Two Sides of Volatility

I was recently asked whether volatility was particularly challenging for index fund owners or for active investors.  The answer is “yes.”

For index funds, the challenge arises because rising volatility typically accompanies poor returns.  Between 1991 and 2019, e.g., months in which the S&P 500’s volatility was above median averaged modestly negative total returns.  In contrast, when volatility was below median, monthly returns averaged 1.84%.  This is entirely sensible – a stock, after all, should be valued at the discounted value of its future cash flows.  In times of uncertainty, the discount rate rises, and prices fall accordingly.  If investors are less certain of the future, they’re inclined to pay less for it.

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