Stocks vs Options in a Volatile Market

At the time of this post, the market has incredibly volatile. Not only has volatility been extremely high, but it has stayed very high for weeks. In a normal market VIX in the 20’s would be considered high. Breaking 30 or 40 happens but it is usually quick and returns to normal. These are not normal times as VIX has been above 30 for about a month and over 60 for about 20 days. If you’ve followed the kind of trades I like to so via my video series “This Week @MidwayTrades”, you will understand that I’ve had to stop trading that way until things return to normal. I’ve been looking for different trades that I can try at a smaller scale while things are crazy. I think this is a good opportunity to show the power of options and how you can do very conservative trades while reducing your risk over stocks.

As with everything I do online, this is for educational purposes only, not trading or financial advice.

Thinking about Risk

Risk is on everyone’s mind right now but, in reality, it should always be on our minds. Managing risk is not just a trading skill but a life skill. But here on MidwayTrades I focus on trading skills. Every trade has risk whether with stocks or with options. With stocks, the primary risk is price, whether you are long or short, you have price risk in the opposite direction. In the world of options, we have more risk factors. Of course we have price risk, but we also have volatility risk, as well as time risk. (I’ll leave aside opportunity cost at this point, but that exists too). In the options world we use the “Greeks” to help describe the various risks to a position. My “Options Fundamentals” series covers these at a high level if you want to better understand them. But there’s a risk that’s ever more basic than the Greeks: How much can I lose in a trade? The most fundamental way to control risk is by knowing and limiting the total risk of a trade. This is done by the strategy deployed as well as the size of the position.

When I tell people I trade options, the first thing many say is “that’s too risky for me, I’ll stick with stocks”. While it is true that trading options can be quite risky, it’s all on how you set them up. I can create a position with options that is nearly identical to the risk of a stock trade for a fraction of the capital risk.

Long Options vs Stock

The simplest option position out there is simply being long a call or a put. This is the equivalent to being long or short a stock for a given amount of time. How equivalent? This is mostly dependent on which option you buy and it’s Delta. Very quickly Delta measures the price risk of an option if the underlying stock moves up 1 point. When you own a stock, your delta is 1. While this is technically impossible to match with an option we can get really close. The more in the money an option is, the more is will act like the stock. So a perfect at the money option will have a delta of .50 which means it will move up $.50 for every $1 the stock moves. As you go further in the money, the delta will increase until you get get 99%+ of the stock’s movement. Of course, the deeper you go in the money, the higher the cost of the contract. Also, the further you go out in time, the more expensive the contract. But this cost is generally still less than the cost of 100 shares of the stock, mostly due to the fact that it is time limited.

For example, let’s take a reasonably high priced stock like AAPL. Apple currently trades at about $284/share. So if I look out to June (65 days), I can get a .80 delta call for about $4,155. That’s a lot of money until you realize that a call represents 100 shares of stock and to own 100 shares of AAPL today would cost about $28,400. So the call is about 15% of the cost of the shares and it should move at about 80% of the stock. That’s not too bad. It also has similar risk on the downside where it will lose .80 for every dollar Apple stock loses. So the risk/reward ratio is much better and, I would argue, makes this a safer trade. If Apple goes to $0, the worst I can lose with my option is $4155, while with the stock I can lose $28,400. That’s a big difference!

Now, nothing is perfect, so if I’m going to pay 85% more for the shares, what am I getting for my money? Two things:

  • Time. This option expires in 65 days. At that point, it’s only value is the difference between Apple stock and $250 (the strike price of the call). If Apple doesn’t go up in those 65 days, I can lose money.
  • Dividends. Dividends go to owners of stock, not owners of calls. If you like a stock for the dividend, options are not your play.

So while you do give up some advantages of stock ownership, if you look at it from a risk/reward perspective, it may be worth it.

On the bearish side, the risk is not even close. To short a stock like Apple, a broker may require a good deal of margin in the account since the upside risk is unlimited. But if you a bearish on Apple, you can simply buy a put at any strike you wish. Because you long the put, there’s no extra margin worries but you are synthetically short Apple. Just like in the call scenario above, you can pick the strike (delta) and the amount of time, but it is far safer than shorting a high priced stock like AAPL.

Long Diagonals vs Covered Calls

One of the safest options strategies out there is the covered call. If you own 100 shares of a stock, you can sell a call against it to lower you cost basis. If the stock stays under the strike of your short call, you can keep the premium, and can sell another one later if you choose. If the price goes above your strike, you risk having your shares called away at the strike price. This usually only happens at expiration, but there are conditions where it can happen earlier (usually around a large dividend). This is a great strategy and many people use this as their first foray into the world of options (along with just buying a call or put). If done correctly, you can create a small income stream off of stocks you own even if the stock doesn’t pay a dividend. And each time you do this successfully you, essentially, lower the cost basis for your stock.

But as I showed above, owning 100 shares of stock can be expensive vs owning a deep in the money call far out in time. Buying such a call can act as a stock surrogate against which I can sell a call. This strategy is called a long diagonal but doing it in this manner is also sometimes called a “synthetic covered call” or a “poor man’s covered call” because it acts very similarly to a covered call without actually owning the stock. You may see other names for this strategy. Brian Overby of Ally Invest calls this a “Fig Leaf” because you are kind of covered.

