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Summary

  • The convex payoff profile of trend following strategies naturally lends itself to comparative analysis with option strategies.
  • To isolate the two extremes of paying for whipsaw – either up front or in arrears – we replicate an option strategy that buys 1-month at-the-money calls and puts based on the trend signal.
  • We find that while option premiums steadily eat away at the balance of the options portfolio, the avoidance of large whipsaw events gives the strategy a boost at key times over the past 15 years, especially recently.
  • We examine how this whipsaw cost fits into the historical context of the options strategy and explore some simple ways to shift between the option-based trend following and the standard model.
  • The extent that whipsaw can be mitigated while still maintaining the potential to earn diversified returns is likely limited, but the optimal blend of trend following and options can be a beneficial guideline for investors to weather both sudden and prolonged drawdowns.

The non-linear payoff of trend following strategies has many similarities to options strategies, and by way of analogy, we can often gain insight into which market environments will favor trend following and why.

In our previous research piece, Straddles and Trend Following, we looked at purchasing straddles – that is, a call option and a put option – with a strike price tied to the anchor price of the trend following model. For example, if the trend following model invested in equities when the return over the past 12 months was positive, for a security that was at $100 12-months ago and is at $120 today, we would purchase a call and a put option with a strike price of $100. In this case, the call would be 20% in-the-money (ITM) and the put would be out-of-the-money (OTM).

In essence, this strategy acted like an insurance policy where the payout was tied to a reversion in the trend signal, and the premium paid when the trend signal was strong was small.

This concept of insurance is an important discussion topic in trend following strategies. The risk we must manage in these types of strategies, either directly through insurance or some other indirect means like diversification, is whipsaw.

In this commentary, we will construct an options strategy that is similar to a trend following strategy. The option strategy will pay a premium up-front to avoid whipsaw. By comparing this strategy to trend following that bears the full risk of whipsaw, we can set a better practical bound for how much investors should expect to pay or earn for bearing this risk.

Methodology and Data

For this analysis, we will use the S&P 500 index for equity returns, the 1-year LIBOR rate as the risk-free rate, and options data on the S&P 500 (SPX options).

To bridge the gap between practice and abstraction, we will utilize a volatility surface calibrated to real option data to price options. We will constrain our SPX options to $5 increments and interpolate total implied variance to get prices for options that were either illiquid or not included in the data set.

For the most part, we will stick to options that expire on the third Friday of each month and will mention when we deviate from that assumption.

The long/short trend equity strategy looks at total returns of equities over 12 months. If this return is positive, the strategy invests in equities for the following month. If the return is negative, the strategy shorts equities for the following month and earns the risk-free rate on the cash. The strategy is rebalanced monthly on the options expiration dates.

For the option-based trend strategy, on each rebalance date, we will purchase a 1-month call if the trend signal is positive or a put if the trend signal is negative. We will purchase all options at-the-money (ATM) and hold them to expiration. The strategy is fully cash-collateralized. Any premium is paid on the options roll date, interest is earned on the remaining account balance, and the option payout is realized on the next roll date.

Why are we now using ATM options when previous research used ITM and OTM options, potentially deeply ITM or OTM?

Here we are looking to isolate the cost of whipsaw in the premium paid for the option while earning a payout that is close to that of the underlying in the event that our trend signal is correct. If we utilized OTM options, then our premium would be lower but we would realize smaller gains if the underlying followed the trend. ITM options would have downside exposure before the protection kicked in.

We are also not using straddles since we do not want to pay extra premium for the chance to profit off a whipsaw. The underlying assumption here is that there is value in the trend following signal. Either strategy is able to capitalize on that (i.e. it’s the control variable); the strategies primarily differ in their treatment of whipsaw costs.

The High Cost of ATM Options

The built-in whipsaw protection in the options does not come cheap. The chart below shows the –L/S trend following strategy–, the –option-based trend strategy–, and the ratio of the two (dotted).Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.  Returns are hypothetical and backtested.  Returns are gross of all fees including, but not limited to, management fees, transaction fees, and taxes.  Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions.

During normal market environments and even in prolonged equity-market drawdown periods like 2008, trend following outperformed the option-based strategy. Earning the full return on the underlying equity is generally beneficial.

However, something that is “generally beneficial” can be erased very quickly. In March 2020, the trend following strategy reverted back to the level of the option-based strategy. If you had only looked at cumulative returns over those 15 years, you would not be able to tell much difference between the two.

The following chart highlights these tail effects.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.  Returns are hypothetical and backtested.  Returns are gross of all fees including, but not limited to, management fees, transaction fees, and taxes.  Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions.

In most months, the option-based strategy forfeits its ~1.5% premium for the ATM option. The 75th percentile cutoff is 2.2% and the 90th percentile cutoff is 2.9%. These premiums have occasionally spiked to 6-7%.

While these premiums are not always forfeited without some offsetting gain, they are always paid relative to the trend following strategy.

A 3% whipsaw event in trend should definitely not be a surprise based on the typical up-front cost of the option strategy.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.

But What About a 30% Whipsaw?

Now that’s a good question.

Up until March 2020, for the 15 years prior, the largest whipsaws relative to the options strategy were 12-13%. This is the epitome of tail risk, and it can be disheartening to think that now that we have seen 30% underperformance, we should probably expect more at some point in the (hopefully very distant) future.

However, a richer sample set can shed some light on this very poor performance.

Let’s relax our assumption that we roll the options and rebalance the trend strategies on the third Friday of the month and instead allow rebalances and rolls on any day in the month. Since we are dealing with one-month options, this is not beyond implementation since there are typically options listed that expire on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

The chart below shows all of these option strategies and how large of an effect that roll / rebalance timing luck can have.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.  Returns are hypothetical and backtested.  Returns are gross of all fees including, but not limited to, management fees, transaction fees, and taxes.  Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions.

