option strategy

It’s one thing to invest in stocks, it’s another to trade them.  Trading implies a shorter time frame.  Investing means looking for price appreciation.  Dividends play an important part to many investors.  Most traders have never received a dividend, nor do they miss them.

Investors are willing to tie up most of their money.  Their gains are the product of appreciation and time.  They look for better than average returns to maximize their investments.  As well as selecting plays, traders manage money.  They tie up as small an amount as possible.  Their gains are the product of repeatability and speed.

An option’s limited time frame match better to the trader mentality.  Most option traders have a much smaller time horizon than the long term buy and hold investors.  Trading options adds leverage to the mix.  Options fit perfectly to the trader time and money management mentality.

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To trade successfully, option buyers need to be right and right on time.  Buying options resembles betting on direction.  Buy Calls on bullish expectations.  Buy Puts on bearish expectations.

Options cost money, their premium pays for the potential stock price movement.  Potentially up for Calls, potentially down for Puts.  You need big fast price moves to make any money trading options.  If a stock doesn’t move far or fast enough, you will lose money.

If you buy the right option, the stock may only need to move a little before being profitable.  Buy the wrong option, the stock will need to move farther and/or faster to make a profit.  Playing the right stock may heal any wounds caused by picking the wrong option.

Option buyers have rights which if the option is as little as 1 penny in the money get exercised automatically.  The seller, also known as writer, has an obligation.  Call options give the right to buy stock and the obligation to sell.  Put options give the right to sell stock and the obligation to buy.

If we buy Calls on bullish expectations, why not sell them on bearish expectations?  If we buy Puts on bearish expectations, why not sell them when bullish?  Remember, until the option is closed, there can be no profit.

If we sell a Call option we are obligating ourselves to deliver stock at the strike price anytime until the option expires.  For that obligation we collect a premium.  If we already own the stock, it’s known as a Covered Call.  Our obligation to deliver is covered, guaranteed by the fact we already own the stock.  Our broker should put a lien against our stock.  They won’t let us sell it to anyone else.  In the end, they are responsible.  When you think about it, they are covered.

The profit in Covered Calls potentially comes two ways, from the premium collected and from any appreciation in the stock’s price.  Like long term investors, Covered Call writer’s gains come from appreciation and time.  Only, not from the multiplication of time on a return, but from the decay of time’s value on options.

Selling an uncovered, or naked, Call is the riskiest of all option strategies.  The seller, or writer, of uncovered calls is obligated to sell stock they don’t own.  If the price skyrockets, their losses take off.

Selling Put options obligates the writer to buy the stock at a set price for a specific period of time.  Think of a Put option as an insurance policy.  The buyer of the policy pays the insurance company a premium, for that premium they can insure against loss.  Unlike naked Calls, which have unlimited risk, uncovered Puts maximum risk is if the stock becomes bankrupt.

Put selling profits comes from two sources.  Time’s passage deflates the value of options.  Time passing is truly the only guarantee in life.  When you buy them, they decay on you.  When you sell them, they decay on you.  The other profit doesn’t come from appreciation, but the lack of depreciation.  If buying Puts is a bet the stock will go down, selling Puts is not a bet it will go up but a bet it won’t go down.

Selling Covered Calls and selling Naked Puts have the same risk curve, but not the same reward curve.  Our example will be a $20 stock, one position will be buying the stock and selling the $20 Covered Call.  The other position will be selling the $20 Naked Put.

Buying the stock for $20 and selling the $20 Covered Call gives no room for appreciation, the only profit comes from the premium collected.  The only Profit from selling a $20 Put would be the premium.

In either case, if the stock were to go above $20, you would not own the stock.  The Call buyer would call you out on the Covered Call.  The Put buyer would have their option expire worthless.  If the stock closed below $20 before option expiration, either position would end up owning stock.  The Call Buyer wouldn’t exercise.  The Put buyer would force the Put seller to buy the stock.

A great strategy combining both would be to initially sell a Put Option – I prefer selling a Weekly Put Option.  If the Put Option expires worthless then you get to keep the premium and repeat for the next week.  If the Put gets exercised you end up with the stock and then the next step is to sell a Call – resulting in a Covered Call.  Let me know what you think!

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.

