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How to Make Gains in a Down Market With Calendar Spreads

This week I came to the conclusion that the market may be in for some trouble over the next few months (or longer).  I am not expecting a crash of any sort, but I think it is highly unlikely that we will see a large upward move anytime soon.

Today, I would like to share my thinking on the market’s direction, and talk a little about how you can use calendar spreads to benefit when the market (for most stocks) doesn’t do much of anything (or goes down moderately).


How to Make Gains in a Down Market With Calendar Spreads

For several reasons, the bull market we have enjoyed for the last few years seems to be petering out.  First, as Janet Yellen and Robert Shiller, and others, have recently pointed out, the S&P 500 average has a higher P/E, 20.7 now, compared to 19.5 a year ago, or compared to the 16.3 very-long-term average.  An elevated P/E can be expected in a world of zero interest rates, but we all know that world will soon change.  The question is not “if” rates will rise, but “when.”

Second, market tops and bottoms are usually marked by triple-digit moves in the averages, one day up and the next day down, exactly the pattern we have seen for the past few weeks.

Third, it is May.  “Sell in May” is almost a hackneyed mantra by now (and not always the right thing to do), but the advice is soundly supported by the historical patterns.

The market might not tank in the near future, but it seems to me that a big increase is unlikely during this period when we are waiting for the Fed to act.

At Terry’s Tips, we most always create positions that do best if the market is flat or rises moderately.  Based on the above thoughts, we plan to take a different tack for a while.  We will continue to do well if it remains flat, but we will do better with a moderate drop than we would a moderate rise.

As much as you would like to try, it is impossible to create option positions that make gains no matter what the underlying stock does.  The options market is too efficient for such a dream to be possible.  But you can stack the odds dramatically in your favor.

If you want to protect against a down market using calendar spreads, all you have to do is buy spreads which have a lower strike price than the underlying stock.  When the short-term options you have sold expire, the maximum gain comes when the stock is very close to the strike price.  If that strike price is lower than the current price of the stock, that big gain comes after the stock has fallen to that strike price.

If you bought a calendar spread at the market (strike price same as the stock price), you would do best if the underlying stock or ETF remained absolutely flat.  You can reduce your risk a bit by buying another spread or two at different strikes.  That gives you more than one spot where the big gain comes.

At Terry’s Tips, now that we believe the market is more likely to head lower than it is to rise in the near future, we will own at-the-money calendar spreads, and others which are at lower strike prices.  It is possible to create a selection of spreads which will make a gain if the market is flat, rises just a little bit, or falls by more than a little bit, but not a huge amount.  Fortunately, there is software that lets you see in advance the gains or losses that will come at various stock prices with the calendar spreads you select (it’s free at thinkorswim and available at other brokers as well, although I have never seen anything as good as thinkorswim offers).

Owning a well-constructed array of stock option positions, especially calendar spreads, allows you to take profits even when the underlying stock doesn’t move higher.  Just select some spreads which are at strikes below the current stock price.  (It doesn’t matter if you use puts or calls, as counter-intuitive as that seems – with calendar spreads, it is the strike price, not whether you use puts or calls, that determines your gains or losses.)

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