Ratio spreads. Part I

There are several commonly used option strategies that never get mentioned at Options for Rookies.  I have my reasons for ignoring those strategies.  However, because this is an options education blog, it's worthwhile to describe some of these methods, explain the pros and cons of using them, and each reader can judge whether such strategies are appropriate.

One such strategy is the ratio spread.  It is sometimes referred to as a 'front spread' because it is the direct opposite of a back spread.

Ratio Spread

This term can have a broad or more narrow definition.  It's the narrow definition that is used most frequently:

Broad definition: A ratio spread is any option strategy in which the trader sells more options than he/she buys. 

The more limiting definition includes: Similar to a vertical spread, all options are on the same underlying stock or index and have the same expiration date.  Only the strike price differs.  The options sold always have a smaller delta than the options bought.

Many times the ratio spread is initiated as a delta neutral position.  However, when you are trading with a market bias, you may prefer to select specific options and a specific ratio to suit your market expectations (more on that tomorrow).  Let's look at examples.

Note:  The following are randomly chosen spreads and are not recommendations.  I will not be trading any of these examples for my own account.

Example.  Ratio call spread

Buy 1 AAPL Jan 330 Call
Sell 2 AAPL Jan 350 Calls

This is referred to as a "1 X 2 call spread,"  with 'X' being used to represent the word 'by.'

As I write this (Nov 18, after the market close), AAPL is 308.43 and the estimated execution prices for this trade are $6.60 and $2.70.  The trader pays $6.60 for the call purchased and collects $2.70 for each call ($5.40 total) sold.  Thus, the cost to buy this position is $1.20.  As with any other options trade, that $1.20 is per share and the true cost is $120.

The total description of this trade is: "The trader bought the Jan APPL 330/350 1 x 2 call ratio spread at a net debit of $1.20"

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you describe this trade verbally, especially when entering the order through your broker, you MUST use the lowest common denominator for the ratio. 

In other words, if you enter this trade 20 x 40, the terminology is: "Buy 20 1 x 2 spreads at a net debit of one dollar and twenty cents for each 1 by 2."   Never, tell the broker that this is a total debit of $2,400 ($120 * 20).

Example.  Ratio put spread

Buy 2 AAPL Jan 270 Puts @ $7.10
Sell 3 AAPL Jan 260 Puts @ $5.20

This is a "Jan AAPL 270/260 2 by 3 put ratio spread at a net credit of $1.40"
This position is initiated with the trader collecting a cash credit of $140.

What's the Problem?

There is nothing truly 'wrong with spreads of this type, and experienced traders use them as part of their trading arsenal.  The main reason that I don't discuss ratio spreads is because they are positions in which you would be 'net short' options.  These are referred to as 'naked' shorts.

Many brokerage firms do not allow any of their customers to own positions with naked call options.  Others allow experienced traders to sell naked puts and calls.  Thus, some of you would be limited in your ability to trade this type of position, depending on the whim of your broker.

Risk Management.  That's the problem.  The major focus of this blog is to help rookie option traders learn to trade options successfully.  To do that, it's very important to recognize, and control, risk – in the form of 'how much money can I lose on this trade in the worst case scenario?'  Naked short positions make it impossible to gauge a worst case (for calls) and it bcomes difficult to keep a handle on current risk.

When short naked options, the loss is theoretically unlimited for calls and the value of the strike price (x 100) for puts.  In reality those extremes do not occur.  Yet, gigantic losses are possible.  That's why I never suggest that rookie option traders ever hold positions that are naked short any call options.  I make one exception for holding naked put options: If you want to accumulate stock positions for your portfolio, one acceptable method for attempting to do that is to sell naked put options.

The combination of

  • Horrific results are unlikely but possible
  • In general, brokers do not allow inexperienced traders to sell naked options
  • I believe that it takes a good deal of experience before considering selling naked options
  • I never sell them myself (simply because margin requirements are too high)

puts me on record for not recommending these trades to my audience of rookie traders.  Many experienced traders can handle  these spreads because they have seen what the market can do.  I assume that any trader who has been in the game long enough to have gained significant experience, survived because he/she already understands the importance of manageing risk. [That's my way of saying that traders who ignore risk will not survive very long]

Broken Wing Butterfly (BWB)

One other possibility for limiting risk and making the ratio spread a viable alternative is to buy one extra call or put option for each option sold.  In other words, there are no longer any naked shorts.  That option

  • Is farther OTM than the short options
  • Provides ultimate protection by 
    • Limiting losses
    • Reducing margin requirments
    • Creating a position that all brokers will accept

This new position is known as a butterfly spread – if the options owned are equally distant from the options sold:

Butterfly example:

Buy one AAPL Jan 330 call
Sell two AAPL Jan 350 calls
Buy one AAPL Jan 370 call

In most scenarios, the option bought is farther OTM and the distances are unequal. That new position is called a broken wing butterfly and is the position typically adopted by more conservative traders who want to trade ratio spreads.

Broken Wing Butterfly (BWB) Example:

Buy one AAPL 380 (or higher strike) call – instead of buying the Jan 370 call.

I'll have more to say about BWBs later in this series.

Next time I'll discuss the risk profile for ratio spreads and how your market outlook plays a role in choosing strike prices when trading ratio spreads.

to be continued




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4 Responses to Ratio spreads. Part I

  1. Donald W. 11/22/2010 at 2:18 PM #

    Mark, I read in a few places that Ratio Spreads were excellent candidates for Stock Repair strategy. Is this True?

  2. Sam 11/23/2010 at 12:07 AM #

    Hi Mark,
    It will be interesting to read about Broken Wing Butterflies. I have heard a lot of market makers used BWB’s as their bread and butter strategy. Looking forward to your take on that.

  3. Mark Wolfinger 11/23/2010 at 11:02 AM #

    Yes, this is a method used as a ‘stock repair’ strategy.
    It’s an attempt to turn a losing position into a break-even trade – something I have come to dislike as a trading goal. The ratio spread should be sued only when you believe it will be profitable – on its own.
    Here’s my take on this issue.

  4. Mark Wolfinger 11/23/2010 at 11:05 AM #

    I expect to write about BWBs on Tuesday, in a continuation of this series.
    Yes, it’s a popular MM strategy – but mostly because it leave the MMs with no naked shorts.