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Posts Tagged ‘Bearish Options Strategies’

Using Puts vs. Calls for Calendar Spreads

Monday, April 7th, 2014

I like to trade calendar spreads.  Right now my favorite underlying to use is SVXY, a volatility-related ETP which is essentially the inverse of VXX, another ETP which moves step-in-step with volatility (VIX).  Many people buy VXX as a hedge against a market crash when they are fearful (volatility, and VXX. skyrockets when a crash occurs), but when the market is stable or moves higher, VXX inevitably moves lower.  In fact, since it was created in 2009, VXX has been just about the biggest dog in the entire stock market world.  On three occasions they have had to make 1 – 4 reverse splits just to keep the stock price high enough to matter.

Since VXX is such a dog, I like SVXY which is its inverse.  I expect it will move higher most of the time (it enjoys substantial tailwinds because of something called contango, but that is a topic for another time).  I concentrate in buying calendar spreads on SVXY (buying Jun-14 options and selling weekly options) at strikes which are higher than the current stock price.  Most of these calendar spreads are in puts, and that seems a little weird because I expect that the stock will usually move higher, and puts are what you buy when you expect the stock will fall.  That is the topic of today’s idea of the week.

Terry

Using Puts vs. Calls for Calendar Spreads

It is important to understand that the risk profile of a calendar spread is identical regardless of whether puts or calls are used.  The strike price (rather than the choice of puts or calls) determines whether a spread is bearish or bullish.  A calendar spread at a strike price below the stock price is a bearish because the maximum gain is made if the stock falls exactly to the strike price, and a calendar spread at a strike price above the stock price is bullish.

When people are generally optimistic about the market, call calendar spreads tend to cost more than put calendar spreads.  For most of 2013-14, in spite of a consistently rising market, option buyers have been particularly pessimistic.  They have traded many more puts than calls, and put calendar prices have been more expensive.

Right now, at-the-money put calendar spreads cost more than at-the-money call calendar spreads for most underlyings, including SVXY.  As long as the underlying pessimism continues, they extra cost of the put spreads might be worth the money because when the about-to-expire short options are bought back and rolled over to the next short-term time period, a larger premium can be collected on that sale.  This assumes, of course, that the current pessimism will continue into the future.

If you have a portfolio of exclusively calendar spreads (you don’t anticipate moving to diagonal spreads), it is best to use puts at strikes below the stock price and calls for spreads at strikes which are higher than the stock price.  If you do the reverse, you will own a bunch of well in-the-money short options, and rolling them over to the next week or month is expensive (in-the-money bid-asked spreads are greater than out-of-the-money bid asked spreads so you can collect more cash when rolling over out-of-the-money short options).

A “Conservative” Options Strategy for 2014

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Every day, I get a Google alert for the words “options trading” so that I can keep up with what others, particularly those with blogs, are saying about options trading.  I always wondered why my blogs have never appeared on the list I get each day.  Maybe it’s because I don’t use the exact words “option trading” like some of the blogs do.

Here is an example of how one company loaded up their first paragraph with these key words (I have changed a few words so Google doesn’t think I am just copying it) – “Some experts will try to explain the right way to trade options by a number of steps.  For example, you may see ‘Trading Options in 6 Steps’ or ’12 Easy Steps for Trading Options.’  This overly simplistic approach can often send the novice option trading investor down the wrong path and not teach the investor a solid methodology for options trading. (my emphasis)”  The key words “options trading” appeared 5 times in 3 sentences.  Now that they are in my blog I will see if my blog gets picked up by Google.

Today I would like to share my thoughts on what 2014 might have in store for us, and offer an options strategy designed to capitalize on the year unfolding as I expect.

Terry

A “Conservative” Options Strategy for 2014

What’s in store for 2014?  Most companies seem to be doing pretty well, although the market’s P/E of 17 is a little higher than the historical average.  Warren Buffett recently said that he felt it was fairly valued.  Thirteen analysts surveyed by Forbes projected an average 2014 gain of just over 5% while two expected a loss of about 2%, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago. With interest rates so dreadfully low, there are not many places to put your money except in the stock market. CD’s are yielding less than 1%.  Bonds are scary to buy because when interest rates inevitably rise, bond prices will collapse.  The Fed’s QE program is surely propping up the market, and some tapering will likely to take place in 2014.  This week’s market drop was attributed to fears that tapering will come sooner than later.

