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Option-Like Payoffs

It seems we have a lot of option-like payoffs looming in the next few months.

By that I mean that we have a number of events that are likely to result in either-or (binary) outcomes. Think of them as options that are going to either finish in the money or out of the money. For example, either President Obama will win re-election, or he won’t. Either the Bush tax rates will be extended, or they won’t.

Those two are truly option-like, in that they also have a fixed maturity. We will know in 33 days who the President for the next four years will be. While the Bush tax rates could always be extended retroactively to cover 2013 even if it takes until February to hammer out an agreement so that can happen, the deadline to make transactions that put income or capital gains into 2012 rather than 2013 is December 31st.

Now, what we know about options is that as you get closer to expiry and are “near the money,” your gamma increases. Gamma is a measure of how quickly the option’s delta changes – how quickly you go from feeling like a likely winner to a sure loser. An example will help. If you own $660 call options on AAPL (closing price today $666.80), and they expire in a year, then it’s probably roughly a coin flip whether those calls will end up in the money or not.[1] We would say the delta is about 0.5. If AAPL sells off to $650, then looking one year out it’s still probably pretty close to a coin flip – obviously slightly less likely, but not a bunch. Maybe 0.49 is your delta, meaning that you have something like a 1% worse chance of ending up in-the-money.

But if, on the other hand, the options are expiring at 4pm today, then your $660 call is looking pretty good when the stock is trading at $666.80 at 2pm. Your delta might be 0.95. But when, by 3pm, the stock drops to $650, your chances of winning have declined dramatically. Your delta is perhaps 0.02. Because these odds move much more dramatically, we say this option has more gamma. This is a function of both the time to maturity and the nearness of the strike to the current price.

Option traders, who try to manage their risk by delta-hedging an option, like gamma a lot if they’re long options, and dislike it immensely if they’re short options.[2] That’s because if they’re short, the hedge involves them buying into strength (aka “buy high”) and selling into weakness (aka “sell low”), and often leads to frenetic trading and on occasion, serious moves on expiry day.

Where am I going with this? An observation: as we get closer to these “option events,” if they are still not resolved one way or the other the markets will likely grow more volatile. Consider what happens to an equity investor thinking about the ‘fiscal cliff’ as year-end approaches and no deal has been struck on taxes. The investor is going to be increasingly concerned about selling stocks in which he has gains, to book those gains in 2012 in case the tax rates go up a lot. If it appears that Congress is starting to resolve some issues, then this selling pressure may relent and the markets rebound. This could go back and forth as often as the headlines change, and I will tell you that those headlines will get more frequent as the deadline draws nearer. This implies to me that market volatility will probably increase as we get closer to the election, and as we move into year-end, because of these option-like events.

There are other option-like events, although less certain in timing (Israel attacks Iran, or not. Spain asks for aid and gets it, or not. Greece defaults, or not). These will have less obvious “gamma effects,” although as long as in each case they have at least two plausible outcomes that could well happen, it will tend to contribute to volatility.

In other words, with the VIX is near the lows for the year options seem inexpensive to me.

I’m having these thoughts today because I’m watching the wild gyrations in gasoline, which was -12 cents at Wednesday’s lows (finishing -7 cents) and +14 cents today. November gas covered nearly the entire 2-month range in 2 days’ trading. More near to my heart, inflation breakevens have spiked for the last few days (+8bps today) after spending half of September retracing from a spike to touch all-time wides (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Note that this is the ten year breakeven, so it isn’t reacting here just to gasoline. And I am not aware that the outlook for growth has changed dramatically this week, nor any major money metric. What is going on? My only guess at the moment is: gamma. Small things, like a win for the Republican challenger in last night’s debate, can cause big changes in expectations, and this will become even more true as long as the race stays tight.

If we look at just that market, we could also mull the technical issues. A market that spikes to all-time highs is one thing. A market that spikes, retraces, and then rallies back to a new high would be quite another thing altogether, and might signal a new range for inflation expectations is being formed. And oh, my, would that be significant?

The equity market remains elevated, and rising inflation expectations will eventually take a toll on multiples. It always does. I don’t want to bet against equities while inflation is currently low and the Fed is trying to push the market higher, but I believe we have some volatility ahead. With implied volatilities so low on options right now, it may be worth buying puts.


[1] I am ignoring the important nuance that in this case, the forward price will be different than the spot price – it’s not important for my illustration, but you really want to compare the strike price to the forward price of AAPL, not the spot price. I make this footnote just so that readers familiar with option theory won’t think I don’t know what I’m talking about.

[2] Again, this isn’t quite true. An option trader knows that an option with a lot of gamma also has a lot of time decay, and vice versa. As a former options trader, I can tell you there is no more helpless feeling than being long gamma on expiration day and watching the market sit in a 2-tick range, knowing you’re going to lose all your time value with no delta-hedging gains, and nothing you can do about it.

