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VIX and the Psychology of Markets

We know that greed and fear rule the markets. But did you know that when investors gets too greedy, markets usually fall, and when investors are overcome with fear, markets usually rise. So how can when we monitor investors emotions and take advantage of investors emotional extremes? Welcome to the world of investor sentiment analysis. Investor psychology has been analysed for at least 250 years. Charles MacKay wrote his book, ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds’, in 1841, describing, among other manias, the herd mentality that caused the South Sea Bubble. Since then, many academics have published financial theories based on the concept that individuals act rationally and consider all available information in the decision-making process.

But real life frequently demonstrates that the behavior of equity markets is irrational and unpredictable. A field known as “behavioural finance” has evolved over the years attempting to explain how emotions influence investors and their decision-making process. Studying human psychology helps predict the general direction of financial markets as well as many stock market bubbles and crashes. At the height of a period of optimism, greed moves stocks higher, ignoring business fundamentals and therefore creating an overpriced market. At the other extreme, fear moves prices lower, ignoring obvious opportunities and creates an undervalued market.

One important study, (“Aspects of Investor Psychology,” The Journal of Portfolio Management, Summer 1998) found that investors are much more distressed by prospective losses than they are made happy by equivalent gains. Some researchers theorize that investors “follow the crowd” and conventional wisdom to avoid any regret in the event their decisions prove to be incorrect. QUANTIFYING INVESTOR EMOTIONS OR INVESTOR SENTIMENT When a stock or market index rises, we know that it means investors are more eager to buy than to sell. But how can we accurately gauge just how investors feel? Most often, investors are somewhere between mildly positive and mildly negative, and only occasionally do they demonstrate the extremes of greed or fear. It is easier to detect emotion when it is close to either irrational exuberance or outright fear. When markets act this way, it becomes "news" and moves from the business section, to being featured at the start of the evening news, and on the front page of the daily newspaper. The success of charting as a tool, depends on investors repeating their behaviour patterns. There is always a comfort factor in doing the same as others and generally an aversion to behaving differently. Investors display herding instincts in their behaviour and this has become particularly noticeable among institutional investors. In the early stages of a rising trend in a market, positive sentiment can act as a positive driving force as everyone rushes in to join the party.

However, there comes a time after the trend has been in place, when this positive sentiment acts as a warning that the trend is nearing its climax. That’s when smart investors will start switching to alternative investments. The most sophisticated and active players in the market use derivative products to effect their transactions. These players tend to display earlier changes in emotion than most investors and normally their emotions run to greater extremes. So, derivative markets are a good source of data on investor sentiment. There are various options available on stocks, ETF's and indexes. By using an option pricing formula, we can extract a measure of how much investors are prepared to pay for the possibility of making a profit, or hedging against a loss. This is known as implied volatility, and it provides a mathematical valuation of investor emotion. Implied volatility tends to be high (the scale is inverted) when the market has had a sharp fall and this is associated with investor fear. At the other extreme, low implied volatility often occurs after a rise in the market and when investors are becoming complacent.

Implied volatility image http://www.theuptrend.com/ebook/ImpliedvolatilityAA.gif WHAT IS THE VIX? VIX is the symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange's volatility index for the S&P 500 (SPX). It is a measure of the level of implied volatility and not historical or statistical volatility. A numerical value for the VIX has been published by the CBOE since 1993. The method of calculating VIX was changed in early 2003. Instead of using the S&P 100 (OEX) Index options, it is now calculated using the options on the S&P 500 (SPX). Also note that the VXN is the symbol for the implied volatility index of the NASDAQ 100 index. The implied volatilities are weighted to give the VIX a value that in effect acts as the implied volatility of an at-the-money SPX option at 22-trading days to expiration.

The VIX represents the implied volatility of a hypothetical at-the-money SPX option. If implied volatility is high, the premium on options will be high and vice versa. Generally speaking, rising option premiums reflect rising expectation of future volatility of the underlying stock index, which represents higher implied volatility levels. The higher the VIX, the more panic in the markets and the greater the chance that investors have given up hope, taken their money, and gone home. Comparing the movement of the VIX with that of the market can quite often provide clues as to the future direction the market might move. The more the VIX increases in value, the more "panic" is an issue in the market place. On the flip side, the more the VIX decreases in value, the more complacency there is amongst investors. The psychological impact measured by a relatively high VIX is a clear indicator that tells traders markets are oversold. A historic example was displayed on July 23rd 2002 when the VIX shot over 55.


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