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I can appreciate the mathematical derivation, but can anyone explain this in a more intuitive sense?

I often come across the mistaken belief that due to the replicating portfolio being long more downside contracts than upside contracts, the variance swap is long skew. But this is incorrect, these weightings are just to ensure that the $vega exposure is equal both on the downside and the upside.

Is it something to do with volga, i.e. the vega of the higher vol downside contracts will increase faster (due to an increase in skew) than the vega of the lower vol contracts will decrease?

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  • $\begingroup$ It's not especially long skew, what mathematical derivation are you referring to? Maybe Gatheral 's formula in a transformed strike domain? In that case only skew in the transformed domain matters indeed (+ atmf vol + all odd order moments to be consistent). It's illuminating to observe that a fair variance swap price, assuming no jumps (eg no cash divs), boils down to the integral of (scaled) otmf price curve. Thus you are long any market movement which makes the area under this curve increase (ie a translation via increasing atmf vol, fatter tails via incrrasing smile convexity etc.) $\endgroup$ – Quantuple Jun 10 '16 at 7:34
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If you take Quantuple's stuff a little further, you can really see whether you're long skew. You can pretty easily see the dependence on convexity too (though it should be obvious that you're long convexity).

So first off, we need some smile parametrisation that lets us easily control convexity and skew. I just went with a made up one;

$$\mathrm{convexity} = \mathrm{C} = \left. \frac{\partial^2 \sigma}{\partial K^2} \right|_{K=F} \\ \mathrm{skew} = \mathrm{S} = \left. \frac{\partial \sigma}{\partial K} \right|_{K=F} \\ \sigma_{\mathrm{atm}} = \sigma(F) $$

which gives:

$$ \frac{1}{2} C (K-F)^2 + S(K-F) + \sigma_\mathrm{atm} $$

*Note that i understand this is not a proper smile, i'm just using it as a simple example.

Then if you look a pretty extreme range of smiles;

$$ -0.001 \leqslant \mathrm{S} \leqslant 0.001\\ 0 \leqslant \mathrm{C} \leqslant 0.0001\\ \sigma_\mathrm{atm} = 20\% $$

you get a bunch of images like Quantuple's in the other answer:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

But, we can do better:

enter image description here

So yes, you are long skew. But only a really tiny amount - you're much longer convexity.

Here's python code for this if you want to mess around with it.

import numpy as np

def CND(X):
  a1,a2,a3,a4,a5 = 0.31938153, -0.356563782, 1.781477937, -1.821255978, 1.330274429
  L = np.abs(X)
  K = 1.0 / (1.0 + 0.2316419 * L)
  w = 1.0 - 1.0 / np.sqrt(2*np.pi)*np.exp(-L*L/2.) * (a1*K + a2*K*K + a3*np.power(K,3) + a4*np.power(K,4) + a5*np.power(K,5))
  if X<0:
    w = 1.0-w
  return w

def BlackSholes(cp,S,X,T,r,v):
  d1 = (np.log(S/X)+(r+v*v/2.)*T)/(v*np.sqrt(T))
  d2 = d1-v*np.sqrt(T)
  if cp=='c':
    return S*CND(d1)-X*np.exp(-r*T)*CND(d2)
  else:
    return X*np.exp(-r*T)*CND(-d2)-S*CND(-d1)

def C(S,X,T,r,v):
    return BlackSholes("c", S, X, T, r, v)
def P(S,X,T,r,v):
    return BlackSholes("p", S, X, T, r, v)

def B(r,t):
    return np.exp(-r*t)

def vol(k, vol_atm, convexity, skew, atm=100, max_vol=1):
    v = 0.5*convexity*k**2 + (skew - convexity*atm)*k + vol_atm + 0.5*convexity*atm**2 - skew*atm
    return max(1e-5,min(v, max_vol))

import scipy.integrate as integrate
import scipy.special as special
def var_swap(S,T,r,atm_vol, convexity, skew):
    F = S/B(r,T)
    return np.sqrt((2 / (T*B(r,T))) * (integrate.quad(lambda k: P(S, k, T, r, vol(k, atm_vol, convexity, skew, atm=F)) * k**-2, 0, F)[0] + integrate.quad(lambda k: C(S, k, T, r, vol(k, atm_vol, convexity, skew, atm=F)) * k**-2, F, F*5)[0]))


r = 0.0
T = 1.0
S = 100.0
F = S/B(r,T)
print F
atm_vol = 0.2
convexity = 0.0001
skew = 0.001


ks = [k for k in range(1, int(F*2))]

n_scenarios = 20
skews = np.linspace(-skew, skew, n_scenarios)
convexities = np.linspace(0, convexity, n_scenarios)

plot_smiles = False

if plot_smiles:

  import colorsys
  blues = [colorsys.hsv_to_rgb(h, 1, 1) for h in np.linspace(0.5, 0.65, n_scenarios)]
  reds = [colorsys.hsv_to_rgb(h, 1, 1) for h in np.linspace(0.0, 0.15, n_scenarios)]

  from matplotlib import pyplot
  fig = pyplot.figure()
  ax_smiles = fig.add_subplot(1,1,1)
  ax_opts = ax_smiles.twinx()

  for i, (convexity, skew) in enumerate(zip(convexities, skews)):
    vols = [vol(k, atm_vol, convexity, skew, atm=F) for k in ks]
    opts = [BlackSholes("p" if k < F else "c", S, k, T, r, vol(k, atm_vol, convexity, skew, atm=F)) * k**-2 for k in ks]

    ax_smiles.plot(ks, vols, color=blues[i])
    ax_opts.plot(ks, opts, color=reds[i])

  pyplot.show()

else:

