Ratio spreads. Part II

Taking a few days off . Plan to return Monday.

Happy Thanksgiving holiday to all.  Let's remember the good things in our lives

Yesterday I introduced the topic of ratio spreads.  Today let's look at some risk graphs and discuss the reasons for trading these spreads.  It's a very appealing strategy and has a lot to recommend it.  However, potential losses prevents this idea from being in the trading arsenal of the more conservative options trader.  Also, it should be avoided by inexperienced traders.

Let's take a typical situation.  You anticipate a market rally (or fall) over the near term.  Nothing major.  Perhaps 3-5%.  You want to make a trade that makes a decent profit if your prediction comes true, and are willing to lose money when you are wrong.

SPY is currently 120 (as I write).  Your expectation is that SPY may rally towards 125 by December expiration.  The question is, how to play. 

There are many choices.  The most basic play is to buy calls, choosing an appropriate strike.  This is unattractive to some traders because the options may be priced too high or time decay may become too rapid.  Alternatives include selling OTM puts and put spreads or buying calendars etc.  However this discussion is focused on ratio spreads and how to use them.

Each of those ideas has its good and bad points, and choosing a trading strategy is as much about market expectations as it is about the trader's individual comfort zone.  Even when positions are known to produce identical results (equivalent positions), some traders are more comfortable when trading one strategy rather than another.  We may all know that the results are the same, but if one type of trade makes you feel better, or helps you analyze the position with less effort, then it's better to choose that trading strategy.

Buy Call Spread

Choosing the specific option to buy is a discussion all by itself.  However, let's assume that you have confidence in your expectations and buy SPX Dec 121/126 call spreads, paying $1.30 per spread (pay $1.62, sell at $0.32).  The risk graph (figure 1; the thick line represents P/L at expiration and the thin line shows P/L for today.) is as anticipated for a bullish spread.  Thus, profits increase as the market rises, but reach a limit.

With a simple call spread, you earn the maximum possible profit when the market rallies and both calls are in the money when expiration arrives.


The ratio spread

If you want to take extra risk to generate extra cash, instead of making a simple bullish play (buy call spread), you decide to sell extra calls.

If you have the confidence (or simply want to place the bet) that the market move will occur – but will be limited in scope, then the ratio spread can be advantageous.

In this example, let's sell one extra Dec 126 call for each debit spread bought.  That means you will be short two Dec 126 calls for each Dec 121 call owned.  Your anticipation is that those 126 calls will expire worthless and backing that belief, you are willing to sell the extra call and collect an extra $32 in premium. [This is a fairly small premium, considering the upside risk.  But that discussion is for a later date]

This play is not simply a matter of selling extra calls and cashing the check.  Risk of loss is real. If you are not sure why this is true, it's too early in your options education to be trading ratio spreads.  Risk is discussed below, but if this idea is new to you, it is better to avoid this play until you are better prepared to handle the risk management aspect of this strategy. Take a look at figure 2, which represents the profit/loss picture for the ratio spread.

The red lines represent the ratio spread while the blue line still traces the P/L profile for the debit spread.

Whereas profits are never threatened when SPY rallies in figure 1, figure 2 illustrates a very different story.  At expiration, profits reach their maximum when SPY is 126.  However, what makes this trade so different from the simple debit spread is the rate at which those profits can disappear when SPY moves above 126. In fact, the graph indicates that all profits disappear when SPY reaches 130.

Let's consider why this is true.  Your ratio spread consists of two separate positions: the debit spread and the naked short call.  When you made this trade, you paid a debit of $98 per spread. [Paid $1.62 and collected 2 x $32].  When the market moves lower, that $98 represents the maximum possible loss.  This is illustrated by the horizontal red line when SPY is below $121.

When SPY rallies and reaches $126 (at expiration), the Dec 121/126 call spread reaches its maximum value of $5.00.

