Option traders are benefiting from trade war fears

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shedding some light on the violent stock market moves

Have you ever heard of the saying Be careful what you wished for? It turns out that traders wished to see some growth in average hourly wages, some inflation over deflation and yields on long duration bonds to go up. They got their wish which started a violent market correction.

Market watchers remain at odds over what tripped the sell switch. Primarily, the conversation comes down to fundamental vs. technical. In the days since the correction began the markets have recouped more than half the downside since the low point.

Plenty of theories, I call mine “The Domino Effect”

Inflation fears was the first domino to fall hitting the fear of raising interest rates. The next domino to fall was money managers and institutional investors were caught with a lot of leveraged positions. The sharp fall triggered margin calls causing massive sell orders. This initiated sell orders from funds that use technical analysis better known as quantitative funds. The last domino to fall was retail investors (who haven’t seen a correction in over two years) did some panic selling.

The Dow suffered two drops of 1,000 points. The fall seems big but the actual percentage was not extraordinary. There have been larger percentage drops in the past. In my 35 years of investing, I have experienced some worse percentage downward moves.

Rank Date Close Net change % change
1 October 19,1987 1,738.74 −508.00 −22.61
8 October 26, 1987 1,793.93 −156.83 −8.04
9 October 15, 2008 8,577.91 −733.08 −7.87

 

Is the correction over?

The market fundamentals haven’t really changed. U.S. corporate earnings are getting better and the Trump tax cuts should boost economic growth. Plus there is systematic economic growth happening in both developed and emerging markets.

I am not an expert on technical analysis and I don’t believe in buying or selling based on lines on chart. However, pension funds, hedge funds and quantitative funds use technical indicators to manage a large amount of investors’ money. 

Analysis from Kensho, a quantitative analytics tool used by hedge funds, looked at seven occasions of similarly sharp drops in the S&P 500 beginning in 1987. The study found that following such a drop, stocks tended to fall further, with a median decline of 2.29 percent one week later and a drop of 1.68 percent two weeks later.

 

This is the ABCD bullish chart:

This is the year to date chart of the S&P 500:

In my humble opinion, corrections tend to last more than nine days. I put some money to work last week and plan on dollar cost averaging on some more positions. If you are new to my blog, consider reading:  Dollar-cost averaging using an option strategy

What do you think? Are you buying the dips or selling into the rallies?

Market crash or correction could be a good time to buy

 

 

My blog post last week warned of a possible correction due to Trump’s future withdrawal from NAFTA. I believed that a pullback was in the cards but you never know what will trigger a sell off.  The pullback started to get some steam on Thursday afternoon when the Atlanta Fed released their projections for first quarter GDP growth to come in at 5.4 per cent!

That really spooked the stock market since 4th quarter GDP was only 2.6 percent which was below consensus estimates of 3 percent. The Friday’s job numbers fueled the downdraft even further as investors digested a stronger-than-expected jobs report where the average hourly wages rose more than expect.

Higher wages can point to higher inflation, which, in turn, could lead the Fed to raise interest rates more aggressively. Those concerns allowed the 10-year Treasury yield to rise above 2.8 percent.

Keep in mind that the S&P 500 has risen 6 percent in the year to date and is on track for its 10th straight month of gains. At these levels, this would be the best January since 1997. The S&P’s relative strength index ended last week at 90, its highest level on record. (Overbought territory) Its price-to-earnings ratio hit 18.44 times forward earnings this week, its highest level since May 2002.

Two other factors that may have contributed to the main benchmarks suffering their biggest one-day drops in more than a year and posting the steepest weekly losses in about two years.

  1. Friday marked the last day for Janet Yellen as the head of the Federal Reserve, giving way to her successor, 64-year-old Jerome Powell. Powell’s entry adds uncertainty into the markets.
  2. The politics in D.C. with the release of the Nunes memo adds political uncertainty as to whether the business friendly republicans will lose in the November elections.

The Dow Jones futures market points to a negative opening on Monday. There could be even more selling pressure near the end of the week because of a possible government shut down over Trump’s immigration demands.

Why you shouldn’t worry

  • The Atlanta Fed was also optimistic about the 2017 first quarter, estimating growth at one point to be 3.4 percent, where the final reading came in at 1.2 percent.
  • Higher wages doesn’t always lead to higher inflation. Consumers could opt not to spend but pay down debt or increase their savings.
  • Over the long run, good quality stocks will outperform bonds.

In my thirty plus years of investing, I have seen many bear markets and corrections. Ask yourself a simple question. How many millionaires do you know that became wealthy by investing in savings accounts?

What is on my shopping list? U.S. financials and technology.

 

Ignoring investment rules to achieve income

 

A few months ago, I asked readers for advice regarding a $300,000 inheritance. The couple are in their late fifties, debt free with little savings. Although, they are very fugal, they live paycheck to paycheck due to lack of steady full time work. Few companies want to hire older workers when they can hire young people for a lot less.