My goal is to help people become better traders.  It is less a goal to teach which stocks to trade, and more a goal to teach identifying situations, and matching strategies to those situations.  If you know ahead a stock’s price is rocketing to the moon, it’s easy, just bet the farm.  However, if you’re not sure, you don’t know if a stock will soar, but you have sound fundamental information and technical analysis to help reasonably know the direction of price, you can learn to develop successful strategies.

I would like to think, I can give information worthwhile to read, worthwhile to learn, and more important, worthwhile to trade.

Most investors do not understand the difference between price and value.  Value is what a stock should be worth.  Price is the last trade of record.  The key to successful investing is finding undervalued and overvalued stocks whose price becomes more in line with their value.  This is also called reversion to the mean.

The daily opinion poll, known as the market, determines price.  Like the political climate in America today, the financial climate is often a confusing and changing environment.  Bill Clinton and Amazon.Com have a lot in common.  Contrary to long time expert opinions, both are scoring amazingly high in the public opinion polls.  Trying to call their early demise might be the biggest mistake of the end of the 20th century.

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My major problem is that I am a one man army.  Attacked on all flanks and seriously out gunned.  I had to develop a hand to hand combat method of investing… Trench Warfare.  I knew my weaknesses (market predictions) and my strengths (logic, mathematics, analysis, and experience).  I would pick my battles and my battlefields…Options.

I hate stocks.  Their valuations are one dimensional…PRICE.  Stocks don’t know time.  This is evidenced by one of the oldest forms of Technical Analysis: Point and Figure Charting.  Options on the other hand are multi-dimensional.

Option pricing is based on the values derived from the Nobel Prize winning Black-Scholes formula.  Options are derivatives.  That is they have no value in and of themselves, their values are derived from something else.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?  Aren’t derivatives responsible for breaking a British Bank?  Actually it was a young rogue trader in Singapore misusing derivatives that broke the long time institution.  If he knew some of things I plan on teaching, history could have been different.

I intend to take a complicated mathematical equation and give you the basics to successfully trade with this information.

You will learn how options are valued.  The components are simple; Time, Price, Potential, Dividends, and Interest Rates.

Time:  The one true constant.  Stocks go up, stocks go down, stocks stay the same, TIME passes.  The value of time does not decay linearly.  For true math heads only… Time Value decays at its square root.

Price:  Not only the price of the stock, but the difference of the Strike price versus the Stock price.

Potential:  Known as Volatility, measured in Standard Deviations.

Dividends:  Applicable only to stocks that pay dividends.

Interest Rates:  Short term risk free rate of borrowing.

These Mathematical counterparts have Greek terms.  This adds to the difficulty experienced by seasoned Stock Brokers as well as neophyte investors.

Time Decay-Theta, Price movement-Delta and Gamma, Potential-Vega, Interest Rates-Rho.

Strategies include almost every kind of spread imaginable, and some only a veteran such as myself could dream up.  They will include:

Bull Spreads, Bear Spreads, Put Spreads, Call Spreads, Credit Spreads, Debit Spreads, Calendar Spreads, Ratio Spreads, Back Spreads, Butterfly Spreads, Condor Spreads, Anticipation Spreads, Subsidy Spreads, Straddles, Strangles Combinations, Time Diagonals, Synthetic positions and Position Trading.

If risk can be minimized or hedged away, there is a spread that can do it.

Sounds Great?  Well it’s meaningless if you can’t trade it.

The public opinion poll on Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) recently shown a less that happy result.  The price gapped down.  Not unlike many other stocks have done.

If you look at a long term chart of AMD you will see exactly why you don’t want to be a “long term buy and holder”.  This is a high tech company and the price hasn’t moved much?  Actually it has moved nicely, up and down!  Is now the proverbial Low from “Buy Low-Sell High”?  I don’t know.  But I can trade on the possibility.

AMD is almost a commodity.  They manufacture CPU’s to compete with Intel (INTC).  With consumers wanting less and less expensive computers, one would think things would be well for AMD.  However, Intel wants not only a bigger market, but bigger market share.  They have come out with cheaper chips to compete with AMD.  Chips that allow box manufactures the low entry price with the familiar Intel Inside logo.

We’ll enter a Position Trade, buying a long term call and selling short term calls against it.  We’ll look at a number of hedged positions where we buy and sell risk, buy and sell time decay and buy and sell potential.  It will cost us a certain amount of money to enter this trade and then a certain amount of money to maintain this trade.  The key to Position Trading is to have less money in the trade as time goes on and more profit potential.  It is money management.

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.

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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