The Chicago Board Options Exchange established a volatility index (VIX). The VIX is not a measure of how volatile the markets have been. It is a reflection of how volatile investors predict the markets will be in the short term. An increase in the VIX option price means investors expect market volatility to be high. This is typically interpreted as a sign that investors are fearful of future market conditions. That’s why this index is often called the “fear index.” When it’s lower, investors supposedly feel more comfortable.
Investors are paying attention to VIX prices these days because the markets are very turbulent. Some investors are buying or selling VIX contracts (or purchasing shares in an exchange traded fund (ETF) that tracks the VIX’s performance) in an effort to profit from what they perceive as a trend of continued volatility. Others use the VIX to guide their investment decisions. Both uses are ill-advised.
Buying or selling VIX contracts is simply speculation. You may be right or wrong. Tomorrow’s news moves markets. No one knows what that news will be. When you “buy the VIX”, you’re gambling with your investment capital. When you speculate, your expected return is zero (or less, when you consider expenses).
Using the VIX to guide investment decisions is another bad idea. All we know about the equity markets is that, historically, they increase in value over time. In the short term, the equity markets are volatile-in an unpredictable manner and to varying degrees. Short-term volatility has very little discernable impact on long-term returns.
Investors (as contrasted with speculators) invest for the long term. They are not concerned with short-term volatility.
So how do you deal with stomach-churning short-term volatility?
1. Understand that some segments of the markets are very volatile. Every portfolio should have a mix of risky investments and more conservative ones. The risky investments (like small and value stocks) will have greater short-term volatility-and higher long-term returns-than more conservative investments.
2. Focus on long-term data. Instead of looking at short-term volatility, consider the amount of time you can hold on to your stock portfolio without selling 20 percent or more of it. If you have a time horizon of less than five years, you should have no exposure to the stock markets. If you have a time horizon of twelve years or more, you can be heavily invested in stocks. The long-term data indicates an extremely high statistical likelihood of meaningful annualized returns for investors who can hold on through the periods of short-term volatility.
Rather than fearing short-term volatility, you should understand and embrace it. It’s part of investing. In fact, when the markets are bad, the long-term prospects for stocks and bonds are better.
Ignore the VIX and all the talking heads on television carrying on about the significance of this volatility index. It’s just another way to panic you into making short-term decisions harmful to your long-term financial health.
Dan Solin is a Senior Vice-President of Index Funds Advisors. He is the author of the New York Times best sellers The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read and The Smartest 401(k) Book You’ll Ever Read. His latest book is The Smartest Retirement Book You’ll Ever Read.