When all these factors are considered, the best prognosis for 2014 seems to be that there will not be a huge move in the market in either direction.  If economic indicators such as employment numbers, corporate profits and consumer spending improve, the market might be pushed higher except that tapering will then become more likely, and that possibility will push the market lower.  The two might offset one another.

This kind of a market is ideal for a strategy of multiple calendar spreads, of course, the kind that we advocate at Terry’s Tips.  One portfolio I will set up for next year will use a Jan-16 at-the-money straddle as the long side (buying both a put and a call at the 180 strike price).  Against those positions we will sell out-of-the-money monthly puts and calls which have a month of remaining life. The straddle will cost about $36 and in one year, will fall to about $24 if the stock doesn’t move very much (if it does move a lot in either direction, the straddle will gain in value and may be worth more than $24 in one year).  Since the average monthly decay of the straddle is about $1 per month,  that is how much monthly premium needs to be collected to break even on theta.  I would like to provide for a greater move on the downside just in case that tapering fears prevail (I do not expect that euphoria will propel the market unusually higher, but tapering fears might push it down quite a bit at some point).  By selling puts which are further out of the money, we would enjoy more downside protection.

Here is the risk profile graph for my proposed portfolio with 3 straddles (portfolio value $10,000), selling out-of-the-money January-14 puts and calls. Over most of the curve there is a gain approaching 4% for the first month (a five-week period ending January 19, 2014).   Probably a 3% gain would be a better expectation for a typical month.  A gain over these 5 weeks should come about if SPY falls by $8 or less or moves higher by $5 or less.  This seems like a fairly generous range.

Spy Straddle Risk Profile For 2014

Spy Straddle Risk Profile For 2014

For those of you who are not familiar with these risk profile graphs (generated by thinkorswim’s free software), the P/L Day column shows the gain or loss expected if the stock were to close on January 19, 2014 at the price listed in the Stk Price column, or you can estimate the gain or loss by looking at the graph line over the various possible stock prices.  I personally feel comfortable owning SPY positions which will make money each month over such a broad range of possible stock prices, and there is the possibility of changing that break-even range with mid-month adjustments should the market move more than moderately in either direction.

The word “conservative” is usually not used as an adjective in front of “options strategy,” but I believe this is a fair use of the word for this actual portfolio I will carry out at Terry’s Tips for my paying subscribers to follow if they wish (or have trades automatically executed for them in their accounts through the Auto-Trade program at thinkorswim).

There aren’t many ways that you can expect to make 3% a month in today’s market environment.  This options strategy might be an exception.

How to Make a Portfolio of Calendar Spreads Either Bearish or Bullish

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Last week our string of 12 consecutive winning PEA Plays (Pre-Earnings Announcement) was broken, not because our model guessed wrong on where the stock (LULU) would go after the announcement (down, as it did), but because the CEO announced her retirement and the stock fell almost 20% on that news (the company actually exceeded estimates on earnings, revenues, and guidance but the retirement news overshadowed that good news).  Our option positions were set up to handle a 7% drop and still make a gain, but we could not handle a 20% drop.

Interestingly, our loss came about not from our basic diagonal spread (where we would have made money in spite of the huge drop) but from the insurance calendar spreads we placed “just in case we were wrong” about the direction the stock would take.  If we had had more faith in our model, we would not have made the insurance purchase, and we would not have suffered a loss.

Our loss on LULU was slightly greater than the average gain we made on the 12 previous PEA Plays, so while it was an unpleasant setback, it was not devastating.

Terry

How to Make a Portfolio of Calendar Spreads Either Bearish or Bullish: 

At Terry’s Tips, we use an options strategy that consists of owning calendar (aka time) spreads at many different strike prices, both above and below the stock price. A calendar spread is created when you buy an option with a longer lifespan than the short option that you sell against your long position with both options at the same strike price. We also use diagonal spreads which are similar to calendar spreads (except that the strike prices of the long and short sides are different). 

We typically start out each week or month with a slightly bullish posture since the market has historically moved higher more times than it has fallen.  In option terms, this is called being positive net delta.  Starting in May and extending through August, we usually start out with a slightly bearish posture (negative net delta) in deference to the “sell in May” adage. 

