Option Basics

Early Assignment

I’ve heard it said that most options expire worthless. This claim generally comes from non-option traders trying to convince would-be traders not to start. It’s just not true. The vast majority of option positions are simply closed before expiration. Even though a large number expire, plenty are exercised/assigned.

The term exercise refers to an option buyer exercising their right granted by the option. Call buyers have the right to buy stock at the strike price anytime before the option expires. Put buyers have the right to sell stock at the strike price anytime before the option expires. Their act of doing so is known as exercising.

The term assignment refers to an initial option seller, also know as the option writer, being exercised by the buyer of their option. Call writers have the obligation to sell stock at the strike price anytime before the option expires. Put writers have the obligation to buy stock at the strike price anytime before the option expires. When they are forced to fulfill their obligation, it is known as being assigned.

The last day for option buyers to exercise their rights and option writers to be assigned their obligations is on expiration Friday. Technically, option expiration happens the Saturday following the third Friday. Since the stock market is closed on Saturdays and since most brokerages also make their retail clients announce their intentions by the third Friday, most people consider this day as option expiration day.

On stock options, the buyer of an option can exercise their right at any point until expiration. That is any time they want, but it won’t reflect when the market is still open. The shares will trade hands after normal hours. Disappearing from the assigned Call writer’s account and/or appearing in the assigned Put writer’s account, before the open of the next business day. Their broker should inform them of assignment before the market opens.

Most exercise/assignment takes place on the last day, expiration day. But since stock option buyers can exercise their rights at anytime until expiration, it is possible to take place “ahead of schedule.” When an option buyer chooses to do so, it is known as early exercise. Logically, when the writer receives notification, it’s known as early assignment.

Selling Naked Puts has its own risks and rewards. Some aspects, which are thought to be risks, may actually be rewarding. Early Assignment falls into this category.

Calls are almost never exercised early. If their buyer does so, he has to come up with the money to pay for the stock. On the other hand, Put buyers often exercise early. When they exercise their right to sell stock, they get paid. They collect the money for the sale. I’ve been assigned early on Puts numerous times. I’ve been called out early only once in the last few years. I know very few Covered Call writers that have ever been called out early. Money has value; it collects interest. Follow the money!

Time Merchant

Selling options is akin to selling time. Option writers collect premium by obligating themselves for certain periods of time. If the buyer of those options decides not to exercise the time will expire and with it the option. But if the option buyer chooses to exercise early, they aren’t using time they’ve previously paid for. Maybe it can be resold.

Option buyers can sell their options anytime the market is open. As long as there is time value remaining, they would be foolish to exercise. By doing so they lose the time value. If and when they do, they have to lose it to someone. That someone could be you. Be aware, this opportunity generally never avails itself, but when it does, be prepared to profit.

Usually options are only assigned early when they are so Deep In the Money (DITM) they have no time value. Also early assignment might happen one or two weeks before expiration, but not often any earlier than the last week before.

How To Profit When Assigned Early Using a Totally Hypothetical Example:

Stock XYZ closed @ $ 33. The $ 40 Puts closed @ $ 7.50 bid, $ 8.00 ask. Their intrinsic value equals the amount In the Money (ITM) $ 7. Whatever remains forms the time value, in this case less than a dollar. But instead of selling the Puts on the open market, their buyer chooses to exercise early. If we wrote these Puts and were the early assignment “victim,” we could receive a windfall profit.

There’s two ways to resell the time. One way is to sell a Covered Call against the stock just bought. If the prices remain the same the following day when we found out we were assigned early, the $ 40 Call should be priced around $0.50 bid, $0.75 ask. Although we may get a better price than bid, let’s assume we sell the Call @ $0.50. If the stock rises above $ 40 and we get called out; it’s the same net effect as never being Put in the first place. We would NOT own the stock, but we would have picked up an extra $0.50.

Selling options can be very profitable. To the trained trader the numerous risks are more than offset by the potential rewards, including those that almost never appear. Training comes from experience; not necessarily one’s own. Being aware of circumstances that hardly ever appear allows profits if/when they do appear.

About fifteen years ago, my first stock broker told me a story that happened to him almost twenty five years earlier.  I can’t remember all the details, so it can’t be verified.  He swore it was true, and if you can’t trust your stock broker who can you trust?

To make this point, I’d like to share the story the best I can remember.  It takes place when my broker started in business, in the early 1960’s.  He had some clients wanting to buy stock in a company he had never traded before, but the name was familiar.  In doing research about the company, he discovered a new company had bought the “corporate shell” of an older, out of business company.  (It is a long and difficult process to turn a company into a publicly traded company.  Many times it is easier to merge into the “shell” of an abandoned company, and fill it with your own “slug.”)

