Two of the more common option strategies are horizontal spreads (identical strike prices, different expiration days) and vertical spreads (different strike prices, same expiration day). Other spread types are combinations or variations of these categories: Diagonal spreads are a mixture of horizontal and vertical spreads; butterfly spreads combine two different vertical spreads.
Selling a March 450 S&P call and buying a June 450 S&P call is an example of a horizontal spread, also known as a time, or calendar spread. The object is to profit from the quicker decay of time value of the nearby short option compared to the more distant long option. The trader is, in effect, selling time value. Most time decay occurs in the last three months, and especially the last month, of the contract. This strategy is generally most profitable with equity options than with future options.
If you sell the March option at 7.75 and buy the June option at 11.75, you establish the calendar spread at a 4.00 debit. (Debit spreads are spreads that the trader pays to establish, while in credit spreads the trader collects premium). The March contract then drops to 1.25, while the June option drops to only 10.50. You could then “lift” (offset) the spread, buying the March back at a 6.50 profit and selling the June for a 1.25 loss, for a total profit of 1.25 (5.25 minus the 4.00 paid to establish the spread).
In a vertical spread, the options share the same expiration date but have different strike prices. An example would be buying a March 445 S&P call at 6.50 and selling a March 455 S&P call at 3.00 with the futures at 450.00, for a 3.50 debit on the spread.
In the market rallies, the deeper in-the-money long option would gain more than the short option would lose. If the futures are unchanged at expiration, the 445 call will be worth 5.00 (its intrinsic value) and the 455 call will expire worthless, for a 1.50 profit on the trade. Once the futures price rises above the higher strike, against on the lower strike are offset by losses on the higher strike, so profit is limited. If the market falls, loss is limited to the amount paid for the spread.
Option spreads are characterized as bear or bull strategies depending on whether they will profit in up or down markets. The previous example is a bull call spread, because it would make more money in a rising market. A bear call spread would consist of selling the lower strike option and buying the higher strike option.
Bull and bear spreads also can be established using put options. For example, a bull put spread would consist of buying a December 445 S&P put and selling a December 445 put. Selling the 445 put and buying the 445 put would be a bear put spread. Generally, you should use calls for bull spreads and puts for bear spreads.
You can alter spreads by modifying the number of options, for instance establishing a vertical bull call spread with two short calls for every long call, also known as a ratio spread. Whether all or some of the options in a spread are in-, at- or out-of-the-money also will affect the risk/reward profile of a spread.
Other strategies focus on the magnitude of price movement rather than direction. Straddles and strangles are two strategies traders use to take advantage of volatility swings. A straddle consists of buying at-the-money puts and calls with the same strike price and expiration day, for example, buying a June 100 bond call and a June 100 bond put. The straddle buyer expects a futures price move large enough (in either direction) that they profit on the in-the-money option will be more than the cost of putting on the spread. If you thought the market would remain virtually unchanged, you could sell the straddle (at a credit) and reap the profits as time eroded its value.
A strangle consists of combining out-of-the-money call and puts. With June bonds at 102, a strangle buyer might purchase a June 104 call and a June 100 put, again expecting a sizable move in either direction. (An advantage to this strategy is it is cheaper than a straddle, but the market also has to move more to make it profitable.) For a trader who expects bond prices to stay between 100 and 104, however, selling this straddle offers an excellent opportunity to “sell volatility.” If the market does stay between these prices, the seller will keep his premium.
Traders should be aware that because of higher commissions and increase slippage, a marginally profitable options trade can actually be a loser when all is said and done. Understanding volatility and time decay concepts will help identify strategies with the highest probability of success.
Part 4 will be posted Saturday afternoon (5/14/11). Don't miss the final lesson of this series!
The MarketClub Team