Pimco: Finding opportunities in options

Mar 13, 2012 @ 12:01 am

By Josh Thimons

The following is excerpted from commentary provided by Pimco. To read the full version of this piece, click here.

We continue to see opportunities in today’s options market. Not only is there ample room to express views on volatility, but also, options can allow Pimco to express the complex and nuanced views we may hold in this uncertain environment.

Most users of options tend to be large market participants hedging business risks, creating opportunities for other investors to express a view on volatility itself. For example, participants in the mortgage market may enter into transactions to gain exposure to interest rate volatility not because it is perceived to be too low, but rather to hedge against the prepayment risk embedded in mortgages. Equity investors and insurance companies may buy equity puts not necessarily because the VIX (an index that measures the implied volatility of the S&P 500) appears cheap, but rather in an effort to hedge against a sharp downturn in stocks. Many institutional and individual investors may sell covered calls against outright long positions with the goal of enhancing yield potential in their portfolios and not necessarily as a view that volatility is overvalued.

In addition, many of the traditional relative value investors that provide liquidity to end users of options are seeing their balance sheets decline, creating opportunities for other investors to step in. Wall Street trading desks have generally been scaling back risk-taking in the face of regulation and industry weakness, and hedge funds tend to have a much smaller asset base today than before the financial crisis. While dislocations in the markets have become more frequent and extreme, the competition in chasing those dislocations has diminished materially.

Options also allow Pimco to express a specific view conditional on the direction of the market. Rather than choosing whether Europe will improve or deteriorate, options can be used in such a way that they kick in only if Europe improves or deteriorates. For example, while obviously concerned about the performance of emerging equity markets if the eurozone unravels, we are quite favorably disposed to emerging market equities relative to developed market equities conditional upon a European recovery. To express this view using options, we might take a long (buy) call position in emerging markets equities versus a short (sell) call position in U.S. equities. If the European debt crisis worsens, both calls could expire worthless. If we see a recovery, however, both markets could rally, and this trade may profit as long as equities in emerging markets outperform those in developed markets.

In our view, most markets have a fat-tailed distribution of potential outcomes for 2012. For instance, the U.S. equity market could conceivably finish 2012 down significantly or up significantly. Similarly, the direction of the price of oil is highly dependent on events that have yet to play out: Oil prices have not declined commensurately with the weakening global macroeconomic outlook and weakening global demand, but rather have been supported by geopolitical concerns in the Middle East. However, if the situation in Europe deteriorates, we believe that the loss in global demand for oil will trump the geopolitics. Meanwhile, if in six months 10-year Treasury bonds yield around 2%, being significantly overweight mortgages could be beneficial. However, if Treasuries have moved significantly in either direction in that time, it could potentially be beneficial to own alternative investments. Options allow the expression of these kinds of conditional views. Likewise, while we have a high degree of conviction that if the situation deteriorates in Europe, 30-year Treasuries are likely to represent the most attractive fixed income asset to own, we have much less conviction that European swap rates will decline substantially, if at all.

Josh Thimons is an executive vice president and portfolio manager at Pimco.

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