Last year was among the least volatile in the history of the stock market. The VIX which measures market volatility averaged a little over 11 for 2017. It was the lowest level for the index since it was introduced in 1986.
Fear is back in the markets as talk of tariffs dominate the financial news media. Choppy markets increase option premiums so it is a good time to write options. The reward for giving someone else the option to buy or sell something has gone way up this year.
Option-writing strategies range from conservative (covered calls and collars) to extremely risky (naked puts). With the virtually unlimited variations of strike prices and expiration dates available, investors can customize their risk/reward parameters with remarkable precision.
Here are three common option strategies that can generate income or limit losses from an investment portfolio.
1. Covered calls and collars
The most common, conservative way to take advantage of rich option premiums is to write call options on securities you already own. If you’re invested in stock funds, you can write on stock indexes although the premiums are generally less than on individual stocks.
For example, say you own 100 shares of Apple at $190.00 and you wanted to generate some income. Selling a call option expiring on Aug. 17 to buy 100 shares of Apple at the strike price of $195 provides $3.40 of income. That amounts to a 1.7 percent return on a monthly basis, roughly 20 percent annually, assuming you can repeat the process for 12 months.
The risk in the strategy is that the stock rises significantly and your shares are called away at the strike price. In other words, you limit your potential upside from owning the stock in return for the premium income you receive. The option premium also provides a small cushion against losses, but if the stock or index falls dramatically, so will the value of your holdings.
If investors want downside protection, they can buy puts on the position simultaneously. A collar, often called a costless collar, is a strategy that uses the premiums from writing call options to purchase out of the money puts that limit the downside risk on an investment. In the Apple example, you would sell one $195 call option for $ 3.40 and use the money to buy one Aug 17 put at 185.00 for $3.30
Two things to keep in mind:
- The longer the term on a call option, the more premium you’ll receive, but the greater the risk that your investment is called away.
- Single stock options pay better premiums than those on an index such as the S&P 500. They are also riskier and more volatile.
2. Straddles are for speculating on short-term price movements
Option straddles are not writing strategies that generate premium income, but rather pure plays on volatility.If an investor believes that a stock or index is going to have a big move either up or down, a straddle can help them benefit from it while limiting the potential risk. The strategy involves buying a put and call option with the same strike price and maturity on a single security or index.
The chart below is the three month price movements of the Dow Jones index which has been very sensitive to fears of a trade war.
For this example I will use the Dow Jones index (DIA) which closed at 249.30 today so you could buy one Aug 17 $250 call option for $3.10 and one Aug 17 $250 put option for $4.15
Option traders hope that one of the options expires worthless and the other results in a windfall. The worst-case scenario is that the underlying index doesn’t move at all and both options expire worthless. You lose your entire investment in that scenario. The break-even point is when the value of one of the options equals the cost of buying the two contracts. We could get lucky and sell the call option if the Dow suddenly moves up in a short period of time and sell the put option if the Dow moves back down just as fast.
3. Writing cash secured put options or writing put spreads
Financial advisors agree that writing put options when you don’t have the cash to fulfill the contract, is a recipe for disaster. That doesn’t mean you have to avoid writing put option contracts. But you do need to have the cash to buy the shares if the market falls and the option is executed by the buyer. The advantage of writing puts is that they generally carry higher premiums than call options do.
For example, you may like Apple stock but are worried that it’s overvalued at $190. If you write a put option with a strike price of $180, you get the premium income and the opportunity to buy the stock at a lower price.
A put spread is used when you don’t have the cash to buy the underlying stock if it falls. For example, you may not have the money to buy 100 shares of Apple but you think the stock price is stuck in a trading range around $180 to $190. You could sell the Aug 17 $180 put option for $1.95 and buy the Aug 17 $170 put option for $0.70 and net $1.25 if both option expire worthless. The caveat is that if Apple tanks, your potential loss on the contract is limited since you bought put protection at the $170 strike price.
Options are powerful tools that carry embedded leverage and are riskier than owning the underlying security. Premiums are richer now because volatility is higher. Buy a call option and it could become worthless overnight after a bad earning release. Sell a naked put and your potential losses can be catastrophic. Most financial advisors suggest that buying or selling options should be left to experts.
I believe that an investor with a good understand of simple mathematics and the willingness to learn can use options to protect their portfolios and earn some extra income.
Disclaimer: The option trades listed in this post are for educational purposes only and recommendations.