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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“Do nothing” is sometimes the best investment strategy

“Sell in May and go away” is a well-known trading saying that warns investors to sell their stock holdings in May to avoid a seasonal decline in equity markets. However, there are too many factors influencing the price of stocks and bonds. Trying to predict what the market is going to do is extremely difficult.

If you are an experienced investor, the term “timing the market” probably sounds familiar. It refers to the idea that investors should buy stocks low and sell them high shortly after. It’s a smart, swift and painless method … or is it?

While timing the market is not a new idea, even professional traders, with all the training, tools and time at their disposal, regularly post losses. Some perform well for a while but it’s very difficult to consistently win over the long term.

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of money managers who claim to know how to beat the odds. You’ll find dozens of stock alert services on the internet, all offering to help you with timing the market. Be warned: the odds are very much stacked against you.

A smarter approach is to spend more time in the market by holding long-term investments rather than trying to time the market.

A perfect example is the recent price movements of Facebook after the privacy scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. The stock price fell from the $185 to $155 in a very short period of time. Many investors panicked and sold. The “Do Nothing” strategy would have been ideal in this case. See the year to date chart below:

Stock traders will argue that selling Facebook and buying it back again when the stock price hit a bottom would have been very profitable. In hind sight, it looks easy but it takes nerves of steel to buy a stock that is in a free fall.

We have all witnessed substantial market upheaval in the past. Many of us have had a window seat to watch how Wall Street responds to uncertainty and turmoil. The financial markets don’t like uncertainty. Why? Because it’s extremely difficult to try to predict the future. Take Tesla for example, lots of uncertainty and turmoil regarding this stock which is illustrated in their one year price chart below.

Odds are more traders lost money then made money trying to trade the ups and downs of Tesla over the past year.

Six tips for portfolio success

  1. The first thing to do is to set up your portfolio in a way that won’t keep you awake at night. For most people, a portfolio of stocks or index funds with some bonds probably works best. A good starting position is to consider a portfolio with 30 percent bonds (government bonds and corporate bonds, for instance) with the remainder in equities.
  2. The second thing to do is stop checking your investments frequently. Two to four times a year is all you need.
  3. Have faith, patience and discipline, markets rise and fall continuously. When they’re down it can be tempting to pull out. Commit to your long-term strategy and stay the course.
  4. Tune out the hypeIf you watch the markets every day and read all the opinions, it will drive you crazy.
  5. Remember that cash is an asset class. Look for buying opportunities when the markets are down.
  6. When in doubt, get sound advice. Even if you’ve decided to buy and hold, you still need to know which investment opportunities are proven performers with a likelihood of continued strength. The right advisor will  help you to wisely diversify your holdings.

 

Disclaimer: I do not own Facebook or Tesla at this time.

Robo-advisor vs. human advisor

The robo-advisor platforms offered by companies like Wealthfront and Betterment are gaining in popularity. The low cost of investment management services is very attractive when compared to fees charged by human financial advisors. It leaves me wondering if financial advice from humans is on its way out.

Advances in artificial intelligence has already replaced some money managers at companies like Blackrock. Last October marked the debut of an AI powered equity ETF. The exchanged traded fund is run by IBM’s Watson, in other words, the new portfolio manager is a computer program. Most ETFs are passively managed and follow indexes or specific sectors in the S&P 500. The AIEQ ETF is an actively managed security that seeks to beat the market.

Here are four advantages that traditional advisors have over robo-advisors.

  1. Human emotions

Robo-advisors only have one job, to use algorithms to manage your investment portfolio. They are not designed to manage the emotional component of investing and building wealth. For traditional advisors, this is a daily role they fulfill. When markets decline or clients experience an important financial event, the traditional advisor is there to talk them down off the proverbial ledge and help them make a rational decision void of strong emotions.

  1. Accountability

Many people are capable of holding themselves accountable on their own but having someone else committed to helping you in the endeavor only ups your chances of success. Computers are certainly capable of creating tasks and sending you reminders but they have little to no flexibility in helping you devise an accountability system that truly works for you and is tailored towards your specific goals.

  1. Flexibility

Let’s face it; over time our lives can change quite drastically. You get married, have kids, buy a house or become unemployed. The list goes on and on. Each of these events creates what we call “money in motion.” When money is in motion, planning, adjusting and taking thoughtful action needs to occur in order to ensure a positive outcome. Over time, many discussions are required during this process and having a human expert helps you adjust and adapt as needed.

  1. One-size-fits-all vs. tailored service

Part of why robo-advisors are cheap, relative to financial advisors, is due to the fact that they are a streamlined, automated service. As great as this can be, it also creates a lot of limitations. Rather than being built and catered specifically to you and your current financial situation, robo-advisors are designed to serve the masses. This means a somewhat cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach in their offerings.

