Tennille Tracy wrote for yesterday's Wall Street Journal that the Volatility Index, the VIX, closed at its lowest level of the year. That close, 20.06, remains slightly above the all-time average (19.08), and comfortably below the average of the year to date (25.22). It's nowhere near the high-water-mark set during the collapse of Long Term Capital Management. It reached an eye-popping 45.74 on October 8, 1998—the same day that the House of Representatives voted to initiate impeachment proceedings against then President Clinton.
Some market professionals look at the VIX, "the fear/opportunity gauge," to assess day-to-day sentiment, because the index measures how much volatility options traders expect in S&P500 stocks in the next few months. However, long-term investors know that fear alone is not a winning strategy.
[Related -Thoughts on MetLife and AIG]
Imagine, that someone used the VIX to "time the market," with a strategy of selling when the VIX closed at or above 30 and buying when the VIX returned to 20 or below. If a person followed this strategy to "time" the S&P500, he would have done the following:
This strategy would have lost 15% in 8 months! Moreover, during the time that this person was sitting on cash, he missed gains of 17%.
On the contrary, imagine an investor who is agnostic toward the day-to-day emotions of other market participants. She would have stayed in the market during this entire stretch and lost roughly 1% (before dividends).
Of course this is an oversimplification. A trading overlay on a long-term investment strategy can produce incremental alpha. Historically it has also shown relatively how much investors will be rewarded for buying volatility on a given day.