With timing luck in both the options strategies and trend following, there can be large effects when the luck cuts opposite ways.

The worst returns between rebalances of trend following relative to each options strategy highlight how bad the realized path in March 2020 truly was.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.  Returns are hypothetical and backtested.  Returns are gross of all fees including, but not limited to, management fees, transaction fees, and taxes.  Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions.

In many of the trend following and option strategies pairs, the worst underperformance of trend following over any monthlong period was around 10%.

Returning to the premise that the options strategies are analogous to trend following, we see the same effects of timing luck that we have explored in previous research: effects that make comparing variants of the same strategy or similar strategies more nuanced. Whether an option strategy is used for research, benchmarking, or active investing, the implications of this timing luck should be taken into account.

But even without taking a multi-model approach at this point to the options strategy, can we move toward a deeper understanding of when it may be an effective way to offset some of the risk of whipsaw?

I’d Gladly Pay You Tuesday for a Whipsaw Risk Today

With the two extremes of paying for whipsaw up front with options and being fully exposed to whipsaw through trend following, perhaps there is a way to tailor this whipsaw risk profile. If the risk of whipsaw is elevated but the cost of paying for the insurance is cheap, then the options strategy may be favorable. On the other hand, if option premiums are high, trend following may more efficiently capture the market returns.

The price of the options (or their implied volatilities) is a natural place to start investigating this topic since it encapsulates the premium for whipsaw insurance. The problem is that it may not be a reliable signal if there is no barrier to efficiency in the options market, either behavioral or structural.

Comparing the ATM option implied volatilities with the trend signal (12-month trailing returns), we see a negative correlation, which indicates that the options-based strategy will have a higher hurdle rate of return in strongly downtrending market environments.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research. 

But this is only one piece of the puzzle.

Do these implied volatilities relate to the forward 1-month returns for the S&P 500?

Based on the above scatterplot: not really. However, since we are merely sticking implied volatility in the middle of the trend following signal and the forward return, and we believe that trend following works over the long run, then we must believe there is some relationship between implied volatility and forward returns.

While this monthly trend following signal is directionally correct over the next month 60% of the time, historically, that says nothing about the magnitude of the returns based on the signal.

Without looking too much into the data to avoid overfitting a model, we will set a simple cutoff of 20% implied volatility. If options cost more than that, we will utilize trend following. If they cost less, we will invest in the options strategy.

We will also compare it to a 50/50 blend of the two.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.  Returns are hypothetical and backtested.  Returns are gross of all fees including, but not limited to, management fees, transaction fees, and taxes.  Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions.

The switching strategy (gray line) worked well until around 2013 when the option prices were cheap, but the risk of whipsaw was not realized. It did make it through 2015, 2016 and 4Q 2018 better than trend following.

When viewed in a broader context of a portfolio, since these are alternative strategies, it does not take a huge allocation to make a difference. These strategies manage equity risk, so we can pair them with an allocation to the S&P 500 (SPY) and see how the aggregate statistics are affected over the period from 2005 to April 2020.

The chart below plots the efficient frontiers of allocations to 100% SPY at the point of convergence on the right of the graph) to 40% SPY on the left of the graph with the remainder allocated to the risk- management strategy.

The Sharpe ratio is maximized at a 35% allocation to the switching strategy, a 25% allocation to the option-based strategy, and 10% for the trend following strategy.

Source: DiscountOptionsData.com.  Calculations by Newfound Research.  Returns are hypothetical and backtested.  Returns are gross of all fees including, but not limited to, management fees, transaction fees, and taxes.  Returns assume the reinvestment of all distributions.

Conclusion

In this research note, we explored the link between trend following and options strategies using 1-month ATM put and call options, depending on the sign of the trend.

The cost of ATM options Is generally 1.5% of the portfolio value, but the fact that this cost can spike upwards of 9% should justify larger whipsaws in trend following strategies. Very large whipsaws, like in March 2020, not only show that the cost can be seemingly unbounded but also that there is significant exposure to timing luck based upon the option roll dates.

Then, we moved on to investigating a simple way to allocate between the two strategies based upon the cost of the options, When the options were cheap, we used that strategy, and when they were expensive, we invested in the trend following strategy. A modest allocation is enough to make a different in the realized efficient frontier.

Deciding to pay the up-front payment of the whipsaw insurance premium, bear the full risk a whipsaw, or land somewhere in between is largely up to investor preferences. It is risky to have a large downside potential, but the added benefit of no premiums can be enough to offset the risk.

An implied volatility threshold was a rather crude signal for assessing the risk of whipsaw and the price of insuring against it. Further research into one or multiple signals and a robust process for aggregating them into an investment decision is needed to make more definitive statements on when trend following is better than options or vice versa. The extent that whipsaw can be mitigated while still maintaining the potential to earn diversified returns is likely limited, but the optimal blend of trend following and options can be a beneficial guideline for investors to weather both sudden and prolonged drawdowns.

Nathan is a Portfolio Manager at Newfound Research, a quantitative asset manager offering a suite of separately managed accounts and mutual funds. At Newfound, Nathan is responsible for investment research, strategy development, and supporting the portfolio management team. Prior to joining Newfound, he was a chemical engineer at URS, a global engineering firm in the oil, natural gas, and biofuels industry where he was responsible for process simulation development, project economic analysis, and the creation of in-house software. Nathan holds a Master of Science in Computational Finance from Carnegie Mellon University and graduated summa cum laude from Case Western Reserve University with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Mathematics.