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TIPS Are No Longer Cheap, But Still Preferable

September 18, 2012 3 comments

TIPS have gone from being rich on an absolute basis, but cheap against nominal bonds, to (still) rich on an absolute basis, but fair versus nominal bonds as nominal yields have risen. That statement is based, however, on a static equilibrium – given where nominal yields are now, after a 40bp selloff since July, real yields have fallen slightly (see chart, source Bloomberg – nominal yields in yellow, real yields in white) and are about right.

I have previously documented this move, pointing out the rise in breakevens and/or inflation swaps. However, because I was traveling I didn’t write anything following Friday’s skyrocketing breakevens, which followed through on Monday to within a couple of basis points of all-time highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

That leap seemed exceptionally surprising to some, given the weakness of core CPI on Friday. But inflation expectations on Friday were still reacting to the Fed’s open-ended QE move, which had moved 10-year breakevens to near 2.50% on Thursday. After sleeping on it, many investors realized what we realized immediately: there is nothing deflationary about buying bonds without limit, using money printed for the purpose. The Fed professes to be concerned about the negative tail risk to growth (which they can do nothing about), and ignores the positive tail risk to inflation (which they could do something about, if they chose). It is not at all surprising that breakevens leapt.

As I said, these recent gyrations have moved TIPS to being approximately fair value relative to nominal bonds, given the yield of nominal bonds. But the further question is whether those nominal yields are themselves at fair value, or are on the way to higher or lower levels.

A reasonable question to interpose here is this: is this as good as it gets for bonds? What could be better than unlimited Fed buying? Well…I suppose unlimited buying in Treasuries, as opposed to mortgages, would be better, but with 10-year yields at 1.81% one would think that both a considerable amount of buying and a considerable amount of bad economic news is priced in. To be sure, the news continues to be bad; Friday’s -10.41 print in the Empire Manufacturing Survey was the lowest since the dip in 2008-09. Lower than the “cash for clunkers” hangover in 2010. Lower than the post-Japanese-tsunami drag in 2011.

But consider this: in the throes of a much worse crisis (especially demographically), and with the Japanese central bank making only timid efforts to resist deflation – and certainly not buying every bond in sight, as the Fed is – the average yield of 10-year Japanese government bonds (JGBs) from 1997-2007 was 1.51% (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Even if you take the crisis-on-a-crisis period of post-2008 for Japan, the average 10-year yield is about 1.15% – and that’s with deflation in full bloom and the central bank until the last year or so doing little to fight it.

In Japan, core inflation is at -0.6% over the last 12 months, and 10-year yields are at 0.81%. Our core inflation is 1.3% higher and our nominal yields only 1% higher. There is a lot of disinflation and/or Fed buying that is already in the price. I am not saying that we ought to be selling nominal bonds here; I’ve gotten burned on that call in the past, and anyway we are in the middle of the strongest bullish seasonal period of the year for bonds. But the Fed just added to the length of the possible “high inflation tail” outcome – and I fail to see what the offsetting bullish tail is. I can’t imagine why anyone would buy nominal bonds at these levels, given what the Fed and their pals at other central banks are doing.

But if nominal yields do rise further, this means that TIPS yields will eventually start to rise as well. I still prefer TIPS to nominals, and I still want to be long breakeven inflation, but admittedly it is a more difficult trade at these levels than it was back on August 7th, when I first noted that our Fisher model indicated a short position in TIPS and a long position in breakevens.

I say this, going into a TIPS auction tomorrow with 10-year TIPS yields near all-time lows and 10-year breakevens as I noted near all-time highs. It’s not going to feel like a bargain for anyone, but a year from now, it may seem like it.

Now, make no mistake: the core inflation print on Friday of +0.052% was a definite surprise on the weak side. But it wasn’t quite as weak as it looked. In fact, thanks to Housing and Transportation, 62% of the CPI major subgroups saw their year-on-year rates of change rise, while only 38% (Food/Beverages, Apparel, Recreation, Education/Communication, and Medical Care) saw those rates decline. Much of the weakness in core inflation came from apparel (which is interesting and worth watching to see if it continues) and large moves in used cars and airline fares. Moreover, as I observed last week, the year-ago comparisons get much easier for the next four months, so that the current 1.9% core inflation print is likely to be the lowest for this year. If it’s not, then we’ll need to re-assess what is going on, but for now nothing has changed about my forecast. Do note that the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI was unchanged again up at a 2.3% y/y rate of change, reinforcing the fact that the core decline over the last few months has been driven by some outlier price movements rather than by a shift in the central moment of the distribution.

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