Folklore has it that VIX is a reasonable leading indicator of risk. Presumably that means if VIX is high, then there is a good chance that the future return of the SP500 will be negative. While I have found some evidence that this is true when VIX is particularly elevated, say above 30, I don't know if anyone has established a negative correlation between VIX and future returns. (Contemporaneous VIX and SP500 levels do have a very nice linear relationship with negative slope.)
Interestingly, the situation is much clearer if we examine the Variance Risk Premium (VRP), which is defined as the difference between a model-free implied volatility (of which VIX is the most famous example) and the historical volatility over a recent period. The relationship between VRP and future returns is examined in a paper by Chevallier and Sevi in the context of OVX, which is the CBOE Crude Oil Volatility Index. They have found that there is a statistically significant negative linear relationship between VRP and future 1-month crude oil futures (CL) returns. The historical volatility is computed over 5-minute returns of the most recent trading day. (Why 5 minutes? Apparently this is long enough to avoid the artifactual volatility induced by bid-ask bounce, and short enough to truly sample intraday volatility.) If you believe in the prescience of options traders, it should not surprise you that the regression coefficient is negative (i.e. a high VRP predicts a lower future return).
I have tested a simple trading strategy based on this linear relationship. Instead of using monthly returns, I use VRP to predict daily returns of CL. It is very similar to a mean-reverting Bollinger band strategy, except that here the "Bollinger bands" are constructed out of moving first and third quartiles of VRP with a 90-day lookback. Given that VRP is far from normally distributed, I thought it is more sensible to use quartiles rather than standard deviations to define the Bollinger bands. So we buy a front contract of CL and hold for just 1 day if VRP is below its moving first quartile, and short if VRP is above its moving third quartile. It gives a decent average annual return of 17%, but performance was poor in 2013.
Naturally, one can try this simple trading strategy on the E-mini SP500 future ES also. This time, VRP is VIX minus the historical volatility of ES. Contrary to folklore, I find that if we regress the future 1 day ES return against VRP, the regression coefficient is positive. This means that an increase of VIX relative to historical volatility actually predicts an increase in ES! (Does this mean investors are overpaying for put options on SPX for portfolio protection?) Indeed, the opposite trading rules from the above give positive returns: we should buy ES if VRP is above its moving third quartile, and short ES if VRP is below its moving first quartile. The annualized return is 6%, but performance in 2013 was also poor.
As the authors of the paper noted, whether or not VRP is a strong enough stand-alone predictor of returns, it is probably useful as an additional factor in a multi-factor model for CL and ES. If any reader know of other volatility index like VIX and OVX, please do share with us in the comments section!
My online Backtesting Workshop will be offered on February 18-19. Please visit epchan.com/my-workshops for registration details. Furthermore, I will be teaching my Mean Reversion, Momentum, and Millisecond Frequency Trading workshops in London on March 17-21, and in Hong Kong on June 17-20.