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Profiting from Short Strangles – Part 1, the Basics

Peter D Submits:
 
The Short Strangle strategy becomes more attractive with the volatility remaining at historically high level. Part 1 of this article describes the strategy basics, including the complex margin requirement that changes with the underlying stock movement. We’ll deal with the Short Strangle adjustments, as well as how to use Short Strangle if you are an active trader in subsequent parts of the article. If you have been investing in Money Market or Certificate Deposits, then this is the perfect strategy to at least triple your return with manageable risks
 
1- The Basics
 
 
The Short Strangle is a neutral position. The investor will profit from the position if the stock stays stagnant and expires within the profitable range.
 
– Sell (short) out-of-the-money (OTM) CALL(s) in a selected target month.
– Sell (short) the same number of out-of-the-money (OTM) PUT(s) for the same month.
– The maximum profit is the net credit (total premiums received).
– The maximum risk is infinite in either direction (infinite to 0 on the put side/decline).
– The position has both an upper break even and a lower break even.
– Profit is realized if the stock price remains between the upper and lower break even points.
 
 
2- Example Spread:
 
Since the maximum risk is infinite in either direction, the most critical factor is to select the underlying stock that doesn’t go to zero or infinite in a hurry. The best hedge is to use a basket of stocks using ETFs. The favorites are SPY, DIA, QQQQ, and IWM.
 
Note that margin is not usually allowed retirement accounts, so selling Short Strangle would not work well for retirement accounts.
 
Let’s look at a practical “Strangle a Spy” example (thanks to GabbyH, the 85 years old PSW member for the catchy phrase) for prices at the close of 1/9/2009:
 
  • Sell SPY Feb 70 PUT (20% downside cushion) and Sell SPY Feb 105 CALL (17% upside cushion) for $0.81 credit. For safety reason, we should have a stop in place for when SPY reaches the strikes that we sold.
  • The margin requirement ATM is $8.9 for the SPY closing price of $89, meaning we need $8.9 in cash to be able to sell the Short Strangle above.
  • The margin requirement increases to approximately $24.2 if SPY rallies to $105 the next day, and it also increases to $18.4 if SPY drops to $70 (See below for margin calculation rules).
  • For profit calculation, let’s conservatively take the highest margin requirement of $24.2, giving us a maximum profit of 3.35% in 6 weeks (1/9 to 2/20 February expiration), excluding trading commission. Extrapolating the profit linearly, we get a 27% maximum annual return with the current price and volatility.
 
Higher volatility will increase the value of the short PUT/CALL, resulting in a higher margin requirement. On the other hand, the short PUT and CALL would loose value over time, so the margin requirement does decrease with time.   
 
With 12 months CDs at 2.5%, a 27% annual return should make you want to trade options immediately. So, is there a catch?
 
Let’s see if a 20% downside cushion is sufficient. Going back 10 years, only a handful of times where SPY moved 20% or more per month, with three occurrences in 2008, September (close to 20%), October and November. With the SPY November panic low of $74.34 and the optimism around the new President, strike 70 PUT looks very solid. The probability of expiring below 70 is mathematically pegged at 5%. Note that we’ll reset the spread after 2/20/09, so we don’t care if SPY is below 70 after the February expiration. Possible adjustments are covered in the upcoming Part 2 of this article in case the strikes are breached.
 
On the upside, it would be fabulous for our 401k if SPY can get over 105 in six weeks. But the chance is remote, with a 10% probability of expiring above 105.
 
Finally, let’s go back in time to 7/11/2008 (also 6 weeks to August 2008 expiration) to see what profit a similar spread would give us when VIX is lower (27.49 versus the 42.82 currently). A Short Strangle of SPY 103 PUT/141 CALL would give us $0.31 credit, i.e. a maximum annualized profit of about 10% (SPY was $124 at that time). As I recalled the mindset at that time, we would have sold a tighter spread, such as 110 PUT/135 CALL for $1.11 (maximum 38% annualized), and would have been safe.
 
 
3- Margin Calculation Rules:
 
If you get lost in the margin calculation rules below, take 25% margin as a rule of thumb. The calculation usually results in a 10% to 30% margin requirement if you are sufficiently OTM (approximately 10% OTM).
 
Initial Margin – Short Uncovered PUT/CALL – The greatest of:                                         
                                               
  1. 100% of the option proceeds plus 20% of the underlying stock less any amount the option is out-of-the-money; or                                             
  2. 100% of the option proceeds plus 10% of the value of the strike price; or                                 
  3. 100% of the option proceeds plus $50 per option contract                                              
                                               
Maintenance Margin – The greatest of:                                            
                                               
  1. The current marked-to-market value of the option plus 20% of the underlying stock less any amount the option is out-of-the-money; or                                           
  2. The current marked-to-market value of the option plus 10% of the value of the strike price; or         
  3. The current marked-to-market value of the option plus $50 per option contract
 
The margin requirement for a Short Strangle is the highest of either the PUT or CALL leg, plus the marked-to-market value of the other option.
 
These are relatively straight forward rules. The one obscure factor is that the value of the PUT or CALL could increase with the underlying stock movement or volatility, resulting in a much higher Maintenance Margin than the Initial Margin. Getting a Margin Call from your broker is the worst thing that can happen to a Short Strangle. It can be avoided with stops as described in section 2.
 
 
4- Legging in:
 
For more experienced traders, we might want to sell one leg of the spread first to increase the profit. We would sell the PUT first when there is a low, or sell the CALL first at a high. Doing it a few times a year can significantly increase your return.
 
Lastly, can we make more than 100% for each spread? Yes, if the combined value of the PUT and CALL is higher than the margin requirement.
 
 
Next, we’ll cover the possible adjustments in Part 2 of the article.

 

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Thanks, Peter! Great article. I have a related question about adjusting a short put or a short call. Is it typically the case that if the stock goes the wrong direction, then we can roll up a caller 2x to a new strike and out a month, but typically only have to roll down a putter 1x to a new strike and out a month? For some reason, I’ve detected that trend in a few of my trades, but maybe it’s just a coincidence and has to do with the changing VIX?

Thanks, Phil, for posting with very entertaining graphics!
 
Ajaytoo,
Note that these are all naked shorts (PUT and CALL) and we don’t have the long position to protect, so we don’t need to roll 2x.  If our strikes are run over, I have two options to consider:
a) Roll horizontal, e.g. SPY Feb 70 putters to SPY Mar 70 putters, for a credit, and wait for the market to come back so that I pocket the Feb as well as Mar credit.
b) Roll putter down (or caller up) for even or a small credit if I think the market would not come back to my range, e.g. SPY Feb 70 putter to SPY Mar 66, Mar 67 or Mar 68.  This way you can catch up with the opposite trend in a few month.  This is one of the reasons that I like the Short Strangles.
 
Note that if SPY ends up at 72 by Feb expiration and both PUT and CALL expired worthless.  I would then consider selling a lower PUT and lower CALL.

Thank you for the good write-up, Peter D.  Do you use tools to calculate probability to end up above certain level, etc?  I know how o do it, and know of several tools, e.g. ivolatility.com, or the "analysis" tab of TOS.  What do you use?

You’re welcome, Jordan.  I use TOS Analyze tab to look up the probability of expiring and probability of touching.  It’s a very nice tool, just plug in the positions and click on "Probability Analysis" Tab in the middle of the screen, and use the cursor to see the percentage.  Have fun!

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