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More About VIX and the Signals It Is Sending


Chief Strategist at Interactive Brokers

Last week, we wrote about the steepness of the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) futures curve and what it may portend about investor expectations for the coming months.  We noted that the curve was about as steep as it was in the weeks leading up to the election. At that time, the election was expected to induce a volatile reaction, and that proved to be generally correct.  Although I stand by my hypothesis, that investors fear a “buy the rumor, sell the news” reaction to the passage of the stimulus bill, I add another factor to that theory.

What struck me most is the timing of the bump.  Consider the chart below.  The curve has flattened, but that is largely because spot VIX rose in response to this morning’s sharp selloff, not because of a diminution of future concerns.

VIX Futures Curves – Today (green), 1 Week Ago (orange), 1 Month Ago (blue)

VIX Futures Curves – Today (green), 1 Week Ago (orange), 1 Month Ago (blue)

Source: Bloomberg

Notice that the bump begins in earnest with the April futures.  Is there anything else that is on the horizon for investors in April?  I’ll give you a hint: like death, they are inescapable.  Yes, April 15th is when taxes are due.

Successful investing, and especially successful trading, creates taxable earnings.  Last year’s spectacular rally certainly created gains for those who participated – as long as the investor realized some of his gains.  The issue is particularly acute for those who used options and other short-term trading methods to create gains.  By definition, those are short-term and are taxed as ordinary income at the filer’s rate.  When we think about the remarkable rise in stock and options volume, we must assume that a fair amount of those trades led to realized profits for those who created that volume.  And that could create a problem for the market.

Let’s think about a new investor.  If he simply bought and held, he is likely to be sitting on gains, and many of those will be non-taxable.  Gains only become taxable when someone sells a profitable investment.  Yet I find it hard to believe that most of the volume that we have seen was simply by “buy and hold” investors.  Trading has become a popular pastime, and a potential taxable event is created each time a trader exits a position.  Let’s say that the new investor in our example was actually a profitable trader.  He is now potentially liable for a significant amount of taxes that need to be paid.

Unlike income from wages, where taxes are mostly withheld by employers, taxes from trading income are largely accumulated.  If an investor keeps all his money in the market without reserving cash for any potential tax liability, he will find himself needing to liquidate some of his holdings to raise cash to pay taxes.  I will assert that many new investors have both taxable gains and only small cash reserves.  Taxes could create an outflow for the markets in April.

I acknowledge that there are two potential problems with this scenario.  First, the VIX index is a 30 day look ahead.  April VIX futures expire on the 21st of the month – after the 15th when taxes are due.  I don’t see this as a dealbreaker, however.  Seasonal declines for the market usually begin in May, not April.  There are inflows into IRA accounts that tend to offset the money withdrawn for taxes.  My assertion is that the money removed around that date will be greater than the money flowing in, but that the full effect may not be felt until weeks later.  Second, it is entirely possible that savvy investors will put aside their stimulus money to reserve for future tax liabilities.  Even if that is the case, it means that the effect of the stimulus upon the markets would be muted.  The money would never enter the market and instead go back to the Treasury.

There are many moving parts to consider regarding VIX and its futures.   So far I have posited that a “buy the rumor, sell the news” response to stimulus and looming tax liabilities are raising fears in the volatility market beyond the current concerns about inflation.  We will continue to monitor VIX futures to see if those signals remain in effect.

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