#134 - Chris Cole - Volatility Is The Instrument That Makes Us Face Truth

63 minutes

In Episode 134, we welcome Chris Cole. Meb kicks off the show by asking Chris to describe his nontraditional background. Chris studied cinematography in film school at USC, while trading options in his spare time. He eventually made a career switch and began in Merrill Lynch’s analyst program in New York, while trading in his spare time. With his trading, he eventually created $1 Million to start his firm.

Next, the conversation transitions to Chris’s work, including his take that “Volatility is the only asset class.” Chris follows by discussing how returns can be deconstructed to represent either “short-vol” or “long-vol” strategies. He mentions that the average institutional portfolio is a 98% short-volatility portfolio that will not perform all that well during a period of regime change.

Meb then brings up some recent events that have transpired to lead into a chat about short vs. long volatility, and some dangers when thinking about the strategies. Chris discusses how volatility can be expressed in both tails, for example, the right tail being high volatility and high asset returns, and provides an example that volatility was averaging around 25 in the late 90s when the market was going up 30% per year. He follows with a stat that at-the-money vol moved more in January of this year than it did in the February move most might be familiar with.

Chris then provides his thoughts about regime changes, what is possible, and what he sees in the market. He starts with his recent paper, Volatility and the Alchemy of Risk. In that paper, he uses the example of the Ouroboros, or “Tail devourer” as a metaphor for the current short-volatility trade. What he sees as a worry are the explicit short-vol traders, $1.4 Trillion of implicit short-vol strategies that are re-creating a portfolio of short options by financial engineering, and corporations using leverage to buy back shares, suppressing volatility. All together these scenarios represent a snake eating its tail.

Meb then asks Chris to talk about market pressures that have resulted in liquidity changes. Chris explains that this is the only bull market in history with less and less volume, and less and less volatility. He mentions that what was scary about February’s volatility was that liquidity vanished. He follows with a discussion of passive vs. active investing, and the role active investors play in the market.

Meb then asks about catalysts for stress in the market. He talks about the passive strategy not being understood by investors as something that could lead to de-stabilizing conditions, and that over 50% of the investment grade debt is in the lowest rated tranches, and over $2 Trillion of debt that needs to be rolled in 2019 and 2020. He mentions that what could potentially cause an issue is inflation leading to higher rates, a minor turn of the business cycle given the amount of leverage and gearing on corporate balance sheets, as well as the reliance of stocks and bonds being un-correlated if the markets enter a period where stock and bond correlations are in fact positively correlated.  

Next, through an example of rental car insurance, Chris gives some background on implementing long-vol strategies by using quantitative analytics to help identify points in time where you are paid to own “insurance” against market declines, in addition to predictive analytics that provide an informational edge to help understand whether or not it might be productive to own protection against market volatility risk.

Meb follows with a question on the Japanese Vol Monster. Chris describes the short-vol trade that has been going on in Japan for a long time. He then describes philosophically that volatility is the instrument that makes us face truth.

This and more in episode 134.

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