Traditional advisors, on the other hand, can tailor the services and investment management style they provide according to your unique financial situation. (Insurance coverage, debt reduction, tax plan & estate planning)

Having worked as a financial advisor, I am somewhat bias and prefer the traditional advisor over the robo-advisor. However, a robo-advisor provides a service to a select group of clients and financial advisors provide services to a different group. Each cater to the preferences of their unique clientele.

 

 

Are tax cuts already priced in U.S. stocks?

Many stock market pundits have conflicting opinions as to how much of the tax cuts are baked into current stock prices. Some experts believe that a selloff in the stock market will occur in January as money managers rotate out of technology and into other sectors that will benefit the most from tax reform.

Their rational is tech companies were in a low tax environment before tax reform was passed and it is better to take profits when lower personal tax rates take effect in 2018.

In comparison, sectors like transportation, telecom, retailing and banking have high tax rates. In addition, the new tax bill also offers substantial write offs for new capital expenditures. Industrials, energy as well as telecom companies require large capital expenditures in order to grow their businesses. However, it is difficult to predict if and when these expenditures will occur.

“In a special report to clients, Barclays Capital analyst Maneesh Deshpande and team calculate that the benefit is less than it appears: While the statutory corporate tax rate is set to fall from 35 percent to 21 percent, the effective rate for S&P 500 companies (the rate companies actually pay after all the accounting trickery) is set to fall from 26 percent to 20.7 percent.”

On the other hand, some market watchers believe that tech companies should still be in your portfolio. There is still room to run higher because they have an opportunity to take advantage of the repatriation tax holiday which reduces the tax rate from 35% to 15.5%. The top 5 U.S. tech companies that have cash overseas:

  1. Apple – 230 billion
  2. Microsoft – 113 billion
  3. Cisco – 62 billion
  4. Oracle – 52 billion
  5. Google – 49 billion

Although, the last repatriation tax holiday was at a much lower tax rate. The money was mostly given back to shareholders in the form of higher dividend payments and share buybacks.  Should you invest hoping for history to repeat itself?

Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin said:

“There is no question that the rally in the stock market has baked into it reasonably high expectations of us getting tax cuts and tax reform done.”

I tend to agree that a large portion of tax cuts are already priced in most U.S. stocks. For example: Charles Schwab (SCHW, $52.04) has had enough of the tax man. The online stock broker and banker has paid out a stunning 37% of its income in taxes over the course of the past five years, versus a rate in the mid-20% range for most other American companies. It was trading around $45.00 in Nov and it is up $7.00 or 15.5% in just a few short weeks.

The chart below contains the one year return for tech (xlk), financials (xlf), industtials (xli) and energy (xle):

Three of those sectors have already had above average returns for 2017. The energy sector has lagged but tax reform alone will not be enough to propel the energy sector higher. The price of oil is still the main factor in increasing the value of oil stocks.

Another factor to consider is the labor market is extremely tight and the post-recession surplus of economic potential may have run out. The tax reform bill may end up boosting inflation by more than it lifts economic growth encouraging the Fed to be more aggressive with interest rate hikes in 2018.

I am cautious optimistic that U.S. stock market returns will be positive in 2018. I believe that volatility will come back next year and offer some good buying opportunities. It could turn out to be a stock pickers market.

Are you buying the dips or selling the rallies?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home bias adds sector risks for investors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legendary investor Warren Buffett, among others, is notorious for telling investors to buy what they know. Basically, Buffett and his enthusiastic followers suggest investing in companies that you really understand or at least know enough about them to be able to explain how they make money.

That is fairly good advice if you are an American since the S&P 500 generates nearly half of its revenue from outside of the United States. However, there is still a lot of risk in the form of sector concentration. For example, the tech sector accounts for nearly 21% within the S&P 500.  Do you remember the bursting of the dot com bubble?

Home bias for Canadian investors is really risky. Seventy–five percent of the Toronto stock market is dominated by three sectors, energy, materials and financials. There are only a handful of companies in other sectors that are available to further diversify your portfolio. Year to date, the Toronto stock exchange is only up 5% compared to the S&P 500 which is up 18.5%, see chart below:

The Canadian market has under-performed when compared to the U.S. markets for the past five years. The main reason is the decline in oil prices which has effected many non-energy sector companies which still rely energy prices in determining their revenue growth. For instance, Canadian banks may rely on loans to energy companies to drive their growth rates. See the 5 year performance chart below:

Why home bias exists

Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group identified a range of reasons why investors might not embrace global diversification, including concerns about currency risk and an expectation that their home country will deliver out sized returns.