So let’s compare these two strategies and compare the risk vs reward. Let’s use AAPL again as I think it shows well as an expensive underlying but this will work with any underlying. So in this example I have a standard covered call in AAPL. I bought 100 shares, and I’m selling a 300 May call against it (a .33 delta).

AAPL Covered Call. Risk: $13,575

This is a typical risk graph for a covered call. The total risk is the price of the 100 shares minus the premium received for the call. In this case that comes to $13,575. Pretty expensive, but AAPL is an expensive stock.

Now let’s compare that to buying a far out deep in the money call and selling the same call against it.

AAPL Diagonal. Risk: $5,980 (.80 delta)

The blue line is the original covered call. The green line is a long diagonal using a January 2021 $230 strike call (.80 delta). As you can see the risk graph is very similar but the total risk is significantly less at just under $6000. Now, the profit potential isn’t quite as good as the covered call, but this is primarily because the stock surrogate is an .80 delta while the stock has a delta of 1. While I think this is a good risk/reward, it’s possible to make the diagonal even closer to the covered call with respect to reward.

AAPL diagonal. Risk $10,190.50 (.93 delta)

In this case I bought a deeper in the money call: $180 strike with a delta of .93. This almost matches the reward of the covered call exactly. However, the risk of this trade is $10,190 which is much closer to the cost of the covered call than the .80 delta. This is why I prefer the risk/reward of the .80 delta, but the risk/reward ratio is really up to each trader.

Back to Risk

So, back to the risk of stocks vs options. In these example I have shown that in terms of real risk (the total amount that can be lost) options, using a conservative strategy and good risk management can be less risky than stock. Of course, there are valid reasons to own stock but I think it’s important, regardless of the vehicle, to understand the risk vs the reward of any trade or investment. Especially in times of market volatility, it’s good to have ways to reduce risk while still getting a good reward and options can be a way to do this.

As usual, I love to hear feedback on all of the content I create. Feel free to reach out here on the site or directly in email at midway@midwaytrades.com. How do you mange risk? Is this a strategy that makes sense? If you have questions, I’ll be glad to address them. I do this so that we can learn from each other.

Until next time …. Good Trading!

Midway Mail: Questions on My Calendar Setup

I always say I enjoy getting questions and fostering discussions and while I have been getting some very good feedback, I have found some questions that I think can be better answered in this forum than in email. I will keep the viewer anonymous, of course, but I think many traders out there could benefit from my answers and even come up with other (better?) ideas as well. I’m here to learn just as much as anyone so maybe someone out there has some better ideas and I’ll change my mind. All good stuff.

The viewer has some questions around the calendars I put on over the last few months. If you aren’t familiar with Calendars, check out Episode 13 my Options Fundamentals series. It should give you the basics of the trade and how it works.

Question 1: Why do my calendars more often than not start on the call side?

This is a great question and there isn’t one correct answer for everyone with respect to which side to use when setting up a calendar. When considering this, the first thing to determine is why you want to put a calendar on in the first place. This seems obvious, but I’ve seen lots of new traders put on trades without knowing why. There are traders who put on calendars to get a cheaper long call or put. They really want to be long a call or put but want to sell something against it to help pay for it. In this scenario, the ideal situation would be for the short to expire worthless leaving them with just a long call/put at a cheaper price since they got to keep the premium from the short option. In this case, it really matters which long option you want to have if the trade is successful. You really want to be directional, so you would choose the direction you want by choosing calls or puts.

However, that is not why I put on calendars. I am not a directional trader (outside of a rare speculation play) so for me, calls or puts isn’t nearly as important for my calendars. The reason I put on a calendar is that it is positive Theta and Vega and there times when I want those factors working in my favor. I almost always like Theta to be positive as I prefer time to work in my favor, but if the volatility of the underlying is low, I would rather be long volatility when trading it. I believe fundamentally that volatility is mean reverting, meaning that it always returns to the average. So when the volatility of my underlying is low, I would rather be long volatility since I believe it will go up. Conversely, when volatility is high, I like to be short volatility (negative Vega) since I believe it will go down. Of course, I cannot know how long it will take for this to happen, but the idea is to set up my trade to have the best chance to be helped by volatility. Since I also have time working in my favor, I can profit from that even if I don’t get the volatility move I expect, it just may take longer to get to my target profit.

Now that I’ve explained my goals of a calendar, I’ll try to (finally) answer the question. The answer is that, for me, it doesn’t really matter whether I start my standard at the money calendar in calls or puts. I intend to take it off as a spread so I’m not worried about which long I will have left. So how do I choose? I look at the open interest of the calls and puts that I intend to use and I pick the side that has the larger overall open interest.