Being very good friends, they came to me for some free advice. After a few meetings, I realized that traditional investment strategies just wouldn’t work this couple. They have been dipping into their retirement accounts to pay bills. I recommended putting $100,000 back into their retirement accounts. The $200,000 into a joint investment account with a discount broker in order to split the income and save on fees.

Disregarding Asset Allocation guidelines

Based on their age and proximity to retirement, a 60% equities and 40% bonds mix would have been appropriate. However, investing in bonds with low interest rates, inflation and taxation doesn’t give them very much income.

Disregarding Diversification guidelines

Being Canadian, foreign dividends are taxed like interest payments similar to Canadian bonds. Plus, foreign assets are subject to currency fluctuations. The increased value of the Canadian dollar has wiped out all U.S dividends and most of the capital gains from owning U.S. stocks.

Disregarding suitability guidelines

This couple’s investment knowledge is very limited, their only investments have been in mutual funds with high management fees. After explaining how high fees will reduce their income, they agreed to take more risk in owning some individual stocks and exchanged traded funds.

Constructing a portfolio to maximize income and minimize risk

  1. I invested $61,418 in four Canadian Reits that generates $418.16 per month or $5,017.92 per year. The Reits income will be a combination of interest and capital gains. Compared to investing $120,000 in bonds yielding 3% per year or $3,600.00
  2. I invested $63,329 in three Canadian dividend stocks that generates $330.00 per month or $3,960 per year. Due to the couple’s low income, these dividends will be tax free income.
  3. I invested the balance of $75,253 into four covered call ETFs that generates $392.00 per month or $4,704 per year. The covered calls will produced capital gain income and the ETFs also has some dividend income in their monthly distributions.

Grand income total works out to $1,140.16 per month. The average annualized return on the $200,000 portfolio is 6.85% with a minimum amount of risk.  

This is only a temporary solution to achieve some monthly income until their work situation changes. Sometimes investment guidelines have to be broken because one size doesn’t fit all.

Upcoming blockbusters could boost movie chain stocks

I have to admit that one of my guilty pleasures is watching movies on a big movie screen. My wife and I really enjoy science fiction and superhero type movies. We see anywhere from 10 to 15 movies every year. Sometimes we will even see the same movie more than once.

2017 has been a rough year for the film industry, with the North American box office suffering its lowest-grossing summer in 25 years. Ticket sales are down 10.8 percent this summer and have decreased by nearly 3 percent year to date. Box office flops such as “The Mummy” and “Baywatch” have hurt Hollywood but there will be some upcoming movies this year that could turn into blockbusters.

Release dates in November and December of 2017 include Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League and my personal favorite Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Upcoming movies in 2018 appears to be very strong with:

  • Black Panther
  • X-Men: The New Mutants
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • Han Solo,
  • Deadpool 2 
  • Ant-man & The Wasp.

However, investors have really punished the movie chain stocks. U.S. chains, Regal Entertainment (RGC) and Cinemark (CNK) are down 35% & 25% respectfully over the past 6 months. Cineplex (CGX) the largest Canadian chain is also down 25%, see chart below:

The vast majority of theaters in the U.S. keep a larger percentage of the ticket sales the longer the film is in the theater. For example: opening weekend they may get 10%, the 4th  week up to 25% and the 10th  week up to 50% or more. While concessions account for only about 20% of gross revenues, they represent about 40% of theaters’ profits. Profit margins on soda and popcorn average 85 percent.

All three of these stocks pay dividends, Regal has the highest yield of 5.7% followed by Cineplex at 4.35% and Cinemark with 3.43%. I expect that their 3rd quarter results could disappoint which would be a good buying opportunity. However, there is a risk that the price of these stocks could move up in anticipation of better future earnings.

Possible ways to trade a rebound in movie chain stocks

  1. Take a half position now and buy the other half after 3rd quarter earnings are released
  2. Buy a full position near the ex-dividend date, to get paid while you wait
  3. Buy half position, sell covered calls and sell cash secured puts for the other half.
  4. Buy some long calls near 4th quarter earnings release scheduled for Feb. 2018

Being an option trader, I am going to wait until Feb 2018 options are available. If the VIX which measures volatility stays low, I will probably buy a call option on one or two of these stocks.

 

Disclaimer: This post is for discussion purposes, do your own research.

Why you should look under the ETF’s hood

A fund’s name might seem like a good starting point for gaining an initial understanding of how it is constructed. Unfortunately, names turn out to offer little help for evaluating funds. There is simply no universally accepted system in use by ETF providers and research to classify funds. For example “Infrastructure” would seem to have something to do with the amenities, roads and power supplies needed to operate society.

Names can be deceiving! To illustrate, I went to one of my favorite ETF provider’s web site to look under the hood. I was looking to find some discrepancies. It took some time but the geographic allocation in the fact sheet on the BMO Global Infrastructure Index ETF (ZGI) wasn’t global at all but had the majority of their holdings in North America.

