"Volatility is Noise": A Convenient Myth

April 2018

In early February, equity markets were jolted out of a protracted period of historically low volatility. Among commentators, one prominent response to the sudden shift in market conditions has been that investors ought to “look through” the gyrations. While in some cases, that reaction reflects a sanguine view on stocks based on economic and fundamental strength, we’ve also seen the re-emergence of a notion that for long-term sophisticated investors, market volatility is “meaningless” or “noise.”

The popular narrative that volatility doesn’t represent risk is oversimplified and misleading. It’s a convenient selling point to private market investors, who may not realize that they are exposed to the variability in asset prices that is evident in open public markets. If reported private market returns better reflect economic risk, then the higher apparent volatility of public markets would seem unnecessary.

But we should expect the volatility exhibited in public markets to be a relevant and meaningful indicator of economic risk. For one, it is a byproduct of the powerful public market clearing mechanism. Price discovery reflects composite views of all market participants, transmitted through constant buying and selling. Volatility represents the continuous aggregation and re-evaluation of an enormous volume of information regarding fundamentals, the economy, and risk appetite. Contrast this with a private asset that does not trade and has its value set infrequently by an owner who is far from arm’s length. 

Of course, as Robert Shiller and other academics have argued, public markets are more volatile than we’d expect based on fundamentals. But price variation generated by uninformed trading and animal spirits also represents real risk, even to sophisticated, long-term investors. While noise trading no doubt generates volatility that has a reverting character, it may take considerable periods, perhaps years or a generation, to correct some deviations from fundamentals. Further, as we observed in the GFC and the internet bubble, among a host of other past episodes, investors’ behavioral errors apparently can fuel such large pricing dislocations as to create first order systemic risk for asset values, broadly speaking. Less transparent markets (e.g., real estate) may even have greater exposure to such problems. 

And as a practical matter, in the moment, it is very difficult to distinguish between “normal volatility” and “incipient permanent loss” (or gain). Was market volatility prior to Lehman’s collapse “noise?” At what moment should an investor have been able to distinguish a “typical correction” from the advent of a potentially unrecoverable generational crisis? Once severe losses had occurred, when should an investor have been able to recognize that the U.S. market wouldn’t suffer a 25+ year slump like Japan following its late-1980s implosion? 

Notwithstanding academic discussions about market efficiency and excess volatility, the recurrent narrative that public market volatility is noise is perpetuated, in part, by simple semantics. Volatility is often described as “short-term,” “interim,” or “price fluctuations.” But these modifiers and synonyms, although seemingly innocuous, profoundly alter the meaning of the word. They inject it with ex-post knowledge, implying that volatility represents price movements that we know in advance will be reversed. 

When described in such terms, the premise that volatility isn’t relevant to long-term investors becomes nearly irrefutable—but also empty. If we knew that price movements would be temporary, then we could easily shut our eyes when an inherently temporary “spate” of volatility occurs and wait for it to die down and prices to “revert.” Of course, if we had such foresight, then we could also exploit the inherently transient price fluctuations; we should easily make a fortune day trading stocks and market timing. 

Nevertheless, the volatility-as-noise thesis would still have meaningful implications if we had confidence in our ability to foresee the long-term trend, even if markets aren’t easily predictable in the short-run. But ability to predict market returns over long horizons is much easier to assert than to substantiate. There is vigorous debate, not consensus, over long-term expected returns, and the range of relevant issues, conceptual and empirical, is enormously broad (e.g., demographics, technology, post-QE monetary policy). As well, we know little about how markets actually “set” long-term expectations. As Shiller discussed in his 2013 Nobel Prize Lecture, investors may well fixate on some conventional, perhaps arbitrary, valuation perspective. If incorrect, it may require gradual accumulation of enormous counterevidence, and possibly generational change, to shift beliefs. 

