In an ironic twist of fate, it appears the catalyst for many of the biggest and most incomprehensible market ramps of the last few years is a fund called "Catalyst." With around $4 billion under management (before the latest collapse), the levered options fund is run by Edward Walczak who "uses options to create a better risk/return profile."
The Catalyst Hedged Futures Strategy Fund is an open-end fund incorporated in the USA. The objective is capital appreciation and capital preservation in all market conditions. The Fund invests primarily in long and short call and put options on S&P 500 Index futures contracts and in cash and cash equivalents, including high-quality short-term (3 months or less) fixed-income securities.
A 'great/lucky' year in 2008 and solid returns since…
- 1 Week -14.07%
- 1 Month -12.61%
- 3 Months -16.96%
- YTD -13.56%
- 1 Year -10.11%
- 3 Year -1.08%
Things have not gone well since the election…
As we noted previously, the melt-up in the S&P is the result of "a purported / murky melt-down over the past week in a large trade by a multi-billion Dollar (open-ended) futures fund which sells vol on S&P. Without going into specifics, there is market speculation that the entity is effectively short upwards of ~$17B of SPX (deltas to buy) through selling February expiry upside 1×5 (or 1×4) call spreads."
And here is the man that runs the show…
As FuturesMag.com detailed previously, Edward Walczak began his trading career after 25 years in business operations and supply chain management. It was Walczak’s experience running Chicago-based candy manufacturer Brach’s commodity hedging operation in the late 1990s that got him deeply involved in the markets.
At one point, Walczak’s boss asked him about position limits and he had no idea what he was talking about, Walczak says. “You only get embarrassed once and I spent a week with my trader [learning] the business and became intrigued by it.” Walczak is a math guy with degrees in Physics and Economics from Middlebury College and an MBA from Harvard, so naturally he was drawn to options. By 2005 he was making more money trading than in his day job, so he began trading proprietary money full-time and set up a commodity pool for friends and family. In 2006 his proprietary trading returned 52.68% and in 2007 he added customer accounts to the Madison, Wis. based Harbor Financial LLC.
Fortunate breaks come in all forms. For Walczak his biggest break may have been a painful February 2007 drawdown in his mainly option writing S&P 500 program. The drawdown was not fatal, 17.93% for the month, and the program was positive for the year, but it made Walczak rethink his overall approach. “Back in ’07, VIX was trading around 10 and all of a sudden the S&Ps dropped 50 handles in a day,” Walczak says. “A 50-point drop at the time was a big deal but historically was not that bizarre. It could have been a lot worse and I could have been wiped out, so I had to do something different.” He spent the next year researching. “How do I cover these other risks that are out there and how [do I] use options to have a better risk/return profile?” he asked himself.
He began a study of volatility and decided to move away from pure premium collection. “If you are strictly a premium collector, you have a couple of issues. If you collect $2, then $2 is the best you can make if everything goes right. Second, if that is the only way you can make money, then you often are tempted into doing a collection trade when the edge is not with you,” Walczak says.
What he discovered was a volatility trading strategy that could exploit rising volatility. “A simple example is you sell a front-month option and buy a back-month option. If you do that at a credit, you have the opportunity for the front-month option to decay in value or go away entirely and the back-month option still has value,” he says. “The secret sauce for us is in the placement. If you are correct with where you place these things, then you get the best of both worlds. You don’t just have residual value in that long option, the long option actually could explode in value while the short option goes away.”
The February 2007 wakeup call came enough in advance of 2008 for Walczak to complete his adjustments and earn 50% in 2008, a year that completely wiped out a number of option writers. “We found that rather than trying to trend-follow price to the downside, it is better with options to trend-follow volatility to the upside,” Walczak says. “Usually those are two conditions that go hand in hand.”
While the volatility trading strategy helped diversify the program and turn 2008 from a potential disaster to a home run, Walczak still was having problems in sharply uptrending markets. “Those really caused us a lot of problems with the techniques we were using, so I spent a lot of time [on that] and in 2010, we [began] to do some trend-following price wise.”
They still were using only options and found they could exploit trends more safely this way. The strategy uses a wide variety of ratio spreads, butterflies and offset butterflies. “It is basically 1 x 2s, 1 x 3s, 1 x 2 x 1s, where you are buying one, selling two, buying one,” he says. “That allows us to put trades on for little or no cost, so if the market tanks we are not long the market. We don’t lose money, the trade just goes away.” Walczak says, “It is not that we changed so much as we evolved: Premium collection, to premium collection plus volatility trading, to premium collection plus volatility trading plus upside trend-following price-wise.”
Walczak uses all three approaches but emphasizes the one appropriate to market conditions. “I can construct a spread that gives me the exposure I want. It is not a make-it-up-as-you-go-along [approach], we have established position templates for different types of market environments. If I want to go long volatility, I don’t scratch my head and say, ‘What do I do now?’ We go into our tool box and pull out the long volatility spread and do some analysis around where to put that on.” It is a combination of a discretionary and systematic approach that has produced solid returns in different market environments. Harbor has had no losing years and has produced a compound annual return of 22.07% with a 1.22 Sharpe ratio, and Walczak is still making improvements.
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So major leverage on billions of AUM and a look at the unprecedented ramps in US equity markets over the last few years shows that perhaps Walczak and his fund did not fully figure out the "problems in sharply uptrending markets."
The Bullard Bounce?
The Brexit Bounce?
The Trump Bounce?
Of course, Walczak's strategy is not alone and if not the catalyst it is these levered options strategies that are the reflexive forced buyer that appears to be driving such self-reinforcing and seemingly incredible moves in stock markets as volatility has collapsed and the cost if funding massively levered strategies is de minimus. In a different world of considerably lower leverage, LTCM nearly blew up the world; in the new normal of as-much-leverage-as-you-can-eat, even a mid-sized fund's positions can be the butterfly that flaps its wings and become the forced 'ax' in world equity markets… even if it doesn't know it.
Just how much of the last 150 S&P points are due to the liquidation of 'Catalyst' (and strategies like it)?
As RBC's Charlie McElligott warned:
This equities upside short-gamma grab has taken out a ton of ‘bid on the downside’ in equities index, in the case that we were to see any sell-off post a Trump speech disappointment. This lack of cover-demand on a vacuum-move could see sloppiness develop, as it seems that the data and Fed itself are no longer dictating the market story at this stage – whether stocks, fixed-income or vol. “Policy” is now firmly “in the driver’s seat,” and that is where I see the least degree of confidence in the market.
I’m worried that this stock ‘melt-up’ move is extraordinarily mechanical right now – almost entirely the aforementioned forced-covering, not high conviction induced-buying – and may be sending a “false signal” which is potentially dragging-in new buying on the breakout to new highs.
As he concludes: "This could lead to a scenario where a market can “collapse under their own weight."
Indeed, because if one removes the forced buying from the "blowing up fund", there is certainly a long way down.
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