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Market’s ‘fear index’ sees biggest rise in months—and traders say it’s heading even higher

The market's "fear index" surged as much as 22 percent on Monday, as stocks dropped amid increased political uncertainty.

Following a weekend dominated by news of President Donald Trump's executive order restricting travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, stocks started the week on a distinctly downbeat note. The S&P 500 was on pace for the worst day since October, and the CBOE volatility index, which uses S&P 500 options prices to track the magnitude of the market's expected moves over the next 30 days, experienced its biggest rise since early September.

Index options are more frequently used to hedge against downside than to speculate on upside, which explains why the VIX is often used as proxy for the level of investor nervousness.

To be sure, the VIX rise comes off a low base: On Friday, the index closed just off of its lowest levels since the financial crisis. Even with Monday's surge, the VIX still remains far below its long-term average. And casual watchers should note that the index tends to rise on Mondays, for the technical reason that the rolling 30-day period will include fewer nontrading days after a weekend (for more on this bone-dry subject, see a 2012 academic paper).

In fact, what's most find noteworthy about the VIX on Monday is just how depressed it remains.

"IT IS EXPLODING, from the lowest level in years, to a mediocre sub average level," longtime options trader Dennis Davitt of Harvest Volatility Management quipped in a Monday morning email to CNBC.

Investors are becoming a bit less complacent on Monday, according to Miller Tabak equity strategist Matt Maley, "but 'less complacent' is a relative term."

The VIX remains "very low," and "I don't think today's bounce in the VIX means complacency has waned in a significant way," Maley wrote to CNBC.

"This is definitely complacency," agreed MKM Partners derivatives strategist Jim Strugger. "At this point in the [economic] cycle, it is a curiosity that volatility is as low as it is."

In a phone interview, Strugger went on to forecast "a pretty high-magnitude volatility event at some time this year" — which would send the VIX exploding for real.

Unfortunately, there is no way for investors to place pure bets on the VIX, since the index level is simply the output of a mathematical equation. The popular VXX ETF, which some use to play the VIX, actually utilizes VIX futures and tends to massively underperform the index over any medium- or long-term period.


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Brian Sullivan is co-anchor of CNBC's "Power Lunch" (M-F,1PM-3PM ET), one of the network's longest running programs, as well as the host of the daily investing program "Trading Nation." He is also a frequent guest on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and other NBC properties.

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