Top 4 options strategies for beginners

May 12, 2010 07:00 PM

Bull & bear spreads
Bull call spreads and bear put spreads also are called vertical spreads because they occur in the same month and they have two different strikes. Unlike with the covered call strategy, your risk with the bull and bear spread strategies is more easily quantified, says Joe Burgoyne, director of institutional and retail marketing at the Options Industry Council.

In a bull call spread, you buy a call on the underlying asset while simultaneously writing (selling) a call on the same underlying asset with the same expiration month at a higher strike price. You should use it when you think the market will go up somewhat, or think it’s more likely to rise than fall (in other words, you have a bullish or moderately bullish outlook). Your likelihood for profit is limited, as is your risk, because the price paid for the call with the lower strike price is partially offset by the premium received from writing the call with a higher strike price, so you have less risk of losing the entire premium paid for the call.

In a bear put spread, you buy a put on an underlying asset while writing a put on the same underlying asset with the same expiration month, but at a lower strike price. You should use this strategy when you think the market will fall somewhat or is more likely to fall than rise, as you’re capitalizing on a decrease in the price of the underlying asset.

Calendar/time spreads
Another strategy used in options is calendar, or time, spreads. In a calendar spread, you establish your position by entering a long and short position at the same time on the same underlying asset, but with different delivery months.

“The point of this strategy is, time decay happens much more quickly the closer we get to expiration. The theory is that when you short the front-month option, you’ve got that quickly-evaporating time premium working with you, faster than the decay in the further out option that you bought,” Burgoyne explains. “Just like the call and put spreads, you’re paying a debit for the spread and the further out you go in time, the bigger that debit’s going to be. You’re looking for a stock at expiration to be at the strike that you have put this spread on.”

The further out you go in time, the more volatility you buy in the spread. Burgoyne notes that if you pick an out-of-the money strike and the maximum spread, for this to work to your benefit the underlying has to go up to that strike for this spread to be at its widest point of expiration. “If you pick the at-the-money strike, you want the [underlying] to hang out around that strike, and if you pick the in-the-money, you want the [underlying] to go down. You are long volatility in this spread. You want to be cognizant of volatility levels,” he says.

Iron condor
The iron condor is a strategy that can be a good introduction for beginning options traders to option selling. It can be a relatively safe way to sell options because you can’t lose on both sides of the trade. Here, you pick a likely trading range for an underlying asset and sell out-of-the-money option spreads around that range, Cook explains. “If you collect a total premium of $2 for selling two $5-wide spreads – both an out-of-the-money call spread and an out-of-the-money put spread, your total risk is only $3 because the commodity can’t go through both spreads at expiration. You have spread the risk across a wider range of possible prices. If your trading range thesis changes or volatility explodes and threatens to put one of the spreads in-the-money, you can exit one or both spreads at any time. Collecting $2 against $3 of risk offers you a potential return on risk of 67%,” he says.

The market outlook for the iron condor is neutral. “You’re trying to be strategic with your use of leverage. You’re trying to be systematic and probability minded, looking at what the best odds in the long run [are] if you did this consistently,” Cook says.

An iron condor can be entered from the short side or the long side, explains Charlie Santaularia, managing director of PTP Management Company. “A trader who enters a short iron condor is looking to profit from a range bound underlying asset. As long as the underlying asset stays within the inside strikes by expiration, the trade will be profitable. If it moves outside of the inside strikes by expiration, the trader will take a loss, which could be as high as the difference between the sold call/put and the purchased call/put,” he says. A trader who enters a long iron condor is looking for the exact opposite, or, a large move in one direction or the other by expiration.

Dos and don’ts
As with any type of trading, with beginning options strategies, having a trading plan and having an exit strategy are crucial. “Everybody has a plan for when to get into a particular stock or index, but few think it through to the point of when to take profits or cut losses,” Burgoyne says.

Cook says traders should stay disciplined by writing down their plan, which should include when and where to take profits or losses if things go your way or go against you. “You want to start with a thesis about where the underlying commodity or financial instrument could go in a certain time frame. Next, you have to visualize the potential scenarios that might unfold and how you will feel about your trade thesis at each turn. Options traders can eliminate stress and doubt by having a clear trading plan for every single position before they enter the order,” he says.

Two of the biggest mistakes rookie options traders make are not using a strategy at all, (just buying puts and calls), and having overconfidence with early profits, Burgoyne says. “The first couple of times into the market, [they’ll be] right, make a lot of money, think that all of a sudden they’re gurus, not take their education any further, and in subsequent investments [they’ll] lose the money they’ve made and a hell of a lot more.”

Research is important as well, so check out as many books as you can on options strategies (see below). also has extensive options coverage, including a tutorial on 19 key options strategies and when to use them. Cook recommends using trading tools like a probability calculator, volatility charts, and a profit & loss calculator, which lets you visualize positions with multiple variables.

And if you do your research and gear your strategies toward your opinion of the market and your trading goals, you should be on your way to trading success.

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