Infographic: Volatility 101 - An Introduction to Market Volatility
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Volatility 101: An Introduction to Market Volatility

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Volatility 101: An Introduction to Market Volatility

Volatility 101: An Introduction to Market Volatility

Almost all assets see fluctuations in value over time.

But while price swings are a common phenomenon in most asset classes that exist, they are the most famous in the stock market.

These upward and downward movements in price are known as volatility, which is defined as “a measure of the frequency and severity of price movement in a given market”.

Understanding Volatility

Today’s infographic comes to us from Fisher Investments, and it serves as an introduction to the concept of volatility, along with offering a perspective on volatility’s impact on investments.

Why are certain times more volatile than others?

In the short term, volatility is driven by changes in demand, which is largely related to changes in earnings expectations. These expectations can be affected by:

  • Earnings reports
  • New economic data
  • Company leadership changes
  • New innovations
  • Herd mentality
  • Political changes
  • Interest rate changes
  • Market sentiment swings
  • Other events (economic, political, etc.)

Often the media and investors assign certain narratives to price changes, but the reality is that the stock market is very complex, and has many underlying factors that drive movements.

What ultimately matters for volatility is demand: if stocks move up or down on a given day, we can say definitively that demand for stock was more (or less) than stock supply.

Calculating Volatility

Technically speaking, volatility is a statistical measure of the dispersion of returns for a given security or market index over a specific timeframe.

In other words, two stocks may have the same average rate of return over a year, but one may have daily moves of 1%, while the other may jump around by 5% each day. The latter stock has a higher standard deviation of returns, and thus has higher volatility.

Here’s what you need to know about standard deviation, which is a common measure of volatility:

  • Roughly 68% of returns fall within +/-1 standard deviation
  • To calculate standard deviation, differences must be squared. This means negative and positive differences are combined
  • Standard deviation tells you how likely a particular value is, based on past data
  • Standard deviation doesn’t, however, show you the direction of movement

This all gets more interesting as we look at the market as a whole, in which thousands of stocks (each with their own individual volatility) are moving up and down simultaneously.

Market Volatility

Now that you can see how volatility plays out with individual stocks, it makes sense that market volatility is the overall volatility from the vast collection of stocks that make up the market.

In the United States, the most watched stock market index is the S&P 500 – a collection of 500 of the largest companies listed in the country. One measure of the volatility of the S&P 500 is the CBOE Volatility Index, or as it is known by its ticker symbol, the VIX.

Volatility and market sentiment in the overall market are important, because humans tend to experience the pain of loss more acutely than the upside of gains – and this can impact short-term decision making in the markets.

Negative price swings in the wider market can be distressful and unnerving for investors, and high volatility does present some challenges:

  • Uncertainty in the markets can lead to fear, which can lead investors to make decisions they may otherwise not make
  • If certain cashflows are needed at a later date, higher volatility means a greater chance of a shortfall
  • Higher volatility also means a wider distribution of possible final portfolio values

That said, volatility also represents a chance of better returns than expected – and for long-term investors that are patient, volatility can help drive outcomes.

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Investor Education

A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

If companies want their stock price to rise, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? This infographic explains why.

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A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

Imagine a shop window containing large pieces of cheese.

If the value of that cheese rises over time, the price may move beyond what the majority of people are willing to pay. This presents a problem as the store wants to continue selling cheese, and people still want to eat it.

The obvious solution is to divide the cheese into smaller pieces. That way, more people can once again afford to buy portions of it, and those who want more can simply buy more of the smaller pieces.

cheese and stock splits

The total volume of the cheese is still worth the same amount, it’s only the portion size that changed. As the infographic above by StocksToTrade demonstrates, the same concept applies to stock splits.

Like wheels of cheese, stocks can be split a number of different ways. Some of the more common splits are 2-for-1, 3-for-1, and 3-for-2. Less common splits can take place as well, such as when Apple increased its outstanding shares by a 7-to-1 ratio in 2014.

Why Companies Do Stock Splits

Of course, stocks aren’t cheese.

The real world of the financial markets, driven by macro trends and animal spirits, is more complex than items in a shop window.

If companies want their stock price to continue rising, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? Here are a some specific reasons why:

1. Liquidity
As our cheese example illustrated, stocks can sometimes see price appreciation to the point where they are no longer accessible to a wide range of investors. Splitting the stock (i.e. making an individual share cheaper) is an effective way of increasing the total number of investors who can purchase shares.

2. Sending a Message
In many cases, announcing a stock split is a harbinger of prosperity for a company. Nasdaq found that companies that split their stock outperformed the market. This is likely due to investor excitement and the fact that companies often split their stock as they approach periods of growth.

3. Reducing Capital Costs
Stocks with prices that are too high have spreads that are wider than similar stocks. When spreads—the difference between the bid and offer—are too large, they eats into investor returns.

4. Meeting Index Criteria
There are specific instances when a company may want to adjust its share price to meet certain index requirements.

One example is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the well-known 30-stock benchmark. The Dow is considered a price-weighted index, which means that the higher a company’s stock price, the more weight and influence it has within the index. Shortly after Apple conducted its 7-to-1 stock split in 2014, dropping the share price from about $650 to $90, the company was added to the DJIA.

On the flip side, a company might decide to pursue a reverse stock split. This takes the existing amount of shares held by investors and replaces them with fewer shares at a higher price. Aside from the general stigma associated with a lower share price, companies need to keep the price above a certain threshold or face the possibility of being delisted from an exchange.