  CC = np.linspace(0, convexity,n_scenarios)
  SS = np.linspace(-skew, skew,n_scenarios)

  CC, SS = np.meshgrid(CC, SS)

  VV = np.empty(CC.shape)
  for i in range(CC.shape[0]):
    for j in range(CC.shape[1]):
      VV[i,j] = var_swap(S, T, r, atm_vol, CC[i,j], SS[i,j])

  from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D
  from matplotlib import cm
  from matplotlib.ticker import LinearLocator, FormatStrFormatter
  import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

  fig = plt.figure()
  ax = fig.gca(projection='3d')
  surf = ax.plot_surface(CC, SS, VV, rstride=1, cstride=1, cmap=cm.jet, linewidth=0, antialiased=True)

  ax.set_xlabel("Convexity")
  ax.set_ylabel("Skew")
  ax.set_zlabel("Var. Swap par rate")
  ax.set_ylim(ax.get_ylim()[::-1])

  plt.show()

There is a caveat here though - this is the theoretical value of a variance swap. The market does not trade these according to the theoretical value, there is a difference which I have not seen a way of accounting for yet. The solution to this is that you store a table of varswap par rate spreads which can be interpolated and applied to varswaps at the corresponding start and end dates.

This spread does not come from stochastic vol, it seems to me to be some sort of insurance against unpleasantly large costs when something happens. The alternative is trading corridor variance swaps (i.e. variance only accrues when the index is inside a corridor), to limit the likelihood of this downside.

You can easily get skew exposure with trades like the above though, if variance is only accruing when the underlying is above/below a certain level, then you will be long/short skew when the underlying is near the barrier - because when you're only looking at one side of a point, skew and convexity have similar effects.

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  • $\begingroup$ I should also point out that this is just the theoretical value. The market adds an additional spread to the Par rate from the replication argument, and I'm not aware of any way of evaluating that from available data - we just build the spread surface as the difference eternal the market rate and the replication price. That's also useful for use in convexity adjustments for other variance derivatives we value. $\endgroup$ – will Jun 11 '16 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ the spread could also come from the jumps component. The VIX-like value only gives the expected realised variance under the assumption of pure-diffusion. Jumps (be it stochastic or deterministic like with discrete cash dividends) are not taken into account in this formula. Several adjustments exist. As you can imagine, (negative) jumps have indeed a direct link with "unpleasantly large costs when something happens". See here for instance: developers.opengamma.com/quantitative-research/…, especially the part on dividends. $\endgroup$ – Quantuple Jun 28 '16 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ Yah, i've thought about this before - we store a surface for varswap spreads from the theoretical value, which is useful for putting into other more exotic stuff; the thing is it's not always positive. Other people i've spoken to have not been able to attribute it to anything. $\endgroup$ – will Jun 28 '16 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Quantuple so we had someone calibrate stochastic local vol with jumps in spots and vol to market data, and it didn't make up the additional spread. Additionally, i was speaking to someone about it a short while ago, and they pointed out that you can most likely fit to your vanillas and varswaps in plain local vol, since you probably don't have an market quotes for far otm vanillas, but these will effect the varswap price - i.e. use the wings to deal with the varswap price. $\endgroup$ – will Jul 29 '16 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ no, i mean can - you don't have market quotes for your otm vanillas - so there's nothing to match, but the varswap is still dependent on this area of the surface, so it's like a free parameter. $\endgroup$ – will Jul 29 '16 at 15:35
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As I've mentioned in a comment, it would be wrong to think that entering a variance swap specifically amounts to being "long skew".

What you can say however is that, in the absence of jumps (i.e. in a pure diffusion framework, see here and here for further info), the fair variance strike $K_{var}$ at which a variance swap with notional $N$ and payoff

$$ N \times ( \sigma^2_{\text{realised}}(0,T) - K_{var} ) $$

should trade at the following par rate (or variance strike)

$$ K_{var} = \frac{2}{B(0,T)T} \left[ \int_0^{F(0,T)} \frac{P(K,T)}{K^2} dK + \int_{F(0,T)}^\infty \frac{C(K,T)}{K^2} dK \right] $$ where $T$ figures the contract's maturity date, $\sigma^2_{\text{realised}}(0,T)$ the variance of log-returns that will realise over the horizon $[0,T]$, $B(0,T)$ the discount factor, $P(K,T)$ and $C(K,T)$ European option prices with strike $K$ and maturity $T$ and $F(0,T)$ the forward price.

Thus, the price of a variance swap is simply a scaled integral of the OTMF price curve: $$ K_{var} \propto \int_0^\infty \frac{V(K,T)}{K^2} dK $$ $$ V(K,T) = \begin{cases} P(K,T) & \text{if } K < F(0,T) \\ C(K,T) & \text{otherwise} \end{cases} $$

Now, assume the following situation where, $S_0=100$, $r=q=0$ (no risk-neutral drift), $T=1$ along with 3 shapes of implied volatility smile at $T$: flat, pure skew, pure convexity. If you compute the fair variance strike $K_{var}$ under these different configurations, you will see that both negative skew and positive convexity have a positive impact and not specifically skew as you seem to indicate. See the simulations below where I've expressed the "variance price" as $\sqrt{K_{var}}\times 100$ similarly to what is done for volatility indices such as the VIX.

enter image description here

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In addition to the answers already given, another way to look at it in the context of a stochastic volatility model is as follows:

The skew is heavily influenced by the correlation between the spot and the volatility. However, pricing a derivative on volatility does not depend on the correlation parameter. Hence a variance swap is not long (or short) skew / independent of the correlation parameter, as is a volatility swap and other pure volatility derivatives.

It (variance strike and vol derivatives in general) does depend on the convexity though (which is determined by the vol of vol).

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