- A key tracker of stock-market volatility at its lowest since early 2020 at the same time that US stocks are at record highs.
- Investors should anticipate Wall Street’s so-called “fear gauge”, or VIX, to come off those lows in the coming months, said UBS.
- Volatility may pick up pace as investors wrestle with inflation worries and COVID-19 variants.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Wall Street’s key measure of stock-market volatility is at its lowest since the COVID-19 crisis took off in the US last year, but that calmness will likely break over the next few months, according to UBS.
The US stock market has soared to record highs in 2021 on the back of accelerating coronavirus vaccinations worldwide and roughly $5 trillion in financial aid deployed by the US government to mitigate the pandemic’s economic damage. The vaccinations and stimulus packages have been laying the groundwork for a further reopening of the world’s largest economy as people begin to rebuild work and school routines and spend the money sent to them by Uncle Sam.
The S&P 500 index has shot above the 4,100 level and the Dow Jones Industrial Average tracking blue-chips is at its strongest levels, driven by cyclical sectors such as energy and industrials that stand to benefit from increased economic activity.
Wall Street’s so-called “fear gauge,” at the same time, has dropped below the 17 level, the lowest since early February 2020, before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. But don’t expect the Cboe volatility index to continue to stay that low, said the world’s largest wealth manager in a note published Friday.
UBS noted a news report that at least one investor bought about $40 million in VIX call options that indicate the buyer expects market volatility to pick up pace over the next three months. One or more investors anticipated the VIX to reach above the 25 level and rise towards 40 by mid-July, Reuters reported, citing trading data.
“We see reasons to expect periodic bouts of higher volatility in the near term,” said Mark Haefele, chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth Management, in the note.
Growth vs inflation
Firstly, investors may be torn between optimism over accelerating economic growth and worries over higher inflation. Among the signs that recovery is taking further hold was the recent and strongest reading in services-sector activity since 1997 from the Institute for Supply Management. European growth should also strengthen as vaccinations increase.
“Still, as pent-up demand meets supply constraints, a pickup in inflation could well unsettle investors,” said the investment bank. This week, Dallas Federal Reserve President Robert Kaplan said inflation could rise “well in excess of 2.5%,” over the summer, which would be well above the Fed’s 2% target.
Investors have so far looked through news about variant strains of COVID-19. “This optimism could be put to the test by the spread of new variants of the virus, especially in areas where the vaccination effort has been progressing well, such as in the US.”
UBS noted “pockets” of rising infections in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Volatility has been “sporadically heightened” by a rise in institutional and retail activity in the options market, along with the increased share of growth stocks in major equity indexes, said UBS.
“In the first quarter we saw retail activity driving volatility in individual stocks, such as GameStop, which spilled over into broader market swings,” said Haefele.