But particularly in recent years, a sense of long-term predictability has become difficult for investors to resist. The post-GFC market experience has dulled the painful truth that not all assets that go down come back up. Risk assets, especially leveraged risk assets, have benefited from an environment in which governments have backstopped asset values and poured liquidity into markets. As a result, investors who have bought on dips have been repeatedly rewarded, and investors who have not have faced potentially significant underperformance. More insidious, investors holding assets whose volatility has been masked by infrequent, smoothed, and discretionary valuations, may not have a true sense of their economic risk. 

If the next decade doesn’t look like the last, those whose invest based on the premise that volatility is noise may be forced to confront greater risk to long-term and non-public investments than they had anticipated.

Legal Disclaimer

These materials provided herein may contain material, non-public information within the meaning of the United States Federal Securities Laws with respect to Acadian Asset Management LLC, BrightSphere Investment Group Inc. and/or their respective subsidiaries and affiliated entities. The recipient of these materials agrees that it will not use any confidential information that may be contained herein to execute or recommend transactions in securities. The recipient further acknowledges that it is aware that United States Federal and State securities laws prohibit any person or entity who has material, non-public information about a publicly-traded company from purchasing or selling securities of such company, or from communicating such information to any other person or entity under circumstances in which it is reasonably foreseeable that such person or entity is likely to sell or purchase such securities.

Acadian provides this material as a general overview of the firm, our processes and our investment capabilities. It has been provided for informational purposes only. It does not constitute or form part of any offer to issue or sell, or any solicitation of any offer to subscribe or to purchase, shares, units or other interests in investments that may be referred to herein and must not be construed as investment or financial product advice. Acadian has not considered any reader's financial situation, objective or needs in providing the relevant information.

The value of investments may fall as well as rise and you may not get back your original investment. Past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance or returns. Acadian has taken all reasonable care to ensure that the information contained in this material is accurate at the time of its distribution, no representation or warranty, express or implied, is made as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of such information.

This material contains privileged and confidential information and is intended only for the recipient/s. Any distribution, reproduction or other use of this presentation by recipients is strictly prohibited. If you are not the intended recipient and this presentation has been sent or passed on to you in error, please contact us immediately. Confidentiality and privilege are not lost by this presentation having been sent or passed on to you in error.

Acadian’s quantitative investment process is supported by extensive proprietary computer code. Acadian’s researchers, software developers, and IT teams follow a structured design, development, testing, change control, and review processes during the development of its systems and the implementation within our investment process. These controls and their effectiveness are subject to regular internal reviews, at least annual independent review by our SOC1 auditor. However, despite these extensive controls it is possible that errors may occur in coding and within the investment process, as is the case with any complex software or data-driven model, and no guarantee or warranty can be provided that any quantitative investment model is completely free of errors. Any such errors could have a negative impact on investment results. We have in place control systems and processes which are intended to identify in a timely manner any such errors which would have a material impact on the investment process.

Acadian Asset Management LLC has wholly owned affiliates located in London, Singapore, and Sydney. Pursuant to the terms of service level agreements with each affiliate, employees of Acadian Asset Management LLC may provide certain services on behalf of each affiliate and employees of each affiliate may provide certain administrative services, including marketing and client service, on behalf of Acadian Asset Management LLC.

Acadian Asset Management LLC is registered as an investment adviser with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Registration of an investment adviser does not imply any level of skill or training.

Acadian Asset Management (Singapore) Pte Ltd, (Registration Number: 199902125D) is licensed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. It is also registered as an investment adviser with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Acadian Asset Management (Australia) Limited (ABN 41 114 200 127) is the holder of Australian financial services license number 291872 ("AFSL"). It is also registered as an investment adviser with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Under the terms of its AFSL, Acadian Asset Management (Australia) Limited is limited to providing the financial services under its license to wholesale clients only. This marketing material is not to be provided to retail clients.

Acadian Asset Management (UK) Limited is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority ('the FCA') and is a limited liability company incorporated in England and Wales with company number 05644066. Acadian Asset Management (UK) Limited will only make this material available to Professional Clients and Eligible Counterparties as defined by the FCA under the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, or to Qualified Investors in Switzerland as defined in the Collective Investment Schemes Act, as applicable.