How to find trading opportunities with low volatility: strategies for quiet markets

Downward trend
Rebecca Cattlin
By :  ,  Former Senior Financial Writer

We talk a lot about how volatility creates opportunities for traders. But what happens when there’s only a little market movement to take advantage of? Find out what to trade when there’s low volatility and look into some of the low volatility trading strategies.

What is low volatility?

Low volatility is a market condition that occurs when prices aren’t changing dramatically,. It’s the opposite of a volatile or highly volatile market, in which prices change rapidly in either direction.

Due to the inactivity, low volatility markets are considered less desirable to trade. This is especially true for day traders, who typically look for larger price swings, rather than slow-burn market movements.

However, volatility rises and falls as the market moves through its cycle, so every trader will inevitably face a quiet period.

Traders and investors tend to measure volatility using the VIX, which is an oscillator that measures market expectations for volatility in S&P 500 futures. A VIX reading below 12 is an indicator of low volatility, while readings of 12-20 are normal, and above 20 show high volatility.

Low volatility trading strategies

As no market condition is guaranteed, you’ll want to have strategies for both high and low volatility.

Your strategy will very much depend on your risk appetite. During periods of low volatility, it’s still possible to seek out assets that are still ‘in play’ and moving because of news, data releases, earnings, and so on. But you might also decide to find low volatility asset classes and take on a buy-and-hold strategy.

You especially don’t want to be opening lots of trades to try and counteract the lack of volatility, and wind up entering markets you’re not familiar with.

Let’s take a look at how you might trade stocks and currencies during low volatility. Please note you can only trade currencies with

Low volatility in stocks

The stock market regularly becomes ‘quiet’. Whether the lull comes after major wins or losses, the outcome is the same: a challenging environment for volatility-hungry traders.

For investors, low volatility stocks are a key part of a portfolio. In fact, many theories suggest that low-risk stocks actually tend to deliver a higher risk-adjusted return than high-risk stocks.

So, for medium to longer-term, lower-risk traders – often known as position traders – the same strategy can apply when markets are calm. Seeking out lower volatility stocks opens up opportunities for stable returns by losing less capital, rather than earning higher profits.

But for day traders, who thrive on short-term, low market movements can become more difficult to generate an income. One way to take advantage of low volatility is to find stocks and sectors that are moving more than the wider market. For example, changes in management, corporate actions, and earnings announcements can cause volatility for individual companies.

When identifying stocks with volatility, the measure ‘beta’ is used, which looks at how a stock moves compared to a benchmark – normally the S&P 500. The benchmark is assigned a beta of 1.0 and any shares with a beta higher than 1.0 are more volatile than the market average.

Take a look at some of the most highly volatile markets.

Low volatility in forex

Forex is thought of as a relatively volatile market due to its fast-paced changes, but prices tend to only move in small increments. Volatility is a spectrum, so within the vast range of currency pairs, it’s possible to find highly volatile pairs, relatively stable pairs and those that rarely change price.

The least volatile FX pairs are those that have a pegged relationship. For example, the Hong Kong dollar is usually pegged to the US dollar with upper and lower limits, so rarely trades outside a range of between HK$7.7500 and HK$7.7600 per USD.

As with stocks, even low-volatility currency pairs can experience price movements around data releases and news. In these situations, traders should focus on smaller wins that come from strategies such as scalping. Instead of looking for larger profits, scalpers take small but frequent gains by only holding positions for a short window.

Carry trades are also a popular strategy during low volatility, as they play off interest rate differentials, rather than relying on market movement. For this strategy, you’d use a low-yield (low interest rate) currency to buy a higher-yield (high interest rate) currency, which allows your capital to appreciate quicker under the higher-yielding rate.

AUD/JPY and NZD/JPY are popular due to the large interest rate spreads.

Related tags: Volatility RIsk Inflation

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