Friday, October 16, 2009

Selling Options is no free lunch

Options are contracts that give their owners the right but not the obligation to buy (calls) or sell (puts) securities at a predetermined price (strike) at a predetermined period in the future.
If an investor is bullish on Microsoft (MSFT) when the stock is trading at $20/share, he/she could purchase calls and profit at options expirations week if the stock price increases above the strike price plus the price paid for the call. The options price consists of time value/time decay and an intrinsic value, which is the difference between the strike price and the current price of the security. Overall in quiet markets the time decay decreases the values of options. The time decay portion of the options price is sensitive to changes in volatility and could increase if volatility increases however.

Most investors believe that by selling covered calls or cash secured puts they could achieve additional income from the securities they own or plan to own. This additional return comes from taking on the additional risk of potentially exercising your options, which could hurt your total returns.

The S&P maintains two options indexes based off the S&P 500. One of them incorporates selling covered calls against the index, while the other incorporates selling naked puts against it.

The CBOE S&P 500 BuyWrite Index (BXM) is a benchmark index designed to track the performance of a hypothetical buy-write (covered calls) strategy on the S&P 500 Index. The methodology of the BXM Index is based on (1) buying an S&P 500 index portfolio, and (2) writing the near-term S&P 500 "covered" call option, generally on the third Friday of each month. The call is held until it is cash-settled on the 3rd Friday of the following month, at which time a new one-month call option is written.

Ibbotson Associates tested the strategy of selling covered calls against S&P 500 for the 16-year period between 1988 and 2006. According to the findings, the buy write index returned 11.77%, versus 11.67% for the S&P 500 index. The buy-write strategy managed to slightly outperform the broad market with lower volatility, as defined by standard deviations. The standard deviation for the buy write index was 9.29%, which was much lower than the 13.89% volatility of the S&P 500.

Overall for the past 23 years ending in March 2009, the buy-write index did manage to slightly outperform the S&P 500.

The covered calls strategy typically outperforms the underlying in flat and weak markets, while under performing the underlying in strong bull markets.

The chart below shows that as a percentage of the underlying value, premium income on covered calls has ranged between 0.5% to 4.50% and averaged close to 1.70%/month. Investors who dabble in options often see that they could purchase a stock at $20 and then sell a covered call at the next strike for $0.50, which represents a nice 2.50% return. Investors then start projecting and annualizing these kinds of returns. As evidenced by the first chart, these premiums are simply a compensation for foregoing any gains beyond the strike price, while fully participating in any declines in the underlying prices. They did not lead to the generations of any excess returns with any consistency relative to the cumulative performance of the S&P 500.

There are several funds which employ covered call techniques on S&P 500 index. One of the longest standing ones is S&P 500 Covered Call Fund Inc. (BEP). Over the past 4 years it has had a total return of almost zero, despite the fact that it keeps distributing $2 in dividends every year.

Thus on average, it is safe to assume that unless investors possess above average timing skills, selling covered calls is no free lunch, despite what gurus and self proclaimed experts claim this “safe” technique to be.

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