Living with Volatility, Again

Volatility is back. Just as many people were starting to think markets only ever move in one direction, the pendulum has swung the other way. Anxiety is a completely natural response to these events. Acting on those emotions, though, can end up doing us more harm than good.

There are a number of tidy-sounding theories about why markets have become more volatile. Among the issues frequently splashed across newspaper front pages: global growth fears, policy uncertainty, geopolitical risk, and even the Ebola virus.

In many cases, these issues are not new. The US Federal Reserve gave notice last year it was contemplating its exit from quantitative easing (an unconventional monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective). Much of Europe has been struggling with sluggish growth or recession for years, and there are always geopolitical tensions somewhere.

In some ways, the increase in volatility in recent weeks could be just as much a reflection of the fact that volatility has been very low for some time. Investors in aggregate were satisfied earlier this year with a low price on risk, but now they are applying a higher discount rate to risky assets.

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