Articles for Financial Advisors



VIX is an abbreviation for "volatility index." Its actual calculation is complicated, but the basic goal is to measure how much volatility investors expect to see in the S&P 500 over the next 30 days, based on prices of S&P 500 Index options. When options traders think the stock market is likely to be calm, the VIX is low; when they expect big swings in the market, the VIX goes up.


VIX Index (index readings—not returns)

[select dates during select years]




























During times of high market turmoil, the VIX has tended to rise. The VIX index moved steadily higher as the market approached its late 1990s technology stock peak, calmed down during the steady growth period of 2003-2007, then spiked during the 2008 credit crisis and in the latter half of 2011. Because of this pattern of behavior, the VIX is sometimes referred to as the fear index; when market participants are worried about the market, the VIX tends to rise.


Investors who see the VIX having increased sharply while the market went down might be tempted to seek an investment in the VIX as a source of potential protection during market turbulence. As can be seen from the table above, from 1995 through the end of 2012, the index had a cumulative return of 46%. However, from 1998 through 2012, the index returned -47%.


Like all indexes, you cannot directly buy the VIX . Moreover, unlike a stock index such as the S&P 500, you cannot buy a basket of underlying components to mimic the VIX. Instead, the only way investors can access the VIX is through futures contracts. Index futures, such as those tied to the value of an index like the S&P or VIX, do not involve actual delivery of anything when the futures contract matures. Instead, they use a cash delivery tied to the value of the index on the delivery date.


VIX Futures Contracts: Contango

The potential problem, as with any futures contract, is contangowhen the futures price for something is > its current price. For example, if VIX is at 15 today and a 1-month VIX futures contract is trading at 16, the VIX futures market is in contango.


Imagine your goal is to always have a certain part of your portfolio invested in VIX futures. If the futures contracts are always more expensive than the current VIX level, then you pay a premium every time you buy futures. You are essentially buying high and selling low, which erodes the value of your investment over time.


Contango is not purely academic; VIX futures contracts have often been more expensive than the VIX index. According to Bloomberg, in 50 of the past 73 months (ending 12/31/2012), the 3-month VIX futures contract was above the VIX level—68% of the time over a period just over six years.


In the table below, you can see what $10,000 would be worth if it had been invested in the VIX itself versus a portfolio of short-term VIX futures contracts. These portfolios are based on actual ETFs that buy VIX futures contracts.


Value of $10,000 Investment

[Short-Term VIX Futures vs. VIX Index]




VIX Index




VIX Index

Apr. 2011




Jan. 2012



July 2011




Apr. 2012



Oct. 2011




July 2012




Since April 2011 the futures contracts have lagged significantly behind the value of the VIX index. By the end of the period, the value of $10,000 hypothetically invested in the VIX itself would have risen to almost $13,000 while the portfolios of futures contracts were worth $5,500. Had an investor actually been able to buy the VIX, the investment would have paid off during this time period; the actual investable instruments lost significant amounts of money.


Just because an investment has VIX in its name does not mean that it will move in line with the VIX index. The VIX itself can be extremely volatile—the index lost 64% of its value between September 2011 and March 2012.

Previous Post
Risk Parity Funds

For Advisors by Advisors. Browse all Programs.