Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets. Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.
As the global markets consensus shifts toward a “basically bullish, but enough for now” stance — at least before Fed chief Bernanke on Monday was read as rekindling Fed easing hopes — more than a few investment strategists are examining the cost and wisdom of hedging against it all going pear-shaped again. At least two of the main equity hedges, core government bonds and volatility indices, have certainly got cheaper during the first quarter. But volatility (where Wall St’s Vix index has hit its lowest since before the credit crisis blew up in 2007!) looks to many to be the most attractive option. Triple-A bond yields, on the other hand, are also higher but have already backed off recent highs and bond prices remain in the stratosphere historically. And so if Bernanke was slightly “overinterpreted” on Monday — and even optimistic houses such as Barclays reckon the U.S. economy, inflation and risk appetite would have to weaken markedly from here to trigger “QE3″ while further monetary stimuli in the run-up to November’s U.S. election will be politically controversial at least — then there are plenty of investors who may seek some market protection.