK AHEAD: The SEC is poised to impose new requirements on the $2.6 trillion dollar money-market mutual fund industry, when it votes on whether the riskiest money-market funds will have to let their share prices fluctuate; and charge investors withdrawal fees during times of stress. The government was forced to provide a backstop to money market funds during the 2008 financial crisis.

Mon 7/21:

Haliburton, Hasbro, Texas Instruments, Netflix

8:30 Chicago FedNational Activity Index

Tues 7/22:

Altria, Dupont, Kimberly Clark, McDonald’s, Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Verizon

8:30 Consumer Price Index

10:00 Existing Home Sales

Weds 7/23:

AT&T, Boeing, Facebook, Pepsi

SEC vote on Money Market funds

Thurs 7/24:

Ford, GM, Hershey, Starbux, Visa, 3M, Amazon, Caterpillar

8:30 Weekly Jobless Claims

10:00 New Home Sales

Fri 7/25:


8:30 Durable Goods

Are Stock Markets a Little Too Quiet?


Within days of starting the third quarter of the year, U.S. stock market indexes were breaking records again and this time, they were also marking new milestones. The Dow Jones Industrial crossed over the 17,000 mark, nearly eight months after breaching 16,000 (the seventh-fastest 1000-point gain in the index's history); the Standard & Poor’s 500 was knocking on the door of the 2000-level; and 14 years after hitting the 5,000 level the first time around, the NASDAQ Composite seemed ready to recapture its old glory, just 12.5 percent below its record set in March 2000. You might think that the Wall Street cheerleaders would be out there celebrating with a noisy show, but something strange is going on…despite records, milestones and smart year-to-date gains, it’s eerily quiet right now, perhaps too quiet.

Investors are feeling mellow, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, which announced that its Financial Stress Index fell to its lowest level since the regional bank started tracking the data in 1993. Through the July 3rd close, the S&P 500 has gone 54 sessions in a row without closing up or down more than one percent, the longest such stretch since 1995. And the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) -- often referred to as the “fear index” – closed at 10.32 just before the Independence Day weekend. To put that in perspective, the VIX soared above 80 during the financial crisis.

The VIX is down nearly 25 percent from the beginning of the year; is nearing its lowest level since 2007, when it fell below 10; and appears to be on path to challenge its all-time low of 9.31, reached on Dec. 22, 1993. Just because the environment seems calm, doesn’t mean that something bad is brewing. In fact there have been various periods when markets have been downright boring. But it would be unwise to let down your guard against the risks that are ever-present for investors, the biggest one of them all allowing your emotions to guide your decision-making.

A recent New York Times article called attention to something you probably already know: humans have physical reactions to extreme risk that can help protect us (touch that hot stove and your brain tells you pull it back in a hurry), but also can lead us astray. Author John Coates, explained that “under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion.” You may have experienced just such feelings in 2008 and 2009 and perhaps even sold everything in your portfolio to make those feelings go away.

The flip side of freezing up is getting lulled into a false sense of security. The current placid market conditions may allow you to gloss over the gyrations experienced during the financial crisis and subsequent bear market. Even more dangerous is the fact that a calm period can lead to a new round of risk taking. “When opportunities abound, a potent cocktail of dopamine — a neurotransmitter operating along the pleasure pathways of the brain — and testosterone encourages us to expand our risk taking.”

Because human risk preferences can change as market conditions shift, you may be wondering, “How can I protect myself from myself?” The answer is clear: to adopt a diversified investment strategy that incorporates your risk tolerance, time horizon and financial goals. Let me state unequivocally: the strategy does not work perfectly in the short-term. When markets crashed in 2008 and 2009, almost every asset class plummeted in unison, and in the first half of this year, everything from stocks to bonds to commodities increased in value.

That said, asset classes might gain or lose value simultaneously for a period of time, but typically not by the same magnitude and not over a longer time horizon. During times of crisis or times of extreme calm, you may question the benefits of diversification. When you do, remember that when markets are either very noisy or quiet, the subsequent period may be far less so. Stick to your game plan – you will be happy that you did!

