Volatility Smile

Article byKhalid Ahmed
Edited byAlfina
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is Volatility Smile?

A volatility smile refers to a U-shaped graphical representation created while plotting the implied volatilities of options contracts with the same expiration date and different strike rates against their corresponding strike prices, resembling a smile. It highlights any deviation from the assumption of constant volatility as predicted by Black Scholes.

Volatility Smile

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Black Scholes depicts the perception of potential price movements of the market. A volatility smile helps investors recognize that market expectations can lead to different implied volatility levels of options with different strike prices. During significant market events, traders use it to know the market’s expectations regarding future price movements. It also implies price movement probability to its extremes which reflects the increased demand for hedging using out-of-the-money (OTM) options.

Key Takeaways

  • The volatility smile is a U-shaped depiction formed when graphing the implied volatilities of options contracts, sharing the same expiration date but varying strike prices against their corresponding strike rates, resembling a smile.
  • Its objective is to emphasize any deviation from the anticipated constant volatility assumption of the Black-Scholes model, highlighting the market’s perception of potential market price fluctuations.
  • It represents the implied volatility against the strike price informed by graphs for options contracts. In contrast, the volatility smirk falls under the most specific type of volatility smile featuring higher implied volatility at lower strikes.
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Volatility Smile Explained

The volatility smile, representing the relationship between implied volatility and strike price, plays a significant role in options trading. Capturing the implied volatility levels for different strike prices with the same expiration date serves as a crucial tool for assessing market sentiment, risk perception, and price movement expectations through the volatility smile curve.

The volatility smile is a graphical representation of options contracts one can plot against implied volatility. When the smile tilts to the left, indicating higher implied volatility for in-the-money (ITM) options, it is a bearish sign. Conversely, it is seen as a bullish sign when the smile tilts to the right, with out-of-the-money (OTM) options having higher implied volatility.

When exploring the pros of the volatility smile, it becomes evident that it acts as a market sentiment indicator, enabling traders to gauge the perceived risk and uncertainty in the market. Additionally, it contributes to options pricing accuracy by considering the varying implied volatility across strike prices. Moreover, it assists in managing risk exposure as traders can adapt their strategies based on the shape and characteristics of the smile.


However, there are certain cons associated with the volatility smile. One limitation is its simplistic assumption of constant implied volatility. This may not accurately reflect the dynamic nature of the market. Furthermore, while the smile provides valuable insights into market sentiment, it does not offer precise predictions of future price movements or volatility levels. The smile’s shape can also vary based on the pricing model used, highlighting its dependence on modeling assumptions and limitations.

Despite these limitations, the volatility smile remains widely employed in options trading and risk management. Traders can leverage the smile to identify mispriced options, construct effective trading strategies like straddles or strangles, and make informed decisions regarding options pricing, risk management, and hedging.

Ultimately, the volatility smile graph’s implication lies in its ability to convey the market’s expectation of potential price movements and risk. Most market participants assign varying levels of implied volatility to different strike prices. This reflects their beliefs regarding the likelihood of specific price scenarios. By understanding the implications of the volatility smile, traders can navigate the options market more effectively and make informed trading decisions.


Let us use a few examples to understand the topic.

Example # 1

While monitoring the volatility smile for Company X’s stock options, Trader A noticed that the implied volatilities for out-of-the-money put options were higher than at-the-money or in-the-money options. This discrepancy implies a heightened perceived downside risk for the stock

Consequently, Trader A opts to execute a protective put strategy, purchasing out-of-the-money put options as a precaution against potential stock price declines.

Example # 2 

Assuming Trader B analyzes the volatility smile graph for Company Y’s stock options, they observe a notable difference in implied volatilities between near-term and longer-term options. This discrepancy implies an expectation of heightened market uncertainty or the influence of upcoming events on the stock price. 

To capitalize on this situation, Trader B implements a short-term straddle strategy, purchasing both a call option and a put option at the same strike price and expiration date. The objective is to profit from substantial price movements in either direction.


The volatility smile has many limitations, as discussed below;

  • Its assumption that the market’s expectation could be captured using a single value for every strike price fails because of variations of future volatility and the specific strike price. 
  • With ever-changing market conditions, expectations could change dramatically. Plus, its historical representation does not reflect existing market conditions, making it irrelevant.
  • It assumes that implied volatility remains constant over a period. However, the market volatility keeps varying, so its assumption fails, proving it an inaccurate tool.
  • It has very little capacity to predict volatile and future price movements accurately. 
  • Its functionality depends on the pricing model, which can produce a variety of volatility shapes based on the pricing model used and the variety of price dynamics of the assets. 
  • Illiquid markets and large market distortions impact volatility shape, making it a lesser reliable tool for market expectations.

Nevertheless, all these negatives do not affect its ability to understand the risk perception and market sentiment.

Volatility Smile vs Smirk 

Let us use the table below to understand the difference between the two.

Volatility smileVolatility smirk
It represents the implied volatility against the strike price informed by graphs for options contracts.The smirk falls under the most specific type of volatility smile featuring higher implied volatility at lower strikes.
It forms a U shape indicating higher implied volatility related to at-the-money options plus lower implied volatility related to in-the-money and out-of-the-money options.It is highly skewed, showing higher implied volatility related to lower strike prices which decrease gradually with the moving away from the money.
The smile represents a higher level of perceived risk for both upside and downside movements and market uncertainty.It represents perceived downside fear or risk present in the market, which is associated with events causing a significant decline in the market.
It assesses potential future price movements, risk perception, & market sentiment.The smirk gets utilized to assess significant declines in market expectations and downside risk.
Various factors affect it, like- news events, demand dynamics, market volatility, & supply and demand dynamics.Various factors influence it: economic uncertainties, major news events, and geopolitical tensions.
It applies across many timeframes, while particular characteristics may differ.It may get observed during shorter timeframes, like during important market crises or events.
Volatility smile applies to understanding market sentiment, risk management, and options pricing models.Analysts and traders use it to monitor downside risk, especially during economic crises.
It may have a variety of shapes spanning numerous markets m timeframes, and assets.It has a constant skew shape having higher implied volatility at the minimum strike price, while its extent and scale may differ.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How to calculate volatility smile?

One can plot the implied volatilities of options contracts sharing the same expiration date but varying strike prices to calculate the volatility smile. This is usually done by utilizing market data or option pricing models. The resulting graph unveils the connection between implied volatility and strike price, shedding light on market expectations and sentiment.

2. How to trade volatility smile?

For traders to engage in volatility smile trading, they utilize options strategies to capitalize on the fluctuations in implied volatilities across diverse strike prices. Employing techniques like straddles, strangles, or vertical spreads, traders can benefit from price fluctuations and shifts in implied volatility levels as indicated by the volatility smile.

3. How to use a volatility smile?

The volatility smile holds multiple applications for traders and investors. It allows them to evaluate market sentiment and risk perception, pinpoint mispriced options, adapt their trading strategies according to the smile’s shape, and make well-informed choices concerning options pricing, risk management, and hedging strategies.

4. How to construct a volatility smile?

For constructing a volatility smile, the process involves collecting market data for options sharing the same expiration date but different strike prices. Implied volatilities are then determined through option pricing models or calculations. Plotting these implied volatilities against their respective strike prices enables the creation of the volatility smile graph.

This has been a guide to what is Volatility Smile. Here, we explain the topic with its examples, limitations, and compare it with volatility smirk. You can learn more about it from the following articles –

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