Stock Splits Happen, but are not Inevitable

Alphabet will become the most recent high profile company to split their stock in early 2022. The company’s 20-for-1 stock split aims to make the share price more accessible to retail investors dropping the price from approximately $2,750 to $140 per share.

Conversely, Berkshire Hathaway has famously never split its stock. As a result, a single share of BRK.A is worth over $470,000. Berkshire Hathaway’s legendary founder, Warren Buffett, reasons that splitting the stock would run counter to his buy-and-hold investment philosophy.

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Investor Education

Visualizing The World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds

To date, only two countries have sovereign wealth funds worth over $1 trillion. Learn more about them in this infographic.

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Visualized: The World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds

Did you know that some of the world’s largest investment funds are owned by national governments?

Known as sovereign wealth funds (SWF), these vehicles are often established with seed money that is generated by government-owned industries. If managed responsibly and given a long enough timeframe, an SWF can accumulate an enormous amount of assets.

In this infographic, we’ve detailed the world’s 10 largest SWFs, along with the largest mutual fund and ETF for context.

The Big Picture

Data collected from SWFI in October 2021 ranks Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (also known as the Norwegian Oil Fund) as the world’s largest SWF.

The world’s 10 largest sovereign wealth funds (with fund size benchmarks) are listed below:

CountryFund NameFund TypeAssets Under Management (AUM) 
🇳🇴 Norway Government Pension Fund Global SWF$1.3 trillion
🇺🇸 U.S.Vanguard Total Stock Market Index FundMutual fund$1.3 trillion
🇨🇳 ChinaChina Investment CorporationSWF$1.2 trillion
🇰🇼 Kuwait Kuwait Investment Authority SWF$693 billion
🇦🇪 United Arab EmiratesAbu Dhabi Investment Authority SWF$649 billion
🇭🇰 Hong Kong SARHong Kong Monetary Authority Investment PortfolioSWF$581 billion
🇸🇬 SingaporeGovernment of Singapore Investment CorporationSWF$545 billion
🇸🇬 SingaporeTemasek SWF$484 billion
🇨🇳 ChinaNational Council for Social Security Fund SWF$447 billion
🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaPublic Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia SWF$430 billion
🇺🇸 U.S.State Street SPDR S&P 500 ETF TrustETF$391 billion
🇦🇪 United Arab EmiratesInvestment Corporation of DubaiSWF$302 billion 

SWF AUM gathered on 10/08/2021. VTSAX and SPY AUM as of 09/30/2021.

So far, just two SWFs have surpassed the $1 trillion milestone. To put this in perspective, consider that the world’s largest mutual fund, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX), is a similar size, investing in U.S. large-, mid-, and small-cap equities.

The Trillion Dollar Club

The world’s two largest sovereign wealth funds have a combined $2.5 trillion in assets. Here’s a closer look at their underlying portfolios.

1. Government Pension Fund Global – $1.3 Trillion (Norway)

Norway’s SWF was established after the country discovered oil in the North Sea. The fund invests the revenue coming from this sector to safeguard the future of the national economy. Here’s a breakdown of its investments.

Asset Class% of Total AssetsCountry DiversificationNumber of Securities
Public Equities72.8%69 countries9,123 companies
Fixed income24.7%45 countries1,245 bonds
Real estate2.5%14 countries867 properties

As of 12/31/2020

Real estate may be a small part of the portfolio, but it’s an important component for diversification (real estate is less correlated to the stock market) and generating income. Here are some U.S. office towers that the fund has an ownership stake in.

AddressOwnership Stake
601 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 45.0%
475 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY49.9%
33 Arch Street, Boston, MA49.9%
100 First Street, San Francisco, CA44.0%

As of 12/31/2020

Overall, the fund has investments in 462 properties in the U.S. for a total value of $14.9 billion.

2. China Investment Corporation (CIC) – $1.2 Trillion (China)

The CIC is the largest of several Chinese SWFs, and was established to diversify the country’s foreign exchange holdings.

Compared to the Norwegian fund, the CIC invests in a greater variety of alternatives. This includes real estate, of course, but also private equity, private credit, and hedge funds.

Asset Class% of Total Assets
Public equities38%
Fixed income17%
Alternative assets43%
Cash2%

As of 12/31/2020

A primary focus of the CIC has been to increase its exposure to American infrastructure and manufacturing. By the end of 2020, 57% of the fund was invested in the United States.

“According to our estimate, the United States needs at least $8 trillion in infrastructure investments. There’s not sufficient capital from the U.S. government or private sector. It has to rely on foreign investments.”
– Ding Xuedong, Chairman, China Investment Corporation

This has drawn suspicion from U.S. regulators given the geopolitical tensions between the two countries. For further reading on the topic, consider this 2017 paper by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Preparing for a Future Without Oil

Many of the countries associated with these SWFs are known for their robust fossil fuel industries. This includes Middle Eastern nations like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Oil has been an incredible source of wealth for these countries, but it’s unlikely to last forever. Some analysts believe that we could even see peak oil demand before 2030—though this doesn’t mean that oil will stop being an important resource.

Regardless, oil-producing countries are looking to hedge their reliance on fossil fuels. Their SWFs play an important role by taking oil revenue and investing it to generate returns and/or bolster other sectors of the economy.

An example of this is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which supports the country’s Vision 2030 framework by investing in clean energy and other promising sectors.

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