Variance Swap

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Subject Matter Experts

Updated on August 10, 2023

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Definition of a Variance Swap

A variance swap is a financial derivative that allows investors to speculate on or hedge against the volatility of an underlying asset.

The swap involves a contract between two parties to exchange payments based on the realized variance of the asset. Key risks associated with variance swaps include market risk, credit risk, operational risk, and legal risk.

Market risk arises from changes in the asset's volatility, credit risk from potential counterparty default, operational risk from calculation errors, and legal risk from unenforceable contract terms.

Despite these risks, variance swaps play a significant role in portfolio management.

They offer a direct exposure to an asset's volatility, providing a tool for diversification, hedging against volatility risk, and optimizing portfolio performance based on views on future market volatility. Understanding these key points is crucial for effective use of variance swaps.

Importance and Use of Variance Swaps

Variance swaps have become a popular tool among sophisticated investors for hedging portfolio risks and speculating on future market volatility. They allow for a pure play on an asset's volatility, which makes them an ideal tool for investors who have a particular view on future market turbulence.

Understanding the Mechanics of a Variance Swap

The functioning of variance swaps might seem complex at first, but the basic principle is straightforward: one party pays a fixed rate, and the other pays a rate based on the realized variance of the underlying asset.

Parties Involved in a Variance Swap

In a typical variance swap, there are two parties: the buyer, who pays a fixed amount (the "strike"), and the seller, who pays an amount based on the realized variance of the underlying asset.

The Process of a Variance Swap Transaction

The transaction begins with the two parties agreeing on the terms of the swap, including the strike price and the duration of the contract.

Once the swap is in place, the seller is obligated to pay the buyer if the realized variance is higher than the strike, and the buyer is obligated to pay the seller if the realized variance is lower.

Payout Structure of a Variance Swap

The payout of a variance swap is calculated by taking the difference between the realized variance and the strike variance, multiplied by the notional amount of the swap.

Calculating Variance in Variance Swap

Calculating variance in a variance swap involves determining the realized volatility of the underlying asset.

The formula for variance involves squaring the asset's daily returns, averaging these squared returns over the life of the swap, and then annualizing this average. This process isolates the asset's volatility from its price.

The difference between this realized variance and the predetermined strike price, multiplied by the notional amount, gives the payoff of the swap. Understanding this calculation is key to effectively using variance swaps for hedging or speculative purposes.

The Formula and Calculation Process

The formula for variance in a variance swap is the sum of squared returns divided by the number of returns, minus the square of the sum of returns divided by the square of the number of returns.

Factors Affecting Variance in a Variance Swap

Several factors can affect the variance in a variance swap, including the volatility of the underlying asset, the duration of the swap, and the frequency of the return calculations.

Examples of Variance Calculation in Variance Swap

For instance, if an investor enters into a variance swap on a stock index with a strike of 20, and the realized variance over the life of the swap is 25, the seller would owe the buyer the difference (5) times the notional amount. If the realized variance were 15, the buyer would owe the seller the difference (5) times the notional amount.

Risk Factors in Variance Swap

Variance swaps carry substantial risks. Market risk arises due to changes in the volatility of the underlying asset, potentially leading to payouts higher than anticipated.

Credit risk is significant if the counterparty defaults or fails to meet its obligations. Operational risks, such as miscalculations or transaction errors, may also affect a variance swap's performance.

Legal risks can surface if the swap contract's terms are unenforceable. Understanding these risks is essential before engaging in variance swap transactions.


Market Risks in a Variance Swap

Market risk in a variance swap arises from changes in the volatility of the underlying asset. If an investor has a short position in a variance swap and the market becomes more volatile, the investor may end up paying more than expected.

Credit Risks in a Variance Swap

Credit risk is also a significant factor in variance swaps. If the counterparty to the swap defaults or is unable to meet its obligations, the investor could face substantial losses. This risk is particularly acute in over-the-counter markets, where there is less regulatory oversight.

The Role of Variance Swaps in Portfolio Management

Variance swaps can be used in a variety of ways to manage portfolio risk and optimize returns.

Diversification Through Variance Swaps

As variance swaps are based on volatility, they can provide diversification benefits to a portfolio. If an investor's portfolio is heavily concentrated in low-volatility assets, they can use variance swaps to gain exposure to higher volatility markets, thereby improving the portfolio's risk-return profile.

Hedging Strategies Using Variance Swaps

Variance swaps can also be used as a hedging tool. If an investor believes that a particular market is about to become more volatile, they can use a variance swap to hedge against this risk.

Optimizing Portfolio Performance with Variance Swaps

By strategically using variance swaps, investors can optimize their portfolio performance by exploiting their views on future market volatility.

For example, if an investor believes that market volatility is likely to increase, they can enter into a long position in a variance swap to potentially profit from this view.

Regulatory Environment of Variance Swap

Like all financial derivatives, variance swaps are subject to regulation.

Overview of Financial Regulations Impacting Variance Swaps

Variance swaps are primarily regulated by securities and commodities regulators, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. These regulations aim to ensure fair and transparent markets and to protect investors from fraud and manipulation.

Impact of Recent Regulatory Changes on Variance Swaps

In recent years, regulators have increased their scrutiny of over-the-counter derivatives, including variance swaps. These changes have led to increased reporting requirements and stricter capital requirements for swap dealers.

Compliance Considerations for Variance Swap Participants

Given the regulatory environment, participants in variance swap transactions need to ensure they are in compliance with all relevant regulations. This may include maintaining adequate capital, adhering to reporting requirements, and implementing robust risk management practices.

Lessons Learned from Variance Swap Case Studies

These case studies highlight the importance of understanding market conditions and the risk factors associated with variance swaps. They also underscore the need for robust risk management practices when dealing with complex financial derivatives.

Future of Variance Swap

While it's impossible to predict the future with certainty, several trends suggest that variance swaps will continue to play a vital role in financial markets.

Market Trends Impacting Variance Swaps

One trend is the increasing volatility in global financial markets.

With geopolitical tensions, economic uncertainties, and global events like the COVID-19 pandemic, markets are becoming more unpredictable, and the demand for volatility-based products like variance swaps is likely to increase.

Technological Innovations and Variance Swaps

Technological innovations are also impacting the future of variance swaps. With advancements in financial technology, trading of variance swaps is becoming more efficient and accessible.

Furthermore, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in predicting market volatility could revolutionize how variance swaps are used.

Potential Future Developments in Variance Swaps

As the financial industry continues to evolve, we may see the development of new types of variance swaps or similar products.

For example, as cryptocurrencies and other digital assets become more mainstream, we may see the introduction of variance swaps based on the volatility of these assets.


In conclusion, a variance swap is a specialized financial instrument that allows parties to speculate on or hedge against the volatility of an underlying asset.

It's crucial to be aware of the inherent risk factors, including market, credit, operational, and legal risks, as these can significantly impact the swap's outcome. Despite these risks, variance swaps play an integral role in portfolio management.

They offer a means of diversification and a tool for hedging against volatility, thereby enhancing a portfolio's risk-return profile.

Therefore, understanding variance swaps, their associated risks, and their potential use in portfolio management is indispensable for financial practitioners navigating today's complex and volatile markets.

Variance Swap FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website or view his author profiles on Amazon, Nasdaq and Forbes.

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