So what is open interest? It’s a count of how many open positions exist on that particular option. It doesn’t matter if that open position is long or short so long as it’s open. This statistic gives us an idea of the liquidity of that particular option. The more open positions, the more interest there is in that particular option, the better the chance of getting good fill price with little to no slippage. Again, there are no guarantees here, but the idea is to put on a trade with as many factors in its favor to succeed. So if I have time on my side, potentially volatility on my side, and good liquidity so I’m not paying up for the position, I should have a better chance of success. Of course, price risk is always there as a calendar has risk on both sides as it’s a range-bound trade. But as I always say, this market pays me to take risk so there will always be risk somewhere.

So why did I end up choosing calls to start my position more often? Because during that time, the market was trending up which made calls more popular than puts. There could very easily be other times in the market when puts are more popular. So the preference for calls simply resulted from more open position in calls most likely caused by an upward moving market.

Let’s take a quick example. Let’s say I wanted to put on a calendar in SPX right now (note: I would not do that as volatility is too high, but this is just an example). I’ll do my usual shorts about 24 days out and my longs 14 days later (more on that later). Let’s look at the open Interest of each of my options:

Open Interest on shorts of a potential calendar

So, let’s assume I want to set up a calendar at the 3300 strike. So I choose 24 days for my short, and compare the open interest in the calls and puts. As you can see, the calls have a large advantage. But let’s also look at the options 14 days later.

Open Interest on the longs of potential calendar

So, in this case, the puts have a slight advantage over the calls. But it’s not enough to overcome the advantage of the shorts so I would start with calls here. It turns out today was a large up day so, again, it’s not surprising that the nearer term calls had such a large advantage.

None of this is to say that choosing the puts would be bad or wrong. Remember that using calls or puts doesn’t really matter to my calendar since I’m not worried about keeping the longs. And if I were to adjust the trade, I would most likely put on another set of calendars and I would use the puts for that to help keep my two calendars separate.

Question 2: Why are your calendars 2 weeks between the legs?

Another very good question and, again, there isn’t a perfect answer here. This has become a matter of preference for a couple of reasons. The first is this is the way I was originally taught to do the trade so there is some bias there. But, I keep doing it this way as I like the balance I get of risk and reward. All trades have risks and rewards and that ratio can be adjusted based on how the trade is entered.

As a quick reminder, a calendar is where I sell options and buy the same number of options at the same strike at some point later than the options I sold. It is this structure that gives the calendar it’s characteristics of being long Theta and long Vega. Why? A nearer term option has faster time decay than the same option further out in time. And in a calendar I am short the nearer term option so that is what gives me my time benefit (positive Theta). To get positive Vega, I buy my longs further out in time. Options further out in time have more volatility risk and since I am long the option that is further out in time, I get a positive Vega position.

So how does distance between the strikes affect the Greeks of the position? The further the distance in time between the legs, the greater the difference in the rate of time decay and so the result is more positive Theta. Similarly, the greater the distance in time between the legs, the greater the difference between the volatility risk and so the result is more positive Vega.

So why would I only choose 14 days? Surely, it would be better to increase the distance between the legs and get really high Theta and Vega working for me, right? Of course, there is no free lunch in this market and the price to be paid for having a large distance between the legs of a calendar is … price. In a calendar I am buying the further out option which has more extrinsic value (time and volatility) while being at same strike. This means that the greater the distance between the legs, the more the price of the longs will be compared to the shorts, which yields a higher debit for the trade which, in this trade, is my total risk. So I have to pay for the extra Theta and Vega with money from my account because the trade is more expensive. Let’s look at two examples:

A 24 day calendar with 1 week between legs

In this example, I have a simple calendar with the short 24 days out and the long 1 week later. This gives me 6.77 Theta and 46 Vega and will cost about $900. Now let’s push the long out to 6 weeks from the short:

A 24-day calendar with 6 weeks between legs

So this the exact same calendar but with the legs 6 weeks apart rather than 1 week apart. Here I get 32.84 in Theta, and 191 Vega which is much longer for both. But the cost of the trade is now $2726. So I have to spend about 3x more in capital to get the boost in Theta and Vega. That may look like a bargain, and there’s nothing wrong with taking that trade, but remember that Vega is a 2-way street. While it will be great if volatility goes up on this trade vs the 1-week trade however, if volatility goes down, I get hurt that much more as well. The other risk to consider is Gamma risk. While my deltas on these trades are similarly small, the Gamma is higher on the 2nd trade. While Gamma starts out small on both trades, the it will move Delta faster on the wider trade than the narrower one. This increases my price movement risk in a live market even though Delta starts off very neutral on both trades.

The Choices are Yours

I say all of this to say there is nothing bad about either trade as long as you, as the trader, understand the risks vs the rewards. There are many ways to set up a calendar to make these risk decisions. It’s up to the individual trader to decide what risks are worth taking versus the reward of the trade succeeding. A blog post is not the place to cover all of those possibilities but I did want to address the specific risks as it related to the questions asked. I hope this helped clarify what I’m doing as well as get you think about how to set up your trades.

Thank you again so much to the viewer who asked these questions. And I am very open to further questions or thoughts on anything on this site as well as trading in general. Feel free to follow-up here on the blog or reach out to me directly at midway@midwaytrades.com.

Until next time….. Good Trading!