And it's not only been the basic S&P 500-tracking VIX that has captured investor apathy. Volatility of other assets and market sectors also show little fear, despite some scary geopolitical headlines and incessant expectations for a substantial market drop after an unfettered run of more than two years without a correction.
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Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at New York-based brokerage ConvergEx, said investors' relationship with stocks is like a romantic relationship that has gone from shaky to solid. In a note to clients, he explained the dynamic:
In short, investors and U.S. equities have what a New York couples therapist might call a "constructive relationship based on trust, forgiveness, and shared values." Not bad, considering where this relationship was in 2007-2009—full of drama and uncertainty. Since then, however, investors seem to have found the confidence to buy every dip. Stocks may be late for a date, but investors just hit a nearby Starbucks and patiently wait. Stocks forget to call for a Friday night date, and investors just make other plans knowing Saturday is therefore assumed. Yes, it's weird how this crazy couple turned things around from the drama of the financial crisis. But they clearly have, even if their friends are all still "He/she was so crazy a few years ago. ... But whatever. As long as you are happy." After all, don't all the great relationships in your life ALSO have you as their common feature?
Looking further into the relationship, Colas found that while the VIX itself has done little recently, volatility measures for eight of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 have fallen. Declining volatility is generally associated with a rising market, meaning that at least in the eyes of options traders, the market remains in constructive mode.
Implied volatility dropped 10.3 percent for financials and 5.8 percent for consumer discretionary. Tech volatility fell 5.5 percent, and energy and utilities each declined 3.7 percent. Industrials slid 3.2 percent, staples were off 2.4 percent and volatility in health care was just negative. Only telecom (12.6 percent) and materials (13.4 percent) showed gains in implied volatility, moves that Colas attributed to "industry-specific events in groups with very concentrated weightings in a handful of stocks."
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Conversely, implied volatility has been on the rise in fixed income, with both high-yield and investment-grade posting double-digit percentage gains—possible harbingers of bad news for bond holders.
In the meantime, the cozy relationship between investors and stocks continues in a market that looks priced for an ideal relationship. Colas said it's "hard to say" how things will turn out:
No doubt – there is a lot of trust here. Stocks never really pull back, even with the threat of a shooting war at Europe's doorstep or the dissolution of an oil-producing Middle Eastern country. And because of those modest declines, investor confidence is never really tested. The VIX fades from every rally, and equity levels ratchet their way ever higher. The whole setup feels like binge watching an old TV 50s/60s sitcom on Netflix. Something where the dad is calm and wise, the mother nurturing, and the kids all well-behaved. Ideal relationships all around.
It may not feel "real" but you keep watching, happy for the diversion.
—By CNBC's Jeff Cox