Futures Option Volatility Trading with the VIX
The adage buy low and sell high was originally used in reference to price, but can also be applied to the practice of trading volatility. In fact, even as a commodity option trader looking to trade market price as opposed to volatility, ignoring measures of potential explosiveness while entering or exiting a market could mean financial peril. While many commodity traders, whether beginner or pro, understand the concept of buying options during times of low volatility and selling them during times of high volatility, emotions often lead a well-planned strategy astray.
Unlike traders that are looking to profit from a directional move in price, volatility traders are more interested in the pace at which the market is moving than the direction. However, I argue that it is important to chart both price and volatility in a commodity market before speculating in options. Doing so provides trades with a better understanding of the 'big picture'.
In my opinion, the most efficient means of trading equity market volatility isn't through the VIX index, or any other similar measure. High levels of leverage, a lack of options on futures market, and a tendency for the index value to erode over time are major factors working against the viability of doing so. Instead, I believe that traders should look to buy or sell options on S&P 500 futures, or more specifically the e-mini S&P (symbol ES). The S&P 500 is a broad based stock index and its value is sharply impacted by market sentiment and the corresponding volatility. Thus, a trader that is of the opinion that volatility will increase may look to buy volatility through the purchase of options written on S&P 500 futures and those looking for volatility to decrease may look to sell volatility buy going short options on the index. Accordingly, insiders often refer to the practice of buying or selling options as "going long volatility" or "going short volatility".
Trading S&P 500 Volatility through Premium Collection in the Futures Market
As mentioned, one way to speculate on variations in volatility is through the practice of option selling, often referred to as premium collection. It is important to realize that I am referring to trading American style options which allow traders to buy, sell or exercise options at any time prior to expiration. This differs from the European style versions that offer far less flexibility. The increased level of flexibility tends to have a positive impact on the value of the option and thus the amount of premium collected for selling it. In other words, option buyers may get more value using European style options (referred to as end-of-month options in the S&P) due to lower premiums; conversely this concept works in favor of option sellers of American style options.