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Understanding S&P500 Volatility: Deciphering the FEAR Index?

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Decoding S&P500 Volatility: Unravelling the Fear Index and Its Impact on Investors

In the world of finance, the term "volatility" often makes investors uneasy. But what exactly is this volatility, and why is it referred to as "the fear index"? To put it simply, the CBOE VIX index, often called the fear index, is like a thermometer for the stock market's mood swings.

To jump to any section, please use the table of contents below:

Table of contents:

  1. Introduction

    1. The Fear Index Simplified

  2. Market Volatility: All-Time Highs and Lows

    1. Historical Peaks in Volatility

    2. Historical Lows in Volatility

  3. SP500 Volatility and What Makes It Move

    1. Economic News and Events

    2. How People Feel

    3. Global Factors

    4. How Companies Are Doing

    5. Interest Rates

    6. Surprise Events

  4. Historical Trends in SP500 Volatility

    1. Highs and Lows in Volatility

  5. The Impact on Investors

    1. Nervous Times

    2. Calm Waters

    3. Your Strategy Matters

  6. The Correlation Between VIX and SPY

    1. Trading the VIX Index with Trading Systems

  7. Conclusion

#1 - Introduction

The CBOE VIX index, known as the "fear index," shows how much the stock market might jump around in the future. It looks at data from options trading for the S&P 500, one of the most widely followed equity indices in the world.

When the VIX goes up, it means investors think the market will be wild. When it goes down, it suggests calmer waters ahead.

#2 - Market Volatility: All-Time Highs and Lows

To put today’s market volatility in context, let's take a look at the market’s peak periods of volatility, through both highs and lows:

“You have to learn to profit from market fluctuations rather than suffer from them“

- Francois Rochon

VIX All Time High/Low Peaks
VIX All Time High/Low Peaks for the past 30 years

We can see in the above chart that the VIX peak at the Dot Com bubble was overtaken when the Sub Prime crises hit the markets and then again skyrocketed in 2020 at the height of COVID recession fear.

By contrast, market volatility hit all-time lows during 2017, when corporate profitability was high, and the S&P 500 was in the middle of the second-longest bull run in history:

Now that we've set the stage by examining historical volatility, let's explore what the VIX truly represents and why it's often called the fear index.

#3 - SP500 Volatility and What Makes It Move

Understanding why the SP500 gets jumpy involves looking at the factors that causes it to jump up and down. Here's a simpler look at those factors:

  • Economic News and Events: Big news about the economy can shake up the stock market. When there's good news, like more jobs or a growing economy, people tend to feel better about investing, and the market isn't as jumpy. But when there's bad news, like job losses or a shrinking economy, it can make people worried, and the market gets more up and down. Think of it like this: happy news equals calm market, and sad news equals a roller coaster market.

  • How People Feel: People's feelings have a big say in the stock market's mood. If everyone's feeling really positive or really negative about the market, it can make the market swing a lot. What's happening on social media, the news, or even how people are acting on the trading floor can all affect how the market feels. The fear index helps us measure these feelings and see how everyone's doing.

  • Global Issues: Things happening around the world can also make the market go up and down. This could be political trouble, trade issues, or even wars. When there's a lot of uncertainty about how these things will affect businesses and money, it makes investors uneasy, and the fear index tends to go up.

  • How Companies Are Doing: When big companies announce how much money they've made (or lost), it can change how the market behaves. If companies make more money than people expect, it can make investors happy and reduce volatility, while disappointing results can have the opposite effect. Investors often closely watch earnings seasons for clues about the market's future direction.

  • Interest Rates: Think of interest rates like the price of borrowing money. When interest rates are low, people might be more willing to borrow money to invest in the stock market, and that can make the market less jumpy. But if interest rates go up, it gets more expensive to borrow, and that can make investors nervous.

  • Surprise Events: Sometimes, unexpected and really big things happen that catch everyone off guard. We call these "surprise events." They can be things like the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. When these events occur, the fear index can go through the roof because nobody knows what's going to happen next. Understanding these simpler factors helps investors figure out how to deal with the ups and downs of the SP500. As we keep going, we'll look back in time to see how the market's mood has changed and how investors have handled it.

#4 - Historical Trends in SP500 Volatility

Throughout history, there have been times when the market was feeling exceptionally jumpy, and other times when it was as calm as a tranquil lake. Here are some snapshots:

The Jumpiest Moments

Imagine these as the "scary roller coaster" moments in the stock market:

  • March 16, 2020: The VIX hit 82.7, and the S&P 500 dropped a staggering 12.0%. This was during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when fear was at its peak.

  • November 20, 2008: The VIX reached 80.9, and the S&P 500 fell by 6.7%. This was during the heart of the financial crisis.

  • October 27, 2008: The VIX was at 80.1, and the S&P 500 had a 3.2% drop.

  • October 24, 2008: With the VIX at 79.1, the S&P 500 fell by 3.5%.

  • March 3, 2020: The VIX stood at 76.5, and the S&P 500 declined by 2.8%. Another turbulent moment during the COVID-19 crisis.

During these times, investors were on an emotional roller coaster due to economic fears.


