Trading Options – Good Or Evil?

You have probably heard people refer to options as a risky enterprise, akin to gambling. And it is true that options trading can be very risky, especially when engaged in with minimal knowledge and preparation. The average stockbroker or financial planner does not have sufficient options knowledge to guide you in the use of options in your portfolio. But that doesn’t mean options cannot play a role in a conservative portfolio of stocks.

The majority of today’s options trading volume derives from institutional money managers who use options to protect their clients’ stock portfolios. They are using options as insurance. Options may also be used to boost the income that may be derived from a conservative stock portfolio.

Options written on stocks are referred to as equity options and come in two forms: calls and puts. A call option gives the holder of the option the right to buy the underlying stock at the strike price of the option at any time before expiration. A call option is similar to a grocery store coupon for a five pound bag of flour at an attractive price; but the coupon is only good for 30 days and is limited to the purchase of one five pound bag. Similarly, a call option gives you the right to buy 100 shares of stock at a specific price and it is only good for a particular period of time.

Put options are opposite in character to calls and are more like insurance; a put option gives the owner the right to sell the underlying stock at the strike price of the option any time before expiration. Put options are often purchased when one expects a stock to decline in price, or it could be used as a form of insurance if I already own the stock; if my stock declines in price, my put option appreciates and compensates for a portion or all of that loss. An excellent analogy is house insurance; if I pay my insurance premium January 1 and nothing happens to damage my house this year, my insurance expires worthless, just as my put option will expire worthless if my stock just continues to appreciate. But if a hurricane damages my house during the year, my insurance pays for some or all of the repairs. Similarly, if my stock declines in price, my put option will increase in value, replacing some or all of the loss in my portfolio.

Equity options expire on the Saturday following the third Friday of each month. It is common to hear or read that equity options expire on that third Friday. While that isn’t technically correct, it is true that Friday is the last opportunity to trade those options. Saturday expiration was established to give the Options Clearing Corporation and the brokerages time to settle their customers’ accounts before the options technically (legally) lose their value.

Consider the hypothetical company, XYZ, as an example. XYZ closed May 28, 2009 at $34.70; the June $35 call option was quoted at $1.00 at the close. In the options quotations on a site like Yahoo Finance, you will see bid and ask prices posted. The Ask price is the price quoted if I wish to buy the option, while the bid price is what I would have to pay to sell my option. Options are quoted per share of the underlying stock, but are sold as contracts that cover 100 share lots of stock. The XYZ June $35 calls are quoted at an ask price of $1.00. Each contract is priced at $1.00 per share of the underlying stock; since each contract covers 100 shares of stock, the contract costs $100 and five contracts would cost $500. I have the right to exercise my options anytime before they cease trading on Friday, June 19, and buy 500 shares of XYZ stock at $35 per share or $10,500. Or I could simply sell my call options at the bid price anytime before expiration.

Options can be used in several very conservative ways in a stock portfolio. For example, if I own 300 shares of XYZ, but I am concerned this market is softening and may take another dive downward, I could buy three contracts of the June $35 puts at $1.40 to protect my position. This put position would cost me $420 and protect me through June 19. As XYZ drops in price, the puts will increase in price, compensating for some or all of my loss on the stock. This is called a “married put” position. However, there is no free lunch in the market; if XYZ trades sideways or upward, I will lose my $420 of “insurance premium”.

Another conservative use of options is the “covered call” strategy. If we continue with our example of XYZ and I think the stock is going to trade sideways or slightly up over the next few weeks, I could sell three contracts of the June $35 calls for $1.00, bringing $300 into my account. If XYZ is trading unchanged at $34.70 on June 19, the $35 call options will expire worthless, and I will have gained $300 or 2.9%. But if XYZ trades upward of $35, my maximum gain is capped at $330, or 3.7%.

Options trading can be very risky when used in a speculative manner, but options may also be used in conservative fashion with a stock portfolio, both protecting the downside and also increasing the income from the portfolio.