From the October 01, 2010 issue of Futures Magazine • Subscribe!

Options writing mistakes to avoid

Mistake two: Selling too close to the money

ImageMany option selling proponents will tell you that the best way to sell options is to select strikes with fewer than 30 days remaining until expiration. The reasoning is that you get the maximum rate of time decay (see “Premium decay,” right). This approach may have its merits, and it certainly looks good on paper, but it has one major drawback: To get any premium at all with this strategy, you have to sell quite close to the money. In the futures market, this can mean selling perilously close.

A typical experience goes like this: A trader will swear he has the ultimate program for selling options. For several months he will sell options in a variety of markets with about 30 days left until expiration and do remarkably well. The next month, let’s say he is short live cattle calls and soybean puts almost right at the money. It is certainly not unheard of for cattle prices to jump while soybeans fall. Such a scenario could put both positions in the money. If those were the only options he has that month, meaning he was also making mistake number one, it could easily wipe out months of steady profits.

Avoiding this mistake is simple. Just select options that are at least 50% out of the money and preferably 75% to 100% out of the money. This means looking for markets with a little more volatility and being willing to write them further out in time. Remember that you can sell options four, five or even six months out and still take profits in 60-90 days.

This guideline places your strikes far away from the market and sharply reduces the possibility of any of your options ever going in the money. In-the-money options appreciate quickly. Staying out of the money is one key way you avoid taking a big loss.

Mistake three: No exit plan

While most all investment books, courses and articles talk about risk management, you would be surprised to learn how many traders just wing it. They get excited about entering a trade and don’t bother to think about what they will do if things don’t go as planned. When they do get a trade that isn’t working, they can often experience altered judgment or, worse, panic and overreact regardless of where the market is.

Option selling is different than other investments in that it is difficult to draw a line in the sand and say, “if it gets here, I’m out.” That being said, the 200% rule is a good one for beginners. Basically, if the option sold doubles in value from the point at which you sold it, get out. True, there are times these options will ultimately expire worthless, but it is simply not worth the risk.

Of course, it is irresponsible to assume one rule is right for every position or that it is optimal for all positions to be placed with a pre-defined strategy beforehand. The variables with a short option make each situation different and it is difficult to make an exit plan when you don’t know what the scenario will be. However, if a position is moving against you, you should be prepared for action long before that option doubles in value. Usually this involves some form of scaling back and reducing exposure, allowing you to gradually adjust your position. Managing risk on your option selling portfolio should be more like steering a large ship than a Formula One race car.

The point is there are several ways to manage your risk. Some writers use hard stops while others roll out positions to further out strikes and contracts. The important thing is that you have an exit plan in place. That way, when the market or your option reaches a certain level, you know exactly what to do. You are not reacting emotionally.

Succeed by not failing

Option writing is a strategy that can seem easy. Don’t be fooled or become over confident. Putting the odds in your favor -- which is what you are doing when writing options -- does not protect from the spikes in volatility that often wipe out even experienced option writers. For beginning traders, whether you are selling commodity, equity index or equity options, the first step isn’t to excel. The first step is to not fail. Avoiding these three mistakes will keep you in the game as you hone your option selling skills and learn the intricacies of the markets you trade. It will take you a long way toward becoming an effective option seller for years to come.

James Cordier is the founder of Liberty Trading Group/, an investment firm specializing exclusively in selling commodities options. Michael Gross is an analyst with Liberty Trading Group/ Their website is

For more from Cordier and Gross, click here.

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