If you’re trying to understand option trading strategies, and terms like strike price, expiration date, time decay, and covered and uncovered calls and puts, there’s a basic understanding that you should have, an overview of stock options basics in terms of two diametrically opposed strategies, that will help you understand both buying options and selling options (aka writing options). As the scope of this site has expanded, I’ve seen that the best way for new investors to have stock options explained to them is from the perspective of option trading strategies rather than simply theoretical articles about options basics.
If you’re familiar with options only as a trading vehicle that some investors use to attempt to make huge gains very quickly, you probably have wondered what terms like “writing calls” and “naked puts” are all about. The fact is that the risky buy-side trades with which new investors are most familiar is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of ways one can use stock options to maximize the performance of their overall portfolio.
Every options transaction has a seller on the other side of the transaction from the option buyer. This makes intuitive sense, but maybe you have assumed that the option seller is an options exchange or even some large broker. This is incorrect. The fact is that anyone can sell puts and calls just as they can buy them (pending approval from your broker, who will want you to attest that you understand options well enough to approve you for trading them in the first place).
But why would I sell options, rather than buying them? The difference lies in the motivation underlying both sides of the trade. I’ll explain call options here.
Whereas the buyer of the right to buy 100 shares of stock at a given price by a given date in the future is looking for a method to leverage a relatively small amount of money for the possibility of a large percentage gain, the seller of that right is most often looking for a way to protect long stock positions that he already has in his portfolio. There is an exception to this, in the form of very risky sell-side option trading strategies known as uncovered or “naked” call or put selling, but I’ll save that stock options explanation for the end of this article to avoid confusion.
Essentially the option seller is selling the right to purchase shares that he owns at a “strike price” that he would be happy receiving for his shares, should they reach that price. Normally the seller will pick a strike price higher than where the stock is currently trading. In return, the option contract seller or writer receives a premium amount from the option buyer.
For example, if I own 1000 shares of IBM and the stock is at 140, I can sell ten option contracts of IBM 160 calls, and I will receive an amount of money from the buyer or buyers of these 10 contracts. How much money depends on how far away the expiration date is, the volatility of the stock and other factors. Should IBM be trading over 160 by the expiration date, my stock will be called away from me i.e. I will be obligated to deliver it to the buyers of the options in return for the premium that they paid me. Note that I am still happy because I experienced appreciation between the 140 level and 160, plus the premium payment, although if IBM rises to say, $200 per share before expiration I will most likely regret selling calls against my shares in the first place!
If IBM falls or at least stays below 160 strike price between the day I initiate the trade and the expiration date, then the options will expire “out of the money”, worthless. That means that I no longer have the possibility of having to deliver my shares; the transaction is concluded at the expiration date. If I’m the option seller I keep one hundred percent of the premium amount, minus commissions, and unfortunately the option buyer loses whatever he paid to enter the transaction. Regardless of where the stock price is at expiration in this situation, my cost basis for my shares has been lowered by the amount of premium that I received.
In this example the call buyer is bullish (i.e. optimistic) on the stock and the call seller is bearish, or at least not overly bullish (after all he’s not bearish enough to sell his shares). It might have occurred to you that just as a put buyer is bearish on a stock that the put seller must be bullish (or at least not excessively bearish). This is an accurate assumption. This implies that ultimately one can’t think of either buying or selling options as bullish or bearish trades, as you could be a call buyer or put seller if you were bullish-to-neutral, and a put buyer or a call seller if you were bearish-to-neutral.
Options selling versus buying is more properly thought of in terms a risk/reward profile that a person wants to assume when he makes a trade. The buyer of the put or call is prepared to lose much or all of the premium he pays if the trade goes against him in return for the possibility of relatively large gains very quickly. The seller of a put or call is interested in making a relatively small profit on an open position where he is either long or short the stock, often with the only potential downside being the opportunity cost of having his stock or short position terminated at expiration if the option is in-the-money. Either way, the option buyer buys risk; the option seller is hedging with an eye on security and a smallish gain.
Well, as with many things, good way to explain option trading strategies is in terms of a dichotomy. Reality has exceptions, and options trading also has an interesting exception to the buy risk/sell to hedge opposing strategies.
I promised to explain one way in which option selling is very risky; this option trading strategy is actually much riskier than buying options. Selling covered calls means that you own the stock against which you write the calls. Selling “naked” calls means that you do not own the underlying stock if you are selling calls, and if you are selling “naked” puts, that you are not short the underlying security.
Wait a minute. How can anything be riskier than the possibility of losing your entire premium amount when you buy a put or a call? Here’s how naked option selling works on the call side (fasten your seatbelt!):
In our initial example of selling IBM 160 calls against shares that we own when IBM is trading at 140, the premium we received functioned as a hedge against a possible downward move in the stock. Believe it or not is perfectly legal to take the premium from the call buyer without owning any shares of the underlying stock. Should the stock close at expiration below 160, the call seller keeps his premium without having to have taken any further position, i.e. lay out any money for the shares of stock, as the seller of a covered call does. Assuming that the writer of a naked call holds his position until options expiration, you can say that he has an infinite return (minus commissions of course!). Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? And so what happens in the event that the stock is trading above the calls’ strike price at expiration?
The naked option seller is required to deliver 100 shares of stock per contract that he has sold. The premium he has received is miniscule compared to the amount of money he needs to pay for a stock position that he will establish at the strike price. In our example above, the naked seller needs $160,000 to buy 1000 shares of IBM at 160 to fill his obligations. You don’t need to do much more than read that sentence again to understand the amount of risk a naked options seller is assuming.
Now in practice, online brokers-in addition to furnishing you with stock option software-require you to maintain equity in your account to cover obligations that you have in delivering stock that you might be obliged to deliver. Still, the possible downside from this trade is such that even though one does not have to purchase shares, you must be psychologically and financially prepared to do so. Needless to say, writing naked puts or calls should only be attempted if you are an experienced options trader, and it is one of those options trading strategies in which most investors will never participate.
My hope is that you have found a fairly comprehensive overview of the two basic strategies for options trading explained here. Please let me know if you would like further elaboration in the comments.