  • 66.02% United States
  • 25.16% Canada
  • 6.71% United Kingdom
  • 1.56% Mexico
  • 0.56% Brazil

The top ten holdings also have a lot of pipeline companies who pay construction companies to build the actual  infrastructure.

  • Enbridge 10.07%
  • American Tower Corp 8.82%
  • National Grid Plc 6.71%
  • TransCanada Corp 6.68%
  • Crown Castle Intl Corp 6.07%
  • Kinder Morgan 5.87%
  • P G & E Corp 5.17%
  • Sempra Energy 4.25%
  • Williams Cos 96%
  • Edison International 3.82%

It takes years for pipeline companies to benefit from any new capacity to come on line. On the other hand, companies who specialize in construction & engineering like SNC-Lavalin or Aecon would see immediate revenue growth. I would recommend looking for another infrastructure ETF that had more global exposure with holdings of construction & engineering type companies.

Another example is the BMO S&P/TSX Equal Weight Industrials Index ETF (ZIN) which has a small discrepancy. The fact sheet says it has 26 industrial holdings but two of those holdings include airlines. (Air Canada 5.46% & Westjet 4.13%)  Now both of these companies buy industrial products but they specialize in transportation.

Here are some key steps all investors should take when evaluating ETFs:

  1. First, decide if you are going to be a do-it-yourself investor or work with an advisor. As their name suggests, ETFs are traded on exchanges, so they can be bought and sold like stocks through a discount brokerage.
  2. Make sure you understand the index underlying the ETF you are considering. Focus on how the index is constructed, what it tracks and how long it has been around. A longer record will reveal how the index responded to different market conditions.
  3. Check the fund’s fact sheet, are the underlying holdings and geographic allocation accurate? How does the exchanged traded fund compare with similar funds from other providers?
  4. Avoid ultra-short and leveraged ETFs, leave those to professional traders.

Ultimately, the proper implementation of ETFs in a portfolio requires, like all investment decisions, due diligence, caution and persistence. ETFs can offer many attractive features but their long-term value depends on how well they fit into an individual’s portfolio.

To evaluate an appropriate fit, investors have to be prepared to look under the hood.

 

 

 

Share buyback binge is going strong, investors beware!

Is there anything wrong with this? Yes, it means that companies are spending more money on “financial engineering” than on capital spending. It certainly does indicate that companies are at a loss on how to improve their top line, which is what will ultimately improve the bottom line. It leads to frequent complaints by analysts about the “quality” of earnings.

It’s a very important point. Apple is part of an elite group I call “buyback monsters,” companies that have been aggressively buying back stock for years. Apple’s shares outstanding topped out in 2013 at roughly 6.6 billion shares. Since then it has been down every year and now stands at 5.2 billion.

That is a reduction of 21 percent in shares outstanding since 2013. What’s that mean? It means all other things being equal, the company’s earnings per share are 21 percent higher than they would have been had it not done the buybacks.

But that’s only since 2013 … there are companies that have been doing this much longer. IBM shares outstanding topped out at 2.3 billion way back in 1995, it’s been going down almost every year since then, and now stands at 939 million shares. Think about that. That’s a 60 percent reduction in shares outstanding in a little more than 20 years.

Same with Exxon Mobil, after the Mobil acquisition in 1999, shares outstanding topped out at just shy of 7 billion in 2000 and have been going almost steadily downhill since. There’s now 4.2 billion shares outstanding, a reduction of 40 percent since 2000.

Here are just a few more buyback monsters:

  • Northrup Grumman: 50 percent since 2003
  • Gap: 55 percent since 2005
  • Bed Bath & Beyond: 50 percent since 2005
  • McDonald’s: 36 percent since 2000
  • Microsoft: 30 percent since 2004
  • Intel: 30 percent since 2001
  • Cisco: 32 percent since 2001

Why are there buybacks at all? They were originally used to support the issuance of stock options. The options increased the share count outstanding, so to keep the countdown the company bought back shares. But as the opportunity for significant top-line growth waned, buybacks to reduce share counts became a separate strategy to prop up earnings growth.

What is my beef with buybacks? Part of management’s compensation packages include stock options. Buying back company shares ensures that their stock options don’t expire worthless.  It not only fools investors that the earnings are growing but it rewards poor management.

Take IBM for example, despite being one of the most aggressive buyback monsters on the Street, you can’t say IBM’s stock price has soared in the last decade. In 2014, the company eased off a bit on its buybacks, and the stock headed south. It headed south because IBM was beset by fundamental growth issues: Its revenues from its old line businesses were shrinking and there was not revenue from emerging  businesses (like Watson and artificial intelligence) replacing it.

The lesson: No amount of financial engineering like buying back shares can replace management’s inability to grow the business.