This “new” stock hadn’t traded for years, maybe even decades, but now had volume and an increasing price.  Why was this company familiar?

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My broker told of being at his childhood home and realizing the reason for the stock’s familiarity.  He remembered, his parents had lost a fair amount of money in the “old” company years earlier.  All that was left of the monumental loss was the reminder his father had framed and hung on the wall… the stock certificate.

The story goes, he took the certificate off the wall, sold it to his client.  Giving his widowed mother the money and earning a large commission from his satisfied client.  If I remember the story correctly, the new company went the way of the old, it once more became a shell.

The moral of the story; If you own a stock long enough it may come back from the dead.

With an option, there is no after life, no reincarnation!  One funeral is all it gets.  If your option dies, you don’t get a certificate to hang on your wall.  All you have left is the trade confirmation from your broker and the memory of the money in your account.

Options are a fixed time investment.  After expiration, they cease to exist.  When buying options, you need to be right, and right on time.  Stock prices go up, they go down and they stay the same, but time always passes.

The nice thing about time, it’s consistent.  Time’s passage is an integral part of an option’s price.

Time Value and Time Decay:

Option prices can have two elements, Intrinsic value and Time value.  Intrinsic value is equity, a “down payment on the stock.”  Time value is potential.

If an option has time remaining, the stock has the capability to move.  Consider time value as possible movement value.  At expiration, there is no time, there is no potential.  The “Greek” term Theta measures the time value decay of an option.

The Laws of option pricing are constant.  The Laws regarding time value include; “The At the Money Option ALWAYS has the highest time value.”  “Time value drops the further In or Out of the Money the option moves.”  “Time value decays at its square root.”

In business, the key is not to be part of the crowd, but to know the direction of the crowd.  Don’t be a follower; try to be a leader.  If you can’t beat ‘em, DON’T join ‘em!  You should watch the crowd.  Don’t join in their herd mind-set, least you join a band of lemmings parading over a cliff.  Crowds may be right in the middle, but they’re wrong at the ends.  They buy high and sell low, the exact opposite of successful trading.

The crowd watches CNBC and so do the experts.  Go into most brokerage offices and/or trading rooms across this country and chances are they will have a TV tuned to CNBC.  Not because it’s their best source of information on the market, but because it’s their best source of info on the trading public.

CNBC only reports the news they don’t make it, or do they?  They have no bearing on prices, or do they?  Have you heard of the “CNBC Effect?”  The “CNBC Effect” takes place when the crowd reacts to the information shared with them via CNBC.  Viewers watch and listen for tidbits of information, any tip construed or otherwise, any reason to buy or sell.

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If you watched long enough, you’ve seen a CEO give a stellar interview.  Soon on the streaming ticker tape flowing across the bottom of the screen, you see the stock increase in frequency and price.  Or you might have seen a CFO stutter when asked about future earnings or worse still, accounting irregularities.  Shortly there after that stock may trade much lower in price on higher volume.

Can option traders use CNBC to their advantage?  The answer is yes!  But you need the big picture.  Some of the details may seem old hat or trivial.  When finished looping off in opposite directions, it ties nice and neatly into a bow.

Stocks are one-dimensional; price.  Options have many components: price, time and potential.  Compared to potential, price and time are easy math. Potential is a difficult concept to understand.  (Older Options 101 columns go into option pricing in greater detail.)

Volatility measures potential.  Higher potential moves in either direction produce higher Volatility.  Higher Volatility equals higher option prices.  Higher option prices mean higher potential moves, or so the formula says.  In actuality, higher option prices indicate higher Implied Volatility, but not greater potential.

Volatility comes in four different flavors.  Implied Volatility gives novice option traders a sour taste.  Another way to look at Implied Volatility is to consider it as supply and demand.  More buyers, Implied Volatility increases.  Fewer buyers and/or more sellers, Implied Volatility drops.  True potential has nothing to do with it.  There is a skew between actual and assumed probabilities, a mathematical edge. 

Option traders don’t need stock prices to move if they have correctly bet on option pricing components.  The “CNBC Effect” can and does often change Implied Volatility without ever changing stock prices.  Do not assume the additional exposure of stocks featured on CNBC will increase their Implied Volatility!  But don’t be surprised if it happens.

Being aware of the trading environment transforms option trading from betting to investing.  Anticipating future changes based on previous tendencies increases profitability.  Knowing what to expect and not being blind-sided decreases losses.  Avoiding crowds help avoid stampede disease, being trampled.

We’re not talking Bikinis, we mean highs and lows.  Not as in buy low-sell high, but as in trends and chart patterns.