Any calendar spread makes its maximum gain if the stock ends up on expiration day exactly at the strike price of the calendar spread.  As the market moves either up or down, adding new spreads at different strikes is essentially placing a new bet at the new strike price.  In other words, you hope the market will move toward that strike.

If the market moves higher, we add new calendar spreads at a strike which is higher than the stock price (and vice versa if the market moves lower).  New spreads at strikes higher than the stock price are bullish bets and new spreads at strikes below the stock price are bearish bets.

It does not make any difference whether puts or calls are used for a calendar spread – the risk profile is identical for both.  The key variable for calendar spreads is the strike price rather than whether puts or calls.  In spite of that truth, we prefer to use puts when buying calendar spreads at strikes below the stock price and calls when buying calendar spreads at strikes above the stock price because it is easier to trade out of out-of-the-money options when the short options expire.

If the market moves higher when we are positive net delta, we should make gains because of our positive delta condition (in addition to decay gains that should take place regardless of what the market does).  If the market moves lower when we are positive net delta, we would lose portfolio value because of the bullish delta condition, but some or all of these losses would be offset by the daily gains we enjoy from theta (the net daily decay of all the options).

Another variable affects calendar spread portfolio values.  Option prices (VIX) may rise or fall in general.  VIX typically falls with a rising market and moves higher when the market tanks.  While not as important as the net delta value, lower VIX levels tend to depress calendar spread portfolio values (and rising VIX levels tend to improve calendar spread portfolio values).  

Once again, trading options is more complicated than trading stock, but can be considerably more interesting, challenging, and ultimately profitable than the simple purchase of stock or mutual funds.

Using Puts vs. Calls for Calendar Spreads

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

A lot of our discussion lately has focused on pre-earnings-announcement strategies (we call them PEA Plays).  This has been brought about by lower option prices (VIX) than we have seen since 2007, a full six years ago.  With option prices this low it has been difficult to depend on collecting premium as our primary source of income with our basic option strategies. 

But the earnings season has now quieted down and will not start up again for several weeks, so we will return to discussing more conventional option issues. 

Terry 

Using Puts vs. Calls for Calendar Spreads 

 It is important to understand that the risk profile of a calendar spread is identical regardless of whether puts or calls are used.  The strike price (rather than the choice of puts or calls) determines whether a spread is bearish or bullish.  A calendar spread at a strike price below the stock price is a bearish because the maximum gain is made if the stock falls exactly to the strike price, and a calendar spread at a strike price above the stock price is bullish. 

When people are generally optimistic about the market, call calendar spreads tend to cost more than put calendar spreads.  For most of 2012 and into 2013, in spite of a consistently rising market, option buyers have been particularly pessimistic.  They have traded many more puts than calls, and put calendar prices have been more expensive. 

Right now, at-the-money put calendar spreads cost more than at-the-money call calendar spreads.  As long as the underlying pessimism continues, they extra cost of the put spreads might be worth the money because when the about-to-expire short options are bought back and rolled over to the next short-term time period, a larger premium can be collected on that sale.  This assumes, of course, that the current pessimism will continue into the future.

If you have a portfolio of exclusively calendar spreads (you don’t anticipate moving to diagonal spreads), it is best to use puts at strikes below the stock price and calls for spreads at strikes which are higher than the stock price.  If you do the reverse, you will own a bunch of well in-the-money short options, and rolling them over to the next week or month is expensive (in-the-money bid-asked spreads are greater than out-of-the-money bid asked spreads so you can collect more cash when rolling over out-of-the-money short options). 

The choice of using puts or calls for a calendar spread is most relevant when considering at-the-money spreads.  When buying at-the-money calendar spreads, the least expensive choice (puts or calls) should usually be made. An exception to this rule comes when one of the quarterly SPY dividends is about to come due.  On the day the dividend is payable (always on expiration Friday), the stock is expected to fall by the amount of the dividend (usually about $.60).  Since the market anticipates this drop in the stock (and knowing the specific day that the stock will fall), put prices are generally bid higher in the weeks before that dividend date. 