VIX All-Time Peaks

S&P500 Daily % Change

Mar 16, 2020



Nov 20, 2008



Oct 27, 2008



Oct 24, 2008



Mar 3, 2020



Nov 3, 2017



Jan 3, 2018



Oct 5, 2017



Jan 4, 2018



Jan 5, 2018



The Calmer Times

Now, picture these as the "smooth sailing" moments:

  • November 3, 2017: The VIX hit an all-time low of 9.1, and the S&P 500 had a modest 0.3% gain. This was during a period of economic stability and investor confidence.

  • January 3, 2018: The VIX remained low at 9.2, and the S&P 500 gained 0.6%.

  • October 5, 2017: Again, the VIX was at 9.2, and the S&P 500 saw a 0.6% rise.

  • January 4, 2018: The VIX stayed at 9.2, and the S&P 500 gained 0.4%.

  • January 5, 2018: Once more, the VIX was at 9.2, and the S&P 500 had a 0.7% gain.

These were the times when investors weren't as worried, and the market was relatively calm. It's like when everyone in the boat is feeling pretty good, so the waters are smooth.

These historical moments show us that when investors have mixed feelings about the market, it tends to be less jumpy. It's a bit like some people on the boat are having a great time, and others are a bit unsure about the journey.

Next, we'll explore how all this excitement (or lack of it) in the market affects investors like you.

#5 - The Impact on Investors

Now that we've explored the past ups and downs of the SP500, let's consider how all this excitement (or lack thereof) in the market affects you as an investor:

Nervous Times

During those nail-biting moments when the market is feeling jumpy, investors can experience some challenges:

  • Anxiety: High volatility can lead to sleepless nights and constant worry about the value of your investments. It's like being on a roller coaster ride that never seems to end.

  • Difficult Decision-Making: Investors might struggle to make decisions during times of extreme volatility. Should you sell, buy more, or hold tight? The uncertainty can be paralyzing.

  • Losses: Large market swings can lead to substantial portfolio losses if you're not well-prepared or if you panic and make hasty decisions.

Calm Waters

On the other hand, when the market is relatively calm, there are some benefits:

  • Peace of Mind: Low volatility means fewer wild price swings, leading to a more peaceful investing experience. You can relax and enjoy the ride.

  • Steady Decision-Making: It's often easier to make investment decisions when the market is stable. You can stick to your long-term strategy without constantly worrying about changes.

  • Potential Growth: A calm market can provide a conducive environment for long-term investments to grow steadily.

Your Strategy Matters

How you handle SP500 volatility depends on your investment strategy and risk tolerance. Some investors embrace volatility, seeking opportunities during market dips, while others prefer to minimize risk and opt for a more stable approach.

Understanding market fear and the factors driving volatility can help you make informed decisions, regardless of whether the market is calm or turbulent. It's like having a road map for your investment journey, helping you navigate the twists and turns.

Trading the VIX Index with Trading Systems

While market volatility can be intimidating, it also presents opportunities for savvy traders. Trading the VIX index, often referred to as the "fear index," can be approached systematically.

#6 - The Correlation Between VIX and SPY

Investors often keep a close eye on the relationship between the VIX and the SPY ETF (SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust), which tracks the performance of the S&P 500. There's an inverse relationship at play here. When the VIX, the fear index, surges, it typically coincides with declines in the SPY, indicating market turbulence. Conversely, when the VIX is low, reflecting lower perceived volatility, the SPY tends to perform more steadily.

VIX Correlation with SP500 Inxex
VIX "RED" is inversely correlated to SPY "BLUE" most of the time

This inverse correlation highlights the importance of understanding market sentiment and volatility for making informed investment decisions. It's like a seesaw—the higher the VIX, the lower the SPY, and vice versa.

VIX vs SP500 correlation
SPY moves opposites to VIX most of the time

Here's a glimpse of how trading systems can be employed:

1. Understanding the VIX:

Before diving into trading, it's crucial to have a deep understanding of the VIX. The videos titled "S&P 500 Seasonal Volatility Unleashed: A Mean Reversion Strategy with a Twist!" and "Market Timing with Panic Volatility: Build the Ultimate VIX Strategy" provide valuable insights into trading strategies related to the VIX index.

2. Choose Your Approach:

Trading the VIX can involve various strategies, including mean reversion and trend-following systems. The choice depends on your risk tolerance and trading style. The video S&P 500 Seasonal Volatility Unleashed: A Mean Reversion Strategy with a Twist! may delve into mean reversion strategies, while Market Timing with Panic Volatility: Build the Ultimate VIX Strategy could cover other approaches.

3. Risk Management:

Trading the VIX can be volatile itself, so effective risk management is crucial. Consider setting stop-loss orders and position sizes to protect your capital. The videos mentioned may offer insights on risk management strategies within VIX trading.

4. Backtesting and Analysis:

Before implementing any trading system, backtesting is essential. Test your chosen strategy using historical VIX data to evaluate its effectiveness. The insights from the videos can provide guidance on how to conduct meaningful analysis.

5. Stay Informed:

Market conditions change, and so should your trading strategy. Keep an eye on economic events, news, and geopolitical developments that could impact market sentiment and VIX levels.

#7 - Conclusion

Remember that trading the VIX index involves risk, and it's advisable to gain experience and possibly consult with professionals before venturing into this market. The videos provided can serve as valuable resources for traders looking to understand and master VIX trading systems.

As you explore the world of VIX trading, consider subscribing to the StatOasis community for access to additional resources, discussions, and insights on trading strategies and market dynamics. Subscribe here to join a thriving community of traders and investors.

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