Tag Archives: stocks

The VIX is too low!

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September 30, 2017 —   During most of this year, the VIX — the Volatility Index on The Chicago Board Options Exchange — has been at the lowest levels of the last ten years.  It recently dipped below 9, even lower than March 2007, just before the sub-prime mortgage crisis. It looks as though, once again, investors do not sufficiently appreciate how risky the world is today.

Known colloquially as the “fear index,” the VIX measures financial markets’ sensitivity to uncertainty, in the form of the perceived probability of large changes in the stock market.  It is inferred from the prices of option on the stock exchange (which pay off only when stock prices rise or fall a lot).   The low VIX in 2017 signals that we are in another “risk on” environment, when investors move out of treasury bills and other safe haven assets and instead “reach for yield” by moving into riskier assets like stocks, corporate bonds, real estate, and carry-trade currencies.

Figure 1: The VIX is at its lowest since 2007

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Are Either Low Interest Rates or Speculation Raising Holdings of Oil and Other Minerals?

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Everyone is looking for someone to blame for high prices of oil and other mineral and agricultural commodities. Speculators (among others) are high on the list, followed by the Federal Reserve. While I don’t think blame is necessarily the right concept here, I have been arguing that low real interest rates have worked to raise real commodity prices through a number of channels. Each of these channels could be called “speculation,” if speculation is defined as behavior based on expectations of future prices.

A number of commentators, including Don Kohn and Paul Krugman, have argued that low interest rates and speculation cannot be the sources of the problem, because oil inventories are low. It is true that low interest rates, other things equal, should in theory increase firms’ desire to hold inventories.

US Inventories of crude oil, 1998-2008

US crude oil inventories do not appear to be especially low in the graph above, showing June 1998-June 2008 (from Bloomberg). But it is true that they are not especially high either.

We are talking about relatively integrated world markets, however, so it is world inventories that should matter most. According to the International Energy Agency’s Oil Market Report, oil inventories held in developed countries have been above average during most of the last year, as the next graph shows.OECD oil inventories above long-run average They rose sharply in January 2008, which happens to be the month when the very aggressive cuts in US interest rates took place.Inventories of Crude Oil in Rich Countries Above Long Run Average These numbers are far from conclusive, but still…
Inventories of Crude Oil in Rich Countries Relative to Long Run

The theory is meant to explain the mystery why prices of virtually all mineral and agricultural prices are high, not just oil, and in some ways fits others better. Inventories of some commodities are indeed high now. The price of gold, the last graph shown, is a good example. Here the evidence supports the theory (1) that easy monetary policy has driven up the price, and (2) that one channel is low interest rates making it more attractive to stockpile the yellow metal. But, as with oil, the biggest inventory is the one underground.

Inventories of gold

[Thanks to Pravin Chandrasekaran.]

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