The bottom line is that put calendar spreads are preferable to call calendar spreads for at-the-money strikes (or even at strikes slightly higher than the stock price) coming into a SPY dividend date.   Even though the put spreads cost more, the Weekly options that can be sold for enough extra to cover the higher cost.  You do not want to own SPY call calendar spreads which might become in the money on the third Friday of March, June, September, or December because you will have to buy them back on Thursday to avoid paying the dividend, and you may not want to make that purchase to keep your entire portfolio balanced.

Six consecutive successful Apple option plays, and more still to come?

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Three weeks ago I wrote an article about how to play the unusual stock action pattern of Apple (AAPL). – Play Apple Volatility With A Unique Weekly Options Strategy

For some unclear reason (most likely options-related, at least to my way of thinking), AAPL tends to fall on Fridays, often quite dramatically, and to move higher on Mondays.

At that time, I suggested that buying at-the-money puts Thursday near the close (or shortly after the open on Friday) would often result in extraordinary gains if you sold the puts near the close on Friday.  For the past three weeks, this pattern has continued in spades.

The stock fell on Friday in those three weeks by $19.90, $2.40, and $5.47.  Since at at-the-money put with a single day of remaining life would cost about $4, your average gain over these three weeks works out to more than 150% per week.  During these three weeks, greater gains were possible by buying the puts before the close on Thursday rather than after the open on Friday (in the prior 12-week test, the stock often opened up a bit higher on Friday, suggesting that might be a better entry point).

The results for Mondays were not as dramatic, but still quite impressive.  Of course, buying an at-the-money call either Friday near the close or near the open on Monday would cost closer to $10 because there would be five trading days remaining rather than only one, so the initial cost of the option would be about double the amount required to buy puts in anticipation of the Friday drop.

Over the last three weeks, on Mondays, AAPL has moved higher by $9.04, $.84, and $22.58.  Substantial gains would have come your way in two of the three weeks with probably a break-even in the week when the stock budged up only $.84.

Will this Friday-Monday pattern continue?  No one knows, for sure.  My experience is that trading patterns identified by back-testing do not always hold up going forward.  But somehow this one seems different.  Until the pattern is broken, at least buying puts near the close on Thursday seems like a good bet.  Even if you lose the entire bet on occasion, there have been so many Fridays when the drop has been substantial, over time, the returns could have been extraordinary.

At heart, I am not an option buyer.  I prefer collecting decay from selling short-term options (using longer-term options as collateral rather than stock).  But for many months now, the daily and weekly fluctuations in AAPL have been considerably higher than the implied volatilities of the options would suggest.  As long as this pattern persists, buying AAPL options rather than selling them seems be in order, especially when there us some reason to believe that buying a put or call (rather than a straddle or strangle) gives you an edge.  The Friday-Monday phenomenon might just be the edge you need.

Invest in Yourself in 2013 (at the Lowest Rate Ever)

Monday, December 31st, 2012

To celebrate the coming of the New Year I am making the best offer to come on board that I have ever offered.  It is time limited.  Don’t miss out.

Invest in Yourself in 2013 (at the Lowest Rate Ever)

The presents are unwrapped.  The New Year is upon us.  Start it out right by doing something really good for yourself, and your loved ones. 

The beginning of the year is a traditional time for resolutions and goal-setting.  It is a perfect time to do some serious thinking about your financial future.

I believe that the best investment you can ever make is to invest in yourself, no matter what your financial situation might be.  Learning a stock option investment strategy is a low-cost way to do just that.

As our New Year’s gift to you, we are offering our service at the lowest price in the history of our company.      If you ever considered becoming a Terry’s Tips Insider, this would be the absolutely best time to do it.  Read on…

Don’t you owe it to yourself to learn a system that carries a very low risk and could gain 36% a year as many of our portfolios have done?

So what’s the investment?  I’m suggesting that you spend a small amount to get a copy of my 70-page (electronic) White Paper, and devote some serious early-2013 hours studying the material. 

And now for the Special Offer – If you make this investment in yourself by midnight, January 9, 2013, this is what happens:

For a one-time fee of only $39.95, you receive the White Paper (which normally costs $79.95 by itself), which explains my two favorite option strategies in detail, 20 “Lazy Way” companies with a minimum 100% gain in 2 years, mathematically guaranteed, if the stock stays flat or goes up, plus the following services :

1) Two free months of the Terry’s Tips Stock Options Tutorial Program, (a $49.90 value).  This consists of 14 individual electronic tutorials delivered one each day for two weeks, and weekly Saturday Reports which provide timely Market Reports, discussion of option strategies, updates and commentaries on 8 different actual option portfolios, and much more. 

