Those out there who follow my trades, especially my weekly series This Week @MidwayTrades will notice that I primarily trade one underlying vehicle: options on SPX, the S&P 500 Index. I occasionally do small spec trades in other underlyings but anything I do regularly and of significant size is always in SPX. This is not the way a lot of retail options traders operate so I thought it would be worth a blog post to explain why I spend so much time trading options of one underlying. Let me say up front, none of this is to say that there is anything wrong with playing lots of different options. I always say if you can consistently make money trading a different way, that’s the right way for you to trade. But in this post, I will spell out why I prefer to trade SPX whenever market conditions allow it (which is most of the time).
To me, liquidity is essential. Without liquidity, do you really know the worth of your position? I would argue no. Market prices are set when buyers and sellers agree on a price and if no one else is participating in a market, it’s tough to tell the actual price of something in that market. The CBOE (Chicago Board Options Exchange) tracks activity of nearly 3000 underlyings that trade options. I personally would only be interested in trading options in the top 100 in terms of volume. You can find this list here for your own inspection. This is for equities. I found stats on indices here. You will find that SPX is not only well in the top 100, but top 10-15 depending on the time frame. With all the available options out there to trade, why spend time and money fighting to get a fill on a low volume/open interest contract? Price slippage is very real and I rarely, if ever, have to give in more than $.10 of a reasonable mid-price for SPX, usually less.
Outside of good fills, good liquidity also gives far more options to trade (i.e. more strikes, and more expirations). SPX not only has Friday weekly expiration but Monday and Wednesday as well. I used to avoid the non-Friday expirations, but recently I’ve found that I get good fills on Wednesday as well. This makes it easier to put on multiple positions in a single account without stepping on other trades in the same expiration which can lead to confusion when closing or adjusting trades.
2. High Prices
I see lots of traders who head to the bargain basement because the option prices are cheap. It’s certainly tempting just as it is trading stocks. But there’s a downside to this. In stocks, it’s usually that the stock has a low price for a reason (low quality). But for options it means there isn’t much in the way of premium. As a trader who likes to sell premium, this means I have to trade a lot more contracts to generate enough premium to make it worth the risk. And while commission costs have come down significantly even this very year, they still add up vs the amount I want to make selling premium. A quick side note: when I say I sell premium that doesn’t mean just selling options or even that I open a trade for a net credit. In my non-spec trades, I am always selling more time premium than I am buying (thus being positive theta) and in many cases I am also selling more volatility than I am buying (unless volatility is extremely low as it is right now in which case I set up my trades to be positive vega and I’m a volatility buyer). But the price of the option starts with the price of the underlying. At the time of this post, SPX is a $3100 index. That means that even trading a one lot can involve over $1000 in margin. As I’m trying to make 7-10% of that as a successful trade, this means I can trade fewer contracts to make a decent amount of money on a trade. This is one of the reasons I prefer SPX to the ETF for the S&P 500 SPY which is priced at about 10% of SPX. Yes, the prices are lower, but I would need to trade 10 contracts for every 1 of SPX and that is 10X the commission to my broker. There are other reasons I prefer SPX to SPY that will come later. But the bottom line is, outside of unusual small spec plays, I prefer to trade underlyings above $80/share. Below that it’s tough to get enough premium to sell to make a decent profit.
A nice feature of a large index like SPX is that it represents many different companies across different sectors by design. The S&P 500 consists of (to no one’s surprise) 500 stocks. That means that by trading this underlying I get a certain amount of sector diversification built-in. Is it perfect? Of course not. The index can get out of balance at times. But it’s rarely so out of whack that one stock or one sector will destroy it. I still have to be aware of what’s going on and be ready to take action if something does happen to move the index but it’s less impactful than say, earnings or news on one stock which can move it several standard deviations in a day.
And that’s another advantage: SPX doesn’t have earnings events in the same way that individual stocks do. Individual components have them all the time but they are spread out over many days so the effect is muted. That isn’t to say that there are no events that cause a move. The biggest one these days is Fed announcements. I do keep track of Fed meetings and am a bit cautious adding new positions right on top of them. There’s a nice site that keeps track of economic news on a daily and weekly basis called Econoday and it’s not a bad idea to keep a browser tab open to it on your trading station. Other news can move the index as well, the recent trade war has certainly moved the market and has been unpredictable at times, but I have found the risk to be more manageable than individual stocks.
4. Cash Settlemement
Equity options are generally settled in shares of the stock. Options that expire in the money are usually automatically assigned and shares of stocks change hands as a result. But indicies like SPX do not have actual shares so their options are cash settled. This is another difference between options directly on the index and ETFs (like SPY) based on an index. SPY options are settled in shares of SPY.
Now, it’s reasonable to think that as long as I close my position before expiration, this isn’t really an issue. Except that with share settled options, there is always a risk of early exercise. The buyer of the option, most of the time has the right to exercise their right at any time during the life of the contract (this is known as American style). But since there are no actual shares to exercise, options on indicies do not have early assignment (this is known as European style). I will use SPY as an example since it is an ETF based on the S&P 500. SPY has a dividend based on the dividends of the stocks in the index. One of the reasons that options get exercised early is to capture a dividend. Another can be a buyout. This happened to me once in my early trading days. I was writing covered calls against a position and the company got bought out for a higher price than the strike price on the calls I was writing. The next day, my shares were called away. The SPX doesn’t have real shares and, therefore, has no dividend and, while buyouts can happen to companies in the index, the index itself can’t be bought out so there’s no real advantage to early exercise which is why it’s European style.
5. Tax Treatment
This is US specific so if you are not in the US it may not apply to you. But in the US we have capital gains taxes as part of our income tax system. The basic idea is that selling something for a profit generates income that falls under our income tax. But the US tax code distinguishes long-term capital gains (meaning you held something for at least a year) and short-term capital gains. Most options are held for under a year unless you are dealing exclusively in LEAPs so any profits made by them would be taxed at the short term rate (which is my regular income tax rate vs the long term rate of 15%). But options on “broad-based indicies” (which includes SPX) are treated differently. Any profit I make on SPX options where I held it for less than a year (which is all of them in my case) is taxed 60% at the long term rate and 40% at the short term rate. While this is not a huge advantage for me, it’s a nice bonus. This tax treatment does not apply, however, to ETFs like SPY. Of the 5 points made here, this is the least important, but I thought it is still worth mentioning as a reason to trade options in big idicies.
There are multiple ways to make money in options. My style is mostly around non-directional plays on big indicies. SPX isn’t the only big index out there with options. I have traded options in the Russell 2000 (RUT) which is based on smaller companies than SPX. It tends to be a bit more volatile, but it is quite trade-able and all of these points would apply. As is the NASDAQ index which is priced even higher than SPX. But at the end of the day, each trader needs to find out what works for that particular person. There’s no one right way to trade. But I thought this discussion of SPX may, in addition to helping some folks learn more about options, could lead to other discussions of trading ideas. Feel free to comment below or reach out to me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.