One factor we identified—preference for the familiar—seems particularly relevant. With so much global uncertainty about geopolitics, monetary policy, and the economic outlook, it’s understandable why investors may not want to stray too far from home.

Why Canadian markets may continue to under perform the U.S.

  • Oil and gas exports are land locked and selling at a huge discount!
  • The housing market is slowing down due to a 15% foreign buyers tax, tightening mortgage rules and higher mortgage rates.
  • Tariffs on softwood lumber and airplanes from our largest trading partner (U.S.) has put the success of re-negotiating NAFTA questionable.
  • Passing of the U.S. tax reform legislation will make investing in Canada less attractive (plus we have a carbon tax and high electricity rates).
  • Canadian consumers are carrying high levels of debt which will slow down spending.

Exchange traded funds are a low cost way to diversify your portfolio outside of North America. Many providers offer the ability to hedge fluctuations in foreign currencies. 

The markets are due for a correction, I would recommend slowly increasing your exposure to the U.S. stock market.

A fun exercise: Stock picking verses indexing

The average person is afraid of investing in individual stocks and 61 percent of millennials say they’re afraid of even getting started. Despite the fact that investing in the stock market has been shown to be the most efficient and effective way of turning money into more money.

Financial website How Much took a look at some popular stocks in 2007 to find out how much a $1,000 investment in each would be worth now, as of October 31.

In the above picture, the blue dots are equivalent to the $1,000 initial investment, so they are the same size for each company. The pink ones represent the current total value of the investment, so each of those varies.

The larger the pink circle, the more your investment is worth,” according to How Much. “If the pink fits inside the blue, then you lost money. The graphic assumes that you took any dividend paid out in cash and did not reinvest into the company by buying more stock.”

Warren Buffett, Mark Cuban and Tony Robbins all agree index funds are a safe bet, especially for new investors, since they fluctuate with the market, stay pretty constant and eliminate the risk of picking individual stocks. However, if you were lucky enough to pick these 15 American stocks, your $15,000 would have been worth $99,291 compared to $26,741 for the S&P 500 (SPY).

What if you missed owning the two top performing stocks Netflix & Amazon? Your total return would have been $34,927 assuming that you didn’t panic during the great recession. There are other household names like Facebook or Visa that could have help you beat index returns.

Keep in mind, it is easy looking backwards! I do remember getting phone calls and emails from formal clients and co-workers looking for advice during the market meltdown of 2008-09. It is hard to do nothing and hold on to your investments when markets are down 35% to 45%!

My point is simple, even with the worse meltdown (2008-09) since the great depression of the 1930’s, you would have still made money investing during the past ten years. Investing in the stock market is still the most efficient and effective way of turning money into more money.

 

 

 

Robots have arrived on Wall Street

Last week marked the debut of an upstart fund called the AI Powered Equity ETF, an actively managed security that seeks to use artificial intelligence to beat the market. The exchange-traded fund officially launched last Wednesday so it is too early to measure how this fund will perform over the long term.

At its core, AIEQ ETF is powered by the big-data processing abilities of IBM’s Watson. It is responsible to develop a portfolio of stocks that will be able to offer results that are not only better than  human stock pickers  but also the overall market. Most ETFs are passively managed and follow indexes like the S&P 500, the Dow industrials or other sectors. In other words, your new portfolio manager is a computer program.

The fund currently is composed of 70 stocks, plus an allotment of cash, that are spread around sectors. Components are determined by “their probability of benefiting from current economic conditions, trends, and world- and company-specific events,” EquBot said in a news release.

The top five holdings by concentration are Penumbra 4.63%, Boyd Gaming 4.51%, Genworth Financial 4.45%, Mednax 3.8% and Triumph Group 3.52%, according to XTF.com. The turnover is expected to be high around 2% – 3% per day. The fund charges an expense ratio of 0.75%, which is slightly lower than the average expense ratio for actively managed ETFs.

The information explosion has made the jobs of portfolio managers, equity analysts, quantitative investors and even ETF builders more challenging. New technology in artificial intelligence could help solve those challenges. There’s still quite a range in AI models being used. There could be other quantitative groups that are looking at the same raw data but analyzing it in a different way, meaning the same input material can result in different insights and outcomes.

Another example of an unusual method for picking stocks is  Buzz US Sentiment Leaders ETF BUZ, an exchange-traded fund that selects its holdings based on positive chatter in social media and other online sources. The fund is up 17.2% in 2017, above the 13.9% rise of the S&P 500.

If the IBM’s Watson stock picking outperforms over the first quarter and money flows into the EFT, you’re going to see 20 competitors inside of six months.

This is a very gutsy structure, I am putting this ETF on my watch list. I am also going to monitor the top ten holdings of this ETF to get some stock picking ideas.