Reacting To The Selloff

by: David Merkel, CFA

(At 12:44 PM:) With the long bond, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, and option implied volatility rising today, there is a panicky feel to the markets. Though this could be the start of a “big, bad event,” the odds are that it will not be so bad. One signal of panic that I see is that the VIX is up 21% today, against an S&P 500 down 1.5%. Under ordinary circumstances, that ratio is 10, rather than the 14 we are seeing today. If that ratio gets over 20, it is a sign that too many people are buying index puts to protect their portfolios. If it gets under 5, too few are doing so.

And, as with most investing, stick to your normal way of doing business. Don’t overreact to the markets. We haven’t had significant volatility in a while, and frankly, we need some to keep people from speculating excessively. Don’t react to today; ask yourself what things will likely be like three years from now, and use that as your guide to investing. The manic Mr. Market may serve up some bargains. If so, my rebalancing discipline will edge me more into the markets, bit-by-bit in a measured way. This takes the emotion out of it, which leads to better overall performance.

Update at market close:

Sold my TLT positions slightly after 3PM today and bought some QQQQs with the proceeds. I think that the short run selling is overdone, with the TRIN over 14, and my ratio mentioned above, which I call DeltaVIX over 17, I felt it was better to add a modest amount of equity exposure to my balanced mandates. We added some Hartford (NYSE:HIG) as well at the hedge fund.

None of my broad market portfolio hit a rebalance point, so I didn’t do anything there, despite 32 out of my 35 stocks being down over 1%, and only one up. In aggregate, it looks like my broad market portfolio will be down 3% or so, and my balanced mandates down a little more than a percent.

I plan on reviewing all of my indicators tonight, and see what they suggest.

PS — a friend pinged me and suggested that today’s move in the VIX did not come from put buying, but from options selling. Seems credible to me.

Disclosure: long FXY FXF QQQQ HIG, and now (after the update) flat TLT