Managing VolatilityPeer-Reviewed Research

Holding All The Cards

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  • Conventional wisdom maintains that volatility tends to impede overall returns.
  • But rising volatility can actually improve firm value with a certain type of flexibility called “real options”: when managers have choices linked to tangible assets such as inventory, machinery, land or buildings, as opposed to financial instrument.
  • Firms with real options thrive in uncertain situations because they have the flexibility to change their operations in a way that can amplify the effects of good news and dampen the effects of bad news.

Volatile markets look a lot like high-stakes poker games. Wild swings make it hard to chart a course to profitability, inevitably forcing some firms to fold. At the same time, there are always investors and firms that come out as big winners. So is there is a secret to drawing a winning hand in bad times?

Working with colleagues Evgeny Lyandres of Boston University and Alexei Zhdanov of Pennsylvania State University, Rice Business professor Gustavo Grullon hypothesized that the secret to surviving market volatility has to do with managers’ ability to adjust operations.  The more flexibility managers have to change the course of their firms, the reasoning went, the greater the likelihood of surviving market volatility, and in some cases taking advantage of it.

Consider Amazon, founded in 1994 with the goal of becoming “the world's most consumer-centric company, where customers can come to find anything they want to buy online.” From its start as a bookstore, the company turned into an ultra-diversified behemoth that can shrug off vast swings in the market. Despite high volatility in recent years, Amazon’s stock price increased roughly 39 percent, from $1,901 to $2,641, over the past year.

Grullon and his colleagues theorized that having more real options ⁠— managerial choices about tangible assets such as inventory, machinery or buildings ⁠— boosts firm value in a whole range of volatile circumstances, whether demand-based, cost-based or profit-based. Firms that have these options ⁠— Amazon, for example ⁠— can act fast to mitigate bad news by changing operating and investment strategies. They might cut production, shutter operations or delay investments. Companies without these tools basically have to ride fate’s rollercoaster.

To test their theory, the researchers compared firms with a plethora of investment opportunities to those with more modest real options. They analyzed returns data from 1963 to 2018 from The Center for Research in Security Prices and from Compustat ⁠— a database of financial, statistical and market information about active and inactive U.S. companies.

Grullon and his team found there was measurable value in having more real options. A bigger spread of real options allowed managers to change strategy as soon as new information arrived. The greater the number of real options, the greater the flexibility managers had at their disposal when the market got volatile.  

Developing Amazon-type options and diversified assets, naturally, takes years of sweat, trial and a measure of luck. Companies that do best at creating such opportunities, the researchers note, tend to be highly sensitive to changes in volatility to begin with, leading to more opportunities to adapt. Overall, the team found, volatility-return relation was much stronger in industries already characterized by plenty of growth and strategic options. High-tech firms, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, for example, show especially strong resistance to idiosyncratic volatility.

In other words, while volatile markets can resemble high-stakes poker, there are a few predictable rules. When the chips are down, companies that are lucky enough to hold diversified assets, have varied investment options and can shuffle resources quickly will be the strongest players at the table.


Gustavo Grullon is a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Grullon, G., Lyandres, E. & Zhdanov, A. (2012). Real options, volatility, and stock returns. Journal of Finance, 67(4), 1499-1537.


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