However, you are short one naked call option – and that's the Dec 126 call.  The value of this option increases by $1.00 for every point that SPY rises.  When SPY is $130, it is worth $4.00.  That leaves you with a position worth $1.00.  When you subtract the $98 that it cost to initiate the position, your proit has disappeared (OK, you have $2 before commissions).

If SPY continues to rise, your idea to own a bullish position has backfired because you underestimated the size of the move.


That's the tradeoff.  In return for collecting a higher cash premium, you accept the risk of being short one naked option.  When that option moves into the money, it threatens to reduce, and then take away all profits.  And if SPY moves higher, losses mount at the rate of $100 per point.

to be continued…



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6 Responses to Ratio spreads. Part II

  1. Jesse 11/23/2010 at 7:25 AM #

    Have a nice holiday and enjoy every moment of our life!

  2. Mark Wolfinger 11/23/2010 at 11:06 AM #

    Even better!

  3. Andy 11/23/2010 at 7:27 PM #

    I’ve been looking at using ATM horizontal calendar spreads as a way of getting long cheaper, with the ultimate intent of paying off the position and getting to playing with house money through shorting and covering into weakness. Recently, this was working fine and I was pulling in a nice weekly amount on Ford calls (even if they were ITM, I could get a market-price roll after their time value sapped). Unfortunately, when Ford busted upwards, it erased a lot of profits from exiting the longs (literally from $1200-$1500 to about $350 in less than a day!). My thought is what I could have done different is only shorting against maybe 2/3’s of my long position would have left me open to participate in the rally in exchange for less short premium. But getting to playing with house money was a good feeling and I guess I got greedy not covering at least a bit.
    Do you think this type of spread would be worth doing about one strike ITM? Having the shorts fall out of the money a bit would present an ideal place to cover, especially if the stock is kind of swaying in and out of a particular strike and doesn’t seem to have much momentum in the direction I think it will eventually go.
    This type of spread seems like it needs babysitting, but the rewards are worth.

  4. Mike 11/24/2010 at 9:14 AM #

    Mark, a couple of very important questions:
    I need some advice.
    What questions should you ask a person who says they can make 5 to 6 per month using covered calls? Investor takes one half of investment. Minimum investment is 100,000. Is 24 to 26 percent return on money possible? What questions should I ask this investor? Are these types insured? Investor is licensed and insured and has experience. Is this a viable means of investment?
    thanks, Mike

  5. Mark Wolfinger 11/24/2010 at 3:17 PM #

    You leave out a bit of important information.
    1) I will assume you mean 5 to 6 PERCENT per month
    2) Don’t know what ‘investor takes one half of investment’ means. Not a clue. Are you suggesting the $100,000 account is decimated to $50,000 from day one? Surely not.
    I will guess that you mean the person who manages the money takes ZERO of the investment and instead takes one half of any PROFITS
    3) Question one to ask: “Who the hell do you think you are?” The best and most profitable hedge funds take 20% of the profits (+2% management fee).
    Question two: “Is anyone stupid enough to fall for this crap?” ‘I can hire the most sophisticated people and pay 20%, so why should I pay you 50%?”
    Question three: “How do you sleep at night when you cheat your clients?”
    Question 4: “Will you show me AUDITED, and thus verified, returns for the past FIVE years?”
    4) To answer your questions:
    a) Yes, such returns are possible. Not easy. Most people have little to zero chance of earning that much, but it is possible when writing covered calls.
    To earn 5 to 6% per month, the trader must either:
    i) Have remarkable ability to pick stocks that are rising
    ii) Trade stocks with high volatility (high option premium), and that involves far too much risk for the vast majority of investors.
    b) Licensed and insured for what? I assume he is licensed to be an investment advisor. Big deal. Means nothing.
    5) Viable? Sure it’s viable. But the appropriate word is ‘stupid.’ Dumb as paint. No one deserves 50%. I don’t care who he is and what his experience is.
    My pleasure.

  6. Mike 11/24/2010 at 3:24 PM #

    Thanks very much, I really appreciate that you took the time to answer my question. Have a great holiday!