Vanguard: ETFs Not To Blame For Volatility

September 14, 2011

A cloudy outlook, not ETFs or high-frequency trading, explains last month’s wild ride, Vanguard argues.

Blaming last month’s wild market volatility on ETFs and high-frequency trading is misguided to the extent that historically all volatility is linked to macroeconomic uncertainty, and the lack of clarity in the global economy right now is about as extreme as it’s ever been, according to a research note from Vanguard.

Concerns surrounding Europe’s solvency, the possibility of a new recession and ongoing struggles in the U.S.—particularly the credit rating downgrade on U.S. long-term debt by Standard & Poor’s on Aug. 5—had more to do with the market’s struggle to price risk than the investment instruments or investors themselves.

After the S&P downgrade, the S&P 500 Index averaged a 2.5 percent move, up or down, every day through the end of the month, more than double the amount seen in the 30 days prior, according to Vanguard data. What also came with the whiplash action was a spike in ETF trading volumes, leading some to blame ETFs for the volatility.

“We would argue that August’s volatility in equities, although high and painful to many investors, was not unexpected, given the market environment and the widespread repricing of risk,” Vanguard said in its report.

Valley Forge, Pa.-based Vanguard is one of the largest U.S. money management firms, with a total of about $1.6 trillion in assets under management, according to a Vanguard official.

That figure includes the more than $158 billion Vanguard has in exchange-traded funds, making it the No. 3 U.S. ETF sponsor after San Francisco-based iShares and Boston-based State Street Global Advisors.

New Volatility Paradigm? Not So Fast

To label the current environment as a new paradigm of volatility is misleading, according to Vanguard.

The company argued that if the increase in volatility were the result of a shift in market participants, there should also have been a “systematic upward shift in the volatility level over time”—a trend not borne out by the data.

“Instead, volatility remained stable and low over the preceding months and instead spiked in conjunction with the emergence of significant global macro dislocations, capped by the downgrade of U.S. Treasury debt,” Vanguard said.

While August’s volatility spike, at first blush, seems out of place compared with the relative calm of last year, it’s in fact “ordinary” relative to volatility seen during similar times of economic uncertainty. Indeed, recent market fluctuations are on par with previous moves, the company said.

History’s Been Kind To The Conservative

Moreover, history has shown that regardless of how gut-wrenching the volatility spikes are, investors who have opted for well-diversified, conservative portfolios that spread exposure across various asset classes have fared better than those who have embraced a more aggressive equity-only approach.

To those who’ve played it safe, aggregate volatility in August wasn’t what the headlines made it out to be.

“Going forward, it’s unknown whether the volatility will stay the same, increase or decrease,” Vanguard said in the report.

“What we do know is that previous periods of excess volatility have clustered around global macro events, and that, during those periods, portfolios that included allocations to less risky assets such as bonds and/or cash tended to ride out the storm much more smoothly.”



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