Intech Investment Management recently published a primer on monitoring market stress by way of several risk metrics, including skewness of returns (SoR). In the grand scheme of quantifying risk, SoR is relatively obscure, but Intech makes a good case for paying more attention to this data.

Applied to financial markets, skewness measures the degree of return asymmetry in terms of the probability distribution around the mean. In English, skewness tells us if returns have been extreme or not. A relatively high positive skewness reading indicates returns deep in the right tail of the distribution. A negative number equates with a loss in the left tail. In short, skewness offers a straightforward tool for quantifying and monitoring tail risk.

Intech advises that “when investors become irrationally exuberant, market returns tend to become less negatively skewed or, even briefly, positively skewed (e.g., beginning of 1987 and mid-1990s), which supports the potential for an increased likelihood of a significant market dislocation. Conversely, very low levels of skewness often coincide with the market shock itself, and eventually manifest themselves as increased market dislocation with positive outcomes (e.g., early 2004 and following the Global Financial Crisis in 2009).”

Measuring return skewness for, say, the US stock market offers a useful lens for quantifying the degree of exuberance, or the lack thereof. A chart in the Intech research note shows the ebb and flow of market sentiment through time.

Another way to use skewness is by comparing markets. Consider, for instance, how the US stock market stacks up against the US bond market in recent history. Let’s use two ETFs as proxies to crunch the numbers: SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) for equities and iShares Core US Aggregate Bond (AGG) for fixed-income securities. For easier comparison, the data in the chart below is shown as Z-scores, which reflect how the skewness values rank in terms of standard deviations above or below their means. For this example, the results are based on a rolling 30-day window of daily returns.

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