Experienced investors have likely figured out that I’m talking about a stock option called a “covered call.” Buying options is for speculators, and that’s not what I’m talking about today. I want to show you the one and only option trade that meets my stringent criteria for comfort.
- Are easily understood;
- Are easy to implement;
- Require no market timing to make your predetermined profit; and
- Require minimal time for investors to manage.
There’s an options market that allows people to buy and sell options on stocks. Speculators have made millions of dollars trading options without owning a single share of stock. That’s the wrong place to be with your retirement nest egg. I’m going to show you how an average investor with an online brokerage account can supplement his income in a safe, easy, responsible, and conservative manner.
Let’s start with a basic premise: money is consistently made on the sell side of the transaction. Selling one type of option is the only strategy that will meet our stringent criteria.
Before we proceed, here’s a need-to-know glossary for covered calls:
Stock option. An option is a right that can be bought and sold. There are markets for trading options in an orderly manner. Two transactions may occur between the buyer and seller. The first is the transaction when the right (option) is sold. The second transaction is “optional” and at the discretion of the buyer. If the buyer exercises his right (option), the seller is required to complete an agreed-upon stock transaction. Today we’re focusing on covered call options.
Covered Calls. When you sell a covered call, the buyer purchases the right to buy a certain number of shares of stock which you own, at an agreed upon (strike) price, at any time before the option expires (known as the expiration date). The option buyer is not obligated to buy your stock; he has the right to do so. You’re obligated to sell the stock if the buyer exercises the option. The term for this is your stock gets “called away.” Regardless, you keep the money you were paid when you sold your option.
There are four elements to an option transaction:
- the price of the option in the market (what you can buy or sell it for);
- the number of contracts (each contract is 100 shares);
- the price of the underlying stock (referred to as strike price); and
- the expiration date.
Strike price. This part of the transaction is agreed upon when the option is bought/sold. Let’s assume the buyer purchased a call (a right to your stock) at a strike price of $55/share. Should the buyer choose to exercise his option, the buyer pays you $55/share, and you (through your broker) deliver the stock, regardless of the current market price of the stock.
Expiration date. Options generally expire on the third Friday of every month. When looking at the options trading platform on any major stock, you’ll find options available for several months in advance. You’ll notice that the longer the remaining time, the higher the price of the option.
At the time the stock option is bought/sold, all of the elements above are agreed upon. The buyer has until the expiration date to exercise his option. The numbers of shares and selling price have already been determined. If your stock is called away, you’ll see the cash come in to your brokerage account, and the shares will automatically be delivered to the buyer.
Never sell a call option without owning the underlying stock; it’s much too risky for your retirement nest egg.
Option contract. An option contract is for 100 shares of the underlying stock. Options are sold in contracts, and the prices are quoted per share. For example, if you see an option price of $1.15, the contract will cost $115 ($1.15 x 100 shares). If a buyer/seller wants to have an option on 500 shares, he buys five contracts.
There are two types of options: puts and calls. We’re going to discuss the only option strategy that meets our stringent, conservative criteria: selling a covered call.
Why would an investor buy a call option? Buyers of call options are generally speculators who believe that a stock will appreciate above the strike price before the option expires. If they guess right, they can make a lot of money.
The vast majority of call options expire worthless. The rules are simple. Don’t sell an option unless you own the underlying stock. (This is referred to as a “naked call”.) Don’t buy options—period!
A Savvy Strategy
We’ll use a fictional company – ABC Products – for an example. Say we bought the stock in October 2012 for $40; the market price one year later (in November 2013) was $55/share. Why would we want to sell a covered call?
In November, ABC was $55/share. We’ll say its current dividend is $0.55/share. The March call option at a strike price of $57 is selling for $1.10/share—twice as much as the current dividend.
Assume that on December 20, you either called your broker or went online and brought up ABC in your trading platform. You would have seen the current bid and asked prices. Assume it sold for $1.10/share.
Now, one of four things could have happened:
- The stock didn’t go over the $57 strike price, so the stock was not called away. In approximately 90 days, you’d have received $0.55/share in dividends, plus $1.10 for the option, for a total of $1.65. You just added more than double the dividend to your yield without spending a penny more of your investment capital. What do we do when the option expires? Look for another juicy opportunity for the June options and do it again!
- Let’s take the worst case scenario: the market tanked. You had a 20% trailing stop in place. You got stopped out at $44—$11/share lower than the November price. But wait a minute, what about the covered call? The value of the option would also have dropped and sold for mere pennies. If you got stopped out of the stock, you could have bought back the option at the same time. For the sake of illustration, say you bought it back for $0.04. You netted $1.06/share profit. Instead of losing $11/share, your loss became $9.94. If you didn’t buy back your option, you’d have had huge risk exposure should the stock jump back up. It isn’t worth the risk, so you’d spend the few pennies it takes to close out your position.
- You wanted to exit your position before the expiration date. If the stock rises above the strike price of the option, generally the price of the option will move right along with it. If the stock moved to $59/share, you would “buy to close.” The market price should be close to $2/share; however, that would be offset by the fact that you sold your stock for $59.00 share. If the stock remained stagnant or started to drop and you wanted to exit your position, the market price of the option would decline more rapidly. You’d likely buy back your option at a profit.
- The most difficult situation emotionally is when the stock rises well above the strike price and gets called. Let’s assume that in March, ABC has appreciated to $59/share. Your option is called at $57 (the strike price). You make a profit of $2/share from the time you sold the option, plus the $1.10/share for the option and the $0.55 dividend, for a total of $3.65/share. For the 90-day time frame, you earned 6.3% on your money ($55/share), or 24.9% on an annualized basis, net of brokerage commission. Yet we’ll lament the fact that you could have made more.
Here are some guidelines:
- Sell covered calls for stocks you own and would gladly keep.
- Sell covered calls to expire after the dividends are paid.
- Sell covered calls at a strike price above the current market price of the stock, referred to as “out of the money.”
- Don’t lament the times your stock gets called. You took a nice profit, and there are plenty more opportunities out there.
- Use stocks that are heavily traded, as they are more liquid.
- To calculate gains for any stock and option price combination, please use our option calculator, which you can download here.
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