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Central Banks Contain Future Volatility in Some Markets, Not All

By and large, central banks have control over near-term interest rates, and in the decade since the global financial crisis they have shown themselves to be adept at managing future short-term rate expectations.  Fed fund futures show that, for the moment, hardly anyone expects the Fed to change rates in the next two years, although the market does price a small probability that the Fed might cut rates (Figure 1).

In this context, perhaps it’s not surprising that implied volatility on 2Y and 5Y U.S. Treasury options has fallen to historic lows (Figure 2).  Implied volatility on 10Y U.S. Treasury futures (which usually has seven-year bonds as the cheapest-to-deliver) has also fallen to record lows.

The exception in the bond market is longer-dated Treasuries (Figure 3).  Implied volatility on long-term bond futures has not returned to pre-pandemic lows.  Long-term Treasury issuance has tripled in the aftermath of the pandemic from $17 billion to $51 billion per month, on average (Figure 4). While central bank balance sheets have soared in size (Figure 5), much of their buying focuses on shorter and medium-term maturity bonds.

While central bank buying has not returned implied volatility on long-term bonds to record lows, Fed buying of corporate-bond exchange traded funds (ETFs) has returned credit spreads, such as those on the Credit Suisse High Yield Bond Index, towards pre-pandemic levels.  High yield bonds are not usually thought of as options but their payoff is akin to that of the U.S. Treasury + a short put option on the issuing company (Figure 6).

Early in the pandemic, the currency markets were briefly perturbed by dollar-funding issues. In March, the U.S. dollar began soaring until central banks expanded swap lines and provided abundant liquidity.  Since then, implied volatility on many currency pairs has come back to normal levels including EURUSD, JPYUSD and CHFUSD (Figure 7 and 8).  There are some exceptions:  implied volatility on GBPUSD options remains elevated as Brexit deadlines near, while AUDUSD and CADUSD options also remain somewhat more expensive than during pre-pandemic times, perhaps owing to uncertainties over demand for key commodity exports from those Australia and Canada (Figure 9).

With central banks watching over corporate bond markets, investors don’t seem too worried about the debt side of the corporate ledger.  Where they are more concerned, however, is on the equity side of the equation.  Implied volatility on S&P 500® and Nasdaq 100 options, for example, is way down from its March highs but at-the-money (ATM) options on both indices remain significantly more expensive than they were prior to the pandemic (Figure 10). This is to be expected given that the markets are trading at high multiples to earnings and GDP.  Such multiples tend to vary inversely with long-term interest rates (Figure 11).  The valuation of the equity markets may depend on long-term interest rates remaining low amid record-breaking budget deficits and massive quantitative easing programs.

Indeed, among the equity indices, the Nasdaq 100 has some of the highest valuation ratios and, along with gold and silver, also seemed to benefit the most from the Fed’s $3 trillion of quantitative easing which occurred between March and May (Figure 12).  Since the Fed slowed its QE programs by 97.5% to $25 billion per month, Nasdaq, gold and silver prices began to move sideways starting in August and September.  While implied volatility has come down on all three assets, it remains high by historical standards (Figures 10 and 13).

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By: CME Group

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