A stock industry maxim reads, “The public is right in the middle, but wrong on the ends.”  Spelled out, many fortunes will be lost by buying when one should ultimately be selling, or by selling when one should buy.

Many analysts try to predict tops and bottoms with price targets.  Their predictions may pan out with amazing accuracy.  Some well-followed analysts’ predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Have you ever bought a stock at the bottom?  Or better still, sold at the top?  How did you know at the time it was one of the extremes?  Luck or genius?  If someone bought at the bottom, then someone sold to them.  For every seller at the top, there was an unlucky buyer.  Have you ever been on the wrong side of a transaction at either end?  Misfortune or ignorance?

Buying near the bottom is easier than selling at the top.  An absolute bottom exists, zero.  The ultimate top is unknown.  Theoretically a stock could trade to infinity.  Although I’ve never seen infinity on a chart.

Honestly, you could sell at the top.  As an example; selling into a merger or takeover.  When a company tries to take over another company, they have to pay above the then current market price to motivate shareholders to approve the sale.  If they don’t offer enough, they don’t get the votes.  Typically, a buy out offer will be the highest price in a specific time period.  Creating a top.

Some people trade blindly, others with blinders on, still others just need a different pair of glasses.  If you look at things in a different light, you should become better traders.

An old adage claims, “He who defines the terms, wins the argument.”  So don’t send me an e-mail disagreeing.  Some of this will be completely new.

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No one can buy bottoms or sell tops.  Transactions require two parties, buyers and sellers.  There has to be someone on the other side of a trade.  Without a willing seller, a buyer keeps his money.  Without a buyer, no sale takes place.  Tops and bottoms have only one willing party.

Commonly known as the bottom, it should truly be known as the lowest price.  The highest price is not the top, but just the highest price.  Bottoms are lows that don’t go lower.  Tops are highs that don’t trade higher.  They can only be confirmed after the fact.  Not during or before, but after.

Prices decline because of concentrated selling with scattered buying.  Translated, more sellers than buyers.  Prices fall with lower sellers; a rush to the exit.  To fall further it needs a seller at a lower price.  If a seller at a lower price doesn’t exist, the decline will stop.  Even with ready and willing buyers, no transaction will take place without sellers. The absence of sellers indicates the bottom, a theoretical point just after the lowest price.

Until prices increase a bottom hasn’t been made, only a new low.  The price may stay flat, forming a solid bottom to rise from.  Only after the prices rise can one look back and see the bottom.  It must turn back upward.

Trying to buy a bottom is like “trying to catch a falling knife”.  More often than not, you’ll injure yourself.  Often a stock that you thought was trading near a bottom will fall even further.  Stocks bottom out when there is no one left to sell any lower.  You will be a better trader if you let the stock turn to the upside before buying.  Don’t get greedy.

The opposite extreme to the bottom is the top.  If prices decline because of selling pressure, then prices rise due to buying pressure.  Concentrated buying with scattered selling, more buyers than sellers.  A high is only a high until replaced with a new higher high.  A high becomes a top after it peaks and turns down.  A top is the absence of buyers.  No one to pay more.  Without buyers, sellers can not trade.

You may trade at the ultimate extremes in price, but you can not trade at the tops or bottoms.  There’s no one to take the opposite side.  If you traded at the extremes it’s not because of genius or stupidity, it’s because of luck.  Good or bad.  The good news is, you can create luck with knowledge and technical analysis.

All investments have risk.  Real estate, stocks, and mutual funds have risk, and of course options have risk.  But have you ever considered the risk of cash?  Not the risk of someone breaking into your house and stealing the money under your mattress, but the risk your money in the bank doesn’t retain buying power.

This week we’ll discuss option trading accounts and how brokerages look at them.  If you lack an option trading account, knowing almost everything about them won’t help you make any money.  This will not be a recommendation to any specific broker or brokerage.  Its an individual decision, like picking a favorite flavor of ice cream, my favorite flavor shouldn’t be yours, no matter how much I know about ice cream.

You shouldn’t chose a broker by low commission rates, but the trading authority they will allow.  If you have a more complicated or “more risky” strategy that consistently has made money in the past and your broker won’t let you trade it, you need a new broker.  In defense of the broker, if you’re consistently betting the milk money on “long shot losers”, he doesn’t need the risk of a lawsuit for allowing you to speculate away your grocery money.  Don’t laugh, brokers get sued all the time.  Good brokers don’t want the label of a churn and burner, using tactics making more commissions than profits.  Brokerage won’t allow everyone shovels to dig themselves holes they can’t get out.

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By reading these articles, many of you will know more about options than your broker.  If they won’t allow you to trade strategies they don’t understand, no matter how much you understand, consider changing.