Hot Fun in the Summertime for Housing and the Economy


Happy summer! This is the season when the economy, investors and workers often take a breather, though this year, there is hope that a bit of spring will pervade the next few months. The much hoped for housing recovery never took hold during the normally vibrant spring buying/selling season. And after a weaker than expected report on housing starts and a slump in mortgage activity last week, investors are bracing for more details about the nation’s real estate market. This week, there will be data on new and existing home sales activity, as well as prices. Bad first quarter weather-related weakness aside, part of the recent slowdown in housing is attributable to sheepish buyers, who were spooked by rising prices, especially in certain hot housing markets. Between April 2013 and April 2014, the median national price for an existing single-family home rose 4.7 percent to $201,100, according to the National Association of Realtors, while during the same time period, rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages increased by 0.7 percent to 4.14 percent, presuming that you qualify for a loan. (While it has become a bit easier to secure mortgage financing, credit scores remain critical to the process. The average FICO score on accepted residential mortgage applications for home purchase has fallen from 742 to 726 over the past year, which is above the average score for US households of 690.)

The drop off in housing activity caused residential investment to be a drag on economic growth in the first quarter of the year. This week, the government will release its third and final estimate of first quarter economic growth, which is likely to show that the economy contracted by more than the one percent reading that was previously reported. Some economists are predicting that the economy shrank by as much as two percent in the first three months of the year.

But that is all in the past, according to the analysts at Capital Economics, who anticipate that the recovery “is finally about to shift into a higher gear.” To what do they attribute the ebullient outlook? An steadily improving labor market, which is likely to augment wage growth in the second half of 2014 and beyond; an increase in consumer spending, which will be boosted by the afore-mentioned income growth; a pick up in business investment after a two year pause; a federal government which has temporarily stopped creating problems in the form of debt ceiling crises; and the wealth effect from the rising stock and housing markets, coupled with a drop in household debt.

Nowhere was that wealth effect seen more clearly than in the most recent Cap Gemini SA/Royal Bank of Canada analysis of the world’s millionaires. Nearly 2 million people around the world became millionaires (defined as having at least $1 million dollars in investments such stocks, bonds, cash, and primary residences) last year, a 15 percent increase from a year ago. There are now a record 13.7 million millionaires, who are sitting on $46.2 trillion dollars.

MARKETS: Investors are feeling mellow, according to the St. Louis Fed, which announced that its Financial Stress Index fell to its lowest level since the regional bank started tracking the data in 1993. This jibes with the fall-off in the volatility index (VIX), which is hovering at seven-year lows. You might excuse investors for getting a bit complacent. After all, Friday marked the 45th straight day that the S&P 500 closed up or down less by than 1 percent, the longest stretch of muted market action since 1995.

  • DJIA: 16,947, up 1% on week, up 2.2% YTD (11th closing record of the year)
  • S&P 500: 1962, up 1.4% on week, up 6.2% YTD (22nd record close of year)
  • NASDAQ: 4,368, up 1.3% on week, up 4.6% YTD (highest close since April 7, 2000)
  • 10-Year Treasury yield: 2.63% (from 2.6% a week ago)
  • July Crude Oil: $107.26, up 0.3% on week
  • August Gold: $1316.60, up 3.3% on week
  • AAA Nat'l average price for gallon of regular Gas: $3.68 (from $3.59 a year ago)


Mon 6/23:

8:30 Chicago Fed

10:00 Existing Home Sales

SCOTUS to rule on legality of online broadcaster Aereo

Tues 6/24:

9:00 Case-Shiller Home Price Index

10:00 New Home Sales

10:00 Consumer Confidence

Weds 6/25:

8:30 Durable Goods Orders

8:30 Q1 GDP (Final reading)

Thurs 6/26:

8:30 Weekly Jobless Claims

8:30 Personal Income/Spending

Fri 6/27:

9:55 Consumer Sentiment

Will the Fed Follow the Bank of England?


