If you knew for a fact, two companies were going to merge you could make a killing.  Of course you could end up cellmates with a killer.  Insider trading, using non-public firsthand knowledge is illegal.  But as with many laws in this country, it’s broken all the time.

Most people’s experiences with insider trading revolve around reading stories in newspapers.  High profile cases make headlines on a regular basis.  Low brow cases fill back pages and little corners of financial papers.

It happens more often than most people would think.  And violators get away with it more often than reported.

The Security Exchange Commission’s (SEC) responsibilities include investigating insider trading, along with other possible securities violations.  It’s their job to investigate possible crimes after the fact by searching for irregularities and violations.

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They look for rule breakers after the rules have been broken, after the damage has been done.  They only try preventing violations with passive deterrents: potential jail time and fines.

The financial markets are a faceless game where players hide behind nameless account numbers and foreign banking secrecy laws.  Discounting the risks of punishment, many trade illegally for great rewards.

Knowing the SEC’s system checks for violations after the fact causes many more violation attempts than a more aggressive policy might stop.  If the SEC would follow the red flags that violators leave, maybe they could stop illegal trades before they take place.

If we understand the signs left behind, we can track down potential profits like hound dogs following a scent.  We can act like cub detectives, private eyes, Colombo, call it what you may.  Profits belong to those able to follow clues.

Option traders may stumble onto crime scenes in the natural course of their trading.  Option traders should be looking for clues to potential stock moves.  If you understand a few features of option pricing and price movement, you can watch the smart money.

If someone knows a stock is going up, they can buy the stock and profit greatly.  But stock returns pale by comparison to option profits.  An option’s leverage can magnify stock price movements, giving monstrous returns.

In The Money (ITM) options give more leverage than stocks, or stocks bought on margin.  At The Money (ATM) options can give still higher rates of returns than ITM options.  The greatest percentage returns can come from being on the right side of a trade with Out of The Money (OTM) options. They have the most leverage.

The normal problem with playing OTM options is their higher probability of expiring worthless.  OTM options need big fast moves to have any chance of being profitable.  Generally a bad play, OTM options pay the most when right.  The key is being right.  Insider info helps to be right.

Options traders should keep regular track of option volume and open interest.  Look for size anomalies.  If the open interest appears too large in OTM options, something big may be in the works.  On the other hand, you need to be able to discern a large institution selling OTM covered options to pull in premium.

You must remember, there are two sides to option trades, buyers and sellers.  A rule of thumb is sellers sell to the Market Makers at bid and buyers pay ask.  If you find big trades, look at a time and sales report.  If the trade went at or near bid, chances are it was a seller collecting the premium.  But if the trade went off at or around the ask level, maybe a buyer has shown his cards.

The next thing to do would be to search for any corresponding trade that may be part of a spread.  If a large block of ITM options goes off at ask, with an equally large block ATM or OTM at bid, a directional spread has probably been placed.  These intrigue me, but not as much as straight plays.

If the first block was a Call trade, search the Puts for a potentially corresponding trade.  The opposite is true as well.  A combination of Puts and Calls is known as a straddle or strangle.  Both are volatility plays.  They tend to come from hedge traders, not people in the know.

These clues only tell part of the story.  If an enormously big trade takes place, check the newswires.  Occasionally a story might be connected.  Sometimes reporters interview Market Makers or other professional traders about questionable transactions.

Only big players with big accounts can make big block trades.  A person with inside information may not want to make big block trades showing their hands.  More often than not, they’ll buy many different contracts. Making it much harder for us to profit on their coattails.

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