How to Trade Volatility: An Introduction

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Volatility is a statistical measure of the degree of variation in the price of a financial instrument over time. While volatility of a financial instrument is often seen as a risk, it can also present opportunities for those who understand how to navigate its fluctuations. This article aims to provide an introductory guide for investors interested in trading volatility and making informed decisions in dynamic market conditions.

Understand Volatility

Volatility is commonly calculated using statistical tools, and it is affected by various factors, including economic news, geopolitical events, and market sentiment. One of the most widely recognized measures of market volatility is the Volatility Index, commonly known as the VIX. It is often referred to as the “fear index” because it reflects the market's expectations of future volatility. The VIX is created and maintained by the Chicago Board Options Exchange, a leading options exchange in the United States.

The VIX calculates volatility by analyzing the prices of options contracts on the S&P 500 index. Options are financial derivatives that give investors the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset, such as stocks or indexes, at a predetermined price within a specified time frame. By analyzing the prices of these options contracts, the VIX attempts to quantify the expected level of volatility in the S&P 500 market over the next 30 days.

Choose the Right Instruments

When it comes to trading volatility, investors have a range of instruments at their disposal. Two popular options are:

  • Volatility Exchange-Traded Products: Products such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and exchange-traded notes (ETNs), are designed to track volatility indexes. They provide exposure to volatility without directly trading options or futures contracts.
  • Options and Futures Contracts: While options and futures contracts provide direct exposure to volatility, they are generally considered more complex and less retail-friendly. Options give investors the ability to speculate on future price movements, while futures contracts enable the trading of volatility within a specified time frame. However, trading these derivatives requires a deep understanding of the associated risks, complexities, and sophisticated strategies.

Develop a Trading Strategy

When it comes to trading volatility, two popular trading strategies are:

  • Mean Reversion Strategy: One popular volatility trading strategy is mean reversion. This approach is based on the concept that extreme periods of high or low volatility tend to revert back to their average levels over time. When volatility spikes, a mean reversion trader may take a contrarian position, expecting the volatility to decrease. Conversely, during periods of low volatility, they may anticipate an upcoming increase and take a position accordingly. This strategy typically involves monitoring indicators such as the VIX, Bollinger Bands, or moving averages to identify deviations from the mean and execute trades accordingly.
  • Volatility Breakout Strategy: Another approach to volatility trading is the breakout strategy. The strategy is based on the premise that if the market makes a movement of a certain size from a previous price level, the odds favor this movement to continue for some time. Traders using this strategy aim to identify and take advantage of these breakout moments by entering positions in the direction of the breakout. Breakout traders typically employ technical analysis tools, such as trend lines, support and resistance levels, or chart patterns, to spot potential breakout opportunities. This strategy often requires setting appropriate stop-loss orders to manage risk in case of false breakouts. 


Volatility trading can provide exciting opportunities for investors, but it requires careful planning, research, and risk management. By understanding the nature of volatility, selecting appropriate trading instruments, developing a sound strategy, and practicing risk control, investors can enhance their chances of success in navigating volatile markets. Remember, patience, discipline, and continuous learning are vital to becoming a successful volatility trader.

Further readings on volatility trading: 

Volatility ETFs: a Deep Dive

Quant Evolution, a monthly research series on quantitative trading

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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