Thoughts on recent market volatility

Global Portfolio Advisory Group

February 6, 2018

Following a sharp rise in the year-to-January 26th (7.5%), equity markets have witnessed an extraordinary rise in volatility over the past few trading sessions leaving most major indices down 1%-5% on a year-to-date basis. From its recent highs, the S&P500 index has dropped 7.8% on an intraday basis. The past few months have been characterized by steadily rising markets with few notable losing sessions and unusually low volatility. Typically, equity markets experience one or two corrections of at least 5% per year as witnessed in the period 2012 to 2016 (see Chart 1). However, up until late January 2018 the S&P500 index had not experienced a correction exceeding 6% since mid-2016. Moreover, a double-digit percentage drawdown last appeared two years ago in December-2015/early-2016 (-12.9%). Thus, the sharp rise in volatility and rapid correction in global markets witnessed in the past few days has followed a very long stretch of unusually low volatility and a lack of profit-taking-driven selling. As volatility spiked in recent days, many investment managers found themselves in need of unwinding large investments (and/or short positions) leveraged on the view that the unusually low volatility environment of the past few months would continue, which significantly added to selling pressure in global markets over the past 24 hours.