Talk about good luck—I was coincidentally in London, just as the Bank of England created a stir in the financial world! Last Thursday, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said interest rates in the U.K. could rise sooner than investors expect. The statement was the clearest evidence that Britain’s five-year period of record-low borrowing costs is drawing to a close, perhaps portending the same for other central banks. While the British economy is in a different situation than its former colony across the pond, (parts of the empire are facing skyrocketing property prices), investors immediately extrapolated the British position and applied it to future Federal Reserve action. The analysts’ at Capital Economics note that eventually, “central banks may correctly decide that economies no longer need the support from ultra-loose monetary policy or that the benefits no longer justify the costs and risks. This point may still be a few years off, but we suspect that US interest rates in particular might return towards more normal levels at a faster pace than currently anticipated.”

This Wednesday, the Federal Reserve convenes its two-day policy meeting, where it is expected that officials will announce another $10 billion cut to their bond-buying program, reducing monthly purchases to $35 billion. Since the financial crisis, the Fed has bought more than $3 trillion worth of government and mortgage backed bonds, in an effort to inject money into the banking system; to lower long-term interest rates; and to stimulate overall economic activity. Eventually, those securities will come off the Fed's balance sheet as they mature or the central bank sells them, but that process could take years.

The central bank is also expected to keep short-term interest rates near zero, where they have been since the height of the financial crisis in December 2008. This meeting will also feature Fed projections about economic growth, unemployment and the future course of rates. The day will conclude with the main event, a press conference with Chairman Janet Yellen, where some expect her to mention concern about investor complacency. As mentioned last week in this space, the VIX, a measure of expected stock-market fluctuations, has been below its long-run average for nearly a year and a half—that’s a string of steadiness not seen since 2006 and 2007, before the financial crisis and recession. Of course it goes without saying that extended periods of low volatility can themselves increase the chances of bad events occurring.

MARKETS: Stock indexes fell for the first time in a month and oil increased, as violence escalated in Iraq. Iraq is the world’s eighth-largest producer of oil and ranks number two in OPEC countries, behind Saudi Arabia. Iraqi production has been on the comeback trail since the height of the Iraq war, hitting 3.6 million barrels a day in February, its highest level in more than 30 years. Since then, it has since fallen to 3.3 million barrels a day in May. Any protracted events in Iraq could impact oil production and prices.

  • DJIA: 16,775, down 0.9% on week, up 1.2% YTD
  • S&P 500: 1949, down 0.7% on week, up 4.7% YTD
  • NASDAQ: 4,321, down 0.2% on week, up 3.2% YTD
  • 10-Year Treasury yield: 2.6% (from 2.58% a week ago)
  • July Crude Oil: $106.91, up 4.1% on week
  • August Gold: $1252.50, up 1.7% on week
  • AAA Nat'l average price for gallon of regular Gas: $3.66 (from $3.63 a year ago)


Mon 6/16:

International Monetary Fund releases its annual review of the U.S. economy

8:30 Empire State Manufacturing

9:15 Industrial Production

10:00 Housing Market Index

Tues 6/17:

Fed begins 2-day policy meeting

8:30 Housing Starts

8:30 Consumer Price Index

Weds 6/18:

2:00 FOMC decision and econ projections

2:30 Fed Chair Yellen Press conference

Amazon expected to unveil a new smartphone

Thurs 6/19:

8:30 Weekly Jobless Claims

10:00 Philadelphia Fed Survey

Fri 6/20:

Quadruple Witching: The expiration date of stock index futures, stock index options, stock options and single stock futures. Because investors must close out of their positions, there is often an increase in trading volume.

