**Explosive Volatility: A Model of Financial Contagion**

This paper proposes a model of financial contagion that accounts for explosive, mutually exciting shocks to market volatility. We fit the model using country-level data during the European sovereign debt crisis, which has its roots in the period 2008–2010, and was continuing to affect global markets as of October, 2011. Our analysis shows that existing volatility models are unable to explain two key stylized features of global markets during presumptive contagion periods: shocks to aggregate market volatility can be sudden and explosive, and they are associated with specific directional biases in the cross-section of country-level returns. Our model repairs this deficit by assuming that the random shocks to volatility are heavy-tailed and correlated cross-sectionally, both with each other and with returns.

We find evidence for significant contagion effects during the major EU crisis periods of May 2010 and August 2011, where contagion is defined as excess correlation in the residuals from a factor model incorporating global and regional market risk factors. Some of this excess correlation can be explained by quantifying the impact of shocks to aggregate volatility in the cross-section of expected returns—but only, it turns out, if one is extremely careful in accounting for the explosive nature of these shocks. We show that global markets have time-varying cross-sectional sensitivities to these shocks, and that high sensitivities strongly predict periods of financial crisis. Moreover, the pattern of temporal changes in correlation structure between volatility and returns is readily interpretable in terms of the major events of the periods in question.

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