High Volume of Options Trades Reveals Market Nervousness

Every cloud has a silver lining, and one in this market downturn is option trading. Bloomberg reports that stock option volume has increased considerably. And in another sign of market stress (or maybe just random stupidity), jck at Alea reports a “mass order error” on Globex led to a big order imbalance, a lot of busted trades, and subsequent cancellation option and futures trades outside the “no bust” range and of automated orders that triggered by the spike.

From Bloomberg:

While few, if any, investors are making money buying U.S. stocks this year, the market for puts and calls is providing a bonanza on Wall Street where options trading has never been so brisk….

….last week was the busiest ever for options trading, with 93.8 million contracts changing hands, according to Chicago-based Options Clearing Corp. The almost $100 billion in bank subprime mortgage losses that sparked the worst yearly start to stock trading since 1982 is also boosting volatility. Wider price swings increase the likelihood a contract can be exercised; when volatility rises, so does the price of an option.

“The options market thrives on fear,” said Chip Hendon, who helps manage $12 billion at Huntington Asset Management in Cincinnati, including $150 million in listed options. “When there’s more fear, there’s more opportunity.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index last week posted its third straight weekly loss, declining 0.8 percent. Europe’s Dow Jones Stoxx 600 Index retreated a fifth week, slipping 2.4 percent, while the MSCI Asia Pacific Index fell 2.8 percent.

Betting on stock declines isn’t making investors as much as buying contracts in the $1.3 trillion U.S. options market.

Investors who bought a contract to sell the S&P 500 for 1,460 by the end of this week have doubled their investment since purchasing it at the start of the year. Shorting the index, or selling a borrowed security in the hopes of replacing it at a lower cost, would have returned 77 percent in the same period.

Options on the S&P 500 are 24 percent cheaper than in November, according to the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, even though stocks are lower. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the most profitable securities firm, and New York- based BlackRock Inc., the second-biggest publicly traded U.S. asset manager, say volatility will rise this year.

Last year’s increase in swings set a record, when the volume for contracts on shares, exchange-traded funds and equity indexes grew 41 percent to 2.86 billion, according to the OCC….

“You’ll see more and more mainstream funds asking their boards for permission to use options,” said Quincy Krosby, who helps manage $330 billion as chief investment strategist at Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut. “It’s becoming easier to do, less expensive and in markets that are more volatile and can change radically in one day, it may also be the prudent thing to do.”….

“It’s a recipe for volatility,” said Dean Junkans, who oversees $260 billion as chief investment officer at Wells Fargo & Co.’s wealth-management division in Minneapolis. The firm almost doubled the use of options for its clients last year, he said….

Maneesh Deshpande at New York-based Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Goldman’s Maria Grant say volatility will stay high. The strategists — heads of the top-ranked derivatives teams in Institutional Investor magazine’s 2007 survey — recommend buying puts on the S&P 500. Grant favors those that can be exercised if the benchmark falls 3 percent to 5 percent by Feb. 15.

“Volatility is here to stay for the next few months,” said Craig Effron, who oversees $3.5 billion, including options, as co-founder of Scoggin Capital Management in New York. “A lot of people have recession fears, and they think the market may fall apart.”

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  1. Lune

    I respectfully disagree. I don’t think the trading volume reflects nervousness as it does a compulsive gambler’s propensity to double his bet when he’s down.

    I realize that options are officially touted for their ability to hedge risk, but let’s be frank: that’s not why 90% of people use options. Most people use options to leverage their bets, since the potential for returns is much greater than holding the underlying stock.

    Nervous people don’t leverage bets and take on added risk. They exit the market, park their money in safer investments, and wait.

    Compulsive gamblers on the other hand, in the face of increasing losses, usually go for higher payout games without caring about the diminished odds, in the hopes of “just getting that one big payout” that’ll allow them to recoup their money.

    My suspicion is that lots of people are already quite down this month, and are hoping that a quick strike in the options market can make up for the beating they’ve taken so far. That’s the mark of a desperate gambler, not a nervous investor.

  2. Yves Smith


    You are correct, my headline was a bit inept. A better one might be “Tanking market leads to greater use of options.” We’ve had a strongly trend, and not in the usual direction, and playing it via options is much safer than via shorts.

  3. Lune


    That’s true. Options are safer than shorts. But if the only thing happening was people betting against the market by loading up on puts, then volume would be up, but volatility wouldn’t necessarily increase as well, would it? I’m not an economist, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my intrinsic sense.

  4. a

    Mechanically (supply and demand), if there is a lot of demand for puts, then the price of the puts goes up, and what is called “implicit volatility” (the volatility implicit in the level of the put) goes up. Historical volatility – the volatility you see on the underlying from day to day in the market – may go up or not.

  5. Yves Smith


    I should have turned in an hour ago, so this is coming from my dim and therefore possibly inaccurate recollection (I am not going to look this up).

    I am pretty sure options are priced on the implied (expected future over the duration of the option) volatility of the underlying. That in turn can be very much influenced by events.

    That is one reason the classic option dealer’s trade is “short vol.” Crises happen, options prices spike up because implied volatility goes way up. The traders bet on mean reversion. But as LTCM learned to its downfall, to quote Keynes, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”

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