May Jobs Report: An Economic Milestone (or Two)


The economy created 217,000 jobs in May and the unemployment rate remained at 6.3 percent. With this report, the US economy reached a milestone: Five years after the end of the recession, total employment is finally above the pre-recession peak, which means that we have FINALLY recovered 8.7 million jobs that vanished from 2008 to 2010. Total employment is now 98,000 above the previous peak and at a new all time high, although this obviously does not take into account that the labor force has grown substantially since the recession started in December 2007. That said, let's take milestones when theu come along! The May results also mean that after the severe winter, the job market remains on an upward trajectory. Over the past three months, job creation has average 234,000, ahead of the monthly job growth seen over the past year of 197,000; and through the first five months of the year, the economy has added just over a million jobs, slightly ahead of last year’s pace despite the winter woes.

There was even a smidge of good news about the labor force -- after that massive 806,000 decline in April, it increased by a modest 192,000 in May. Still, the participation rate (the number of people working or actively seeking employment) remains at a 36-year low of 62.8 percent, which not exactly a sign of a robust economy. Since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, the labor force participation rate has fallen by more than three percentage points.

One of the things missing from this recovery has been an increase in wages. Average hourly earnings increased by 0.2 percent in May from April, pushing up the annual growth rate to 2.1 percent from 1.9 percent a month ago. This is just the kind of gradual increase in wages that the Federal Reserve is hoping to see – not too slow to indicate a problem, but not so fast that the central bank has to worry about an inflationary spike. The May jobs report shows enough economic progress that the Fed can continue to slowly reduce its bond purchases by the end of the year. Still, with 9.8 million Americans out of work and many more under-employed, there's no doubt that the nation is still struggling to get back its employment mojo.

Speaking of milestones, in the “you may have missed it category,” US household net worth surpassed the pre-recession peak and topped out at $81.8 trillion in the first quarter, according to the Federal Reserve's Q1 2014 Flow of Funds report. That move higher has been powered by a doubling of stock indexes and an improving real estate market. Bill McBride at Calculated Risk notes "Although household net worth is at a record high, as a percent of GDP it is still slightly below the peak in 2006.”

MARKETS: The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX, aka “the fear index”), an options-based gauge of expected swings in the S&P 500, closed at a 52-week low of 10.73 and its lowest finish since February 23, 2007, when it closed at 10.58. It seems like forever ago, when the VIX closed at its all-time high of 80.86, but actually it was only 5 1/2 years ago, on November 20, 2008. Have we returned to the sort of complacency and risk taking that produced the financial crisis? According to The Economist, there are some warning signs: “Issuance of poorly-rated ‘junk bonds’ has risen sharply, as have loans to already highly indebted firms; former pariahs like Greece can now borrow at single-digit rates.” As you celebrate market highs, tread carefully…

  • DJIA: 16,924, up 1.2% on week, up 2.1% YTD
  • S&P 500: 1949, up 1.3% on week, up 5.5% YTD (18th closing high of year)
  • NASDAQ: 4,321, up 1.9% on week, up 3.5% YTD
  • 10-Year Treasury yield: 2.58% (from 2.47% a week ago)
  • June Crude Oil: $102.66, down 0.05% on week
  • August Gold: $1252.50, up 0.5% on week
  • AAA Nat'l average price for gallon of regular Gas: $3.67 (from $3.61 a year ago)

THE WEEK AHEAD: Retail sales will be the main event on the economic calendar, with expectations of a robust monthly gain. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has proposed a bill to address America's $1 trillion student debt problem. Democrats plan to bring it to a floor vote this week. The bill would allow students and families who previously borrowed at higher interest rates to refinance their loans at the lower rates available to students who borrow now.

Mon 6/9:

Tues 6/10:

7:30 NFIB Small Business Optimism Index

10:00 Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS)

Weds 6/11:

Thurs 6/12:

8:30 Weekly Jobless Claims

8:30 Retail Sales

8:30 Import/Export Prices

10:00 Business Inventories

Fri 6/13:

8:30 PPI

9:55 Consumer Sentiment