Different brokerage firms might have different rules and requirements, but this is as close to industry standard as it gets.  There are five levels of option trading authority.  These levels are based on risk and complications.  Risk to you the trader, but more important the perceived risk to the broker.  Some strategies are complicated, both to the investor and the broker.

The five levels are:

Level One; selling covered calls.
Level Two; buying puts and calls.
Level Three; spreads.
Level Four; selling uncovered (naked) puts.
Level Five; selling uncovered (naked) calls.

Options are a contract between two parties.  The buyer has rights, the seller has obligations.  Call options give the buyer the right to buy a stock at a predetermined price (the strike price) within a predetermined time period (the expiration date).  The seller, also known as the writer, is obligated to deliver the stock if the buyer exercises his right.

Most investors should easily attain Level One trading authority. Considered so safe a strategy, the IRS allows it in IRA accounts.  When a investor owns stock, he may sell a call, giving the buyer the right to purchase the stock.  The brokerage liens the stock, they won’t allow you to dispose of it since it guarantees your ability to perform your part of the contract.  Think of it this way, the broker is covered.  The chain of events flows.  If the call buyer exercises his right, the broker doesn’t have to contact you.  The stock is sold automatically.  The broker takes it out of your account, and puts in money.  If the call buyer doesn’t exercise his rights before the call expires, the lien disappears.  You’re free to sell the stock, or another covered call.  Pretty safe, pretty simple.  Covered calls have two risks, both related to market fluctuations.  First, like owning stock, you run the risk of the stock price declining.  You also run the risk of not participating if the stock makes a major upward move.

Level Two is buying options.  The option purchaser pays the option premium hoping for a favorable move in the underlying stock.  The investor actually speculates the value of the option will rise.  It’s not a complicated scenario, try to buy low, sell high.  Buying options is less complex and less commission intensive than covered calls.  The pitfall requires risking entire amount ventured.  If an option runs out of time and has no intrinsic value then it’s worthless.  Zip, Zero!  Because of the possibility of total loss, not everyone will be allowed Level Two authority.  Not difficult to get, but with few exceptions not allowed in retirement accounts.  The determining factor generally is account size.  It’s the grocery money issue.

Levels Three through Five require a margin account.

Level Three:  spreads.  In my opinion, the least risky, but most complex of all transactions.  A brief explanation; a spread is a position with two or more components.  Simultaneously buying or selling two different options changes the risk/reward curve.  Spreads can have predetermined risk with predetermined reward, but done right, unlimited possibility!  My attempt, this week, is not to teach spreads, but to help you know about setting up your account.  I would encourage all option investors to have spread writing authorization.  Make it a goal.  If you don’t have it set up, find out what it takes for approval.  Be aware, many brokerages require one year prior account activity before okaying spreads.  If your broker demands more time than your account has been open don’t fret, you’ll be given the tools to profitable trade until such time.

Level Four, selling uncovered (naked) puts.  Think of it this way, the seller acts as the insurance company, the buyer is the policy holder, the put sold the policy, the strike price equals policy value, and the option premium collected the insurance premium.  The policy states that if on or before expiration the stock price is below the strike price, the policy holder may sell the stock at policy value, regardless the actual market value.  The put seller obligates himself to buy the stock no matter how low the price drops.

A funny thing about Level Four naked puts, without margin, the risks are identical to Level One covered calls.  Think about it, in both, if the stock price is above the strike price the option seller won’t own the stock.  If the stock price is below the strike price, the covered call writer keeps his stock; the naked put writer is obligated to buy the stock.  The reality is naked puts have lower margin requirements, and therefore higher leveraged potential returns.  Everybody knows with higher rewards, there must be higher risk.  I like naked put selling, but I feel the same high returns are available, with less danger with put spreads (Level Three).

Level Five, selling uncovered (naked) calls.  Only money guarantees your ability to deliver the stock, and it takes a lot!  Technically this strategy has unlimited risk.  The sky is the limit.  The seller is obligated to deliver stock he doesn’t own.  Unless you have a lot of experience and a ton of money, your broker won’t allow you to sell naked calls.  Don’t ask.  The bright side is, I only know one circumstance worth considering using Level Five authority.  If you have a calendar spread on expiration Friday, with the short option out of the money, consider selling the next month’s call without waiting until the following Monday.  You won’t lose two days of time decay nor have unknown market exposure.  You’re entering into a new spread without closing the old one.

Often out of the money options have too much value on the ask side on expiration day.  Market makers know most option traders can’t sell uncovered options, and to keep a spread hedged over the weekend following expiration Friday, option traders need to buy back their short position to close.  Hence, they overcharge for them.  Market makers are not stupid.

If you can’t understand this situation, don’t worry, you don’t want Level Five authority, nor will your broker approve.

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