2) Emailed Trade Alerts.  I will email you with any trades I make at the end of each trading day, so you can mirror them if you wish (or with our Premium Service, you will receive real-time Trade Alerts as they are made for even faster order placement or Auto-Trading with a broker).  These Trade Alerts cover all 8 portfolios we conduct.

3) If you choose to continue after two free months of the Options Tutorial Program, do nothing, and you’ll be billed at our discounted rate of $19.95 per month (rather than the regular $24.95 rate).

4) Access to the Insider’s Section of Terry’s Tips, where you will find many valuable articles about option trading, and several months of recent Saturday Reports and Trade Alerts.

5) A FREE special report “How We Made 100% on Apple in 2010-11 While AAPL Rose Only 25%”. This report is a good example of how our Shoot Strategy works for individual companies that you believe are headed higher.

With this one-time offer, you will receive all of these benefits for only $39.95, less than the price of the White Paper alone. I have never made an offer better than this in the twelve years I have published Terry’s Tips.  But you must order by midnight on January 9, 2013.  Click here, choose “White Paper with Insider Membership”, and enter Special Code 2013 (or 2013P for Premium Service – $79.95).

Investing in yourself is the most responsible New Year’s Resolution you could make for 2013.  I feel confident that this offer could be the best investment you ever make in yourself.

Happy New Year!  I hope 2013 is your most prosperous ever.  I look forward to helping you get 2013 started right by sharing this valuable investment information with you. 
Terry

P.S.  If you would have any questions about this offer or Terry’s Tips, please call Seth Allen, our Senior Vice President at 800-803-4595.  Or make this investment in yourself at the lowest price ever offered in our 8 years of publication – only $39.95 for our entire package - using Special Code 2013 (or 2013P for Premium Service – $79.95).

All About Back Spreads

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

Back spreads and ratio spreads are usually discussed together because they are simply the mirror image of each other. Back spreads and ratio spreads are comprised of either both calls or both puts at two different strike prices in the same expiration month. If the spread has more long contracts than short contracts, it is a Back Spread. If there are more short contracts, it is a Ratio Spread.
Since ratio spreads involve selling “naked” (i.e., uncovered by another long option) they can’t be used in an IRA.  For that reason, and because we like to sleep better at night knowing that we are not naked short and could possibly lose more than our original investment, we do not trade ratio spreads at Terry’s Tips.

Back spreads involve selling one option and buying a greater quantity of an option with a more out-of-the-money strike. The options are either both calls or both puts.
A typical back spread using calls might consist of buying 10 at-the-money calls and selling 5 in-the-money calls at a strike low enough to buy the entire back spread at a credit. 
Ideally, you collect a credit when you set up a back spread.  Since the option you are buying is less expensive than the one you are buying, it is always possible to set up the back spread at a credit.  You would like as many extra long positions as possible to maximize your gains if the underlying makes a big move in the direction you are betting. 
If you are wrong and the underlying moves in the opposite direction that you originally hoped, if you had set up the back spread at a net credit at the beginning, all of your options will expire worthless and you will be able to keep the original credit as pure profit (after paying commissions on the original trades, of course).
Call back spreads work best when the stock price makes a large move up; put back spreads work best when the stock price makes a large move down.
One of the easiest ways to think about a back spread is as a vertical with some extra long options. A call back spread is a bear vertical (typically a short call vertical) plus extra long call options at the higher of the two strikes. A put back spread is a bull vertical (typically a short put vertical) plus extra long put options at the lower of the two strikes.
The purpose of a back spread is to profit on a quick extended move toward, through and beyond the long strike. The purchase of a quantity of more long options is financed by the sale of fewer short options. The danger is that because the short options are usually in the money, they might grow faster than the long out-of-the-money options if the stock price moves more slowly or with less magnitude than expected. This happens even faster as expiration approaches. The long out-of-the-money options may lose value despite a favorable move in the stock price, and that same move in the stock price may increase the value of the short options. This is when the back spread loses value most quickly. This is depicted in the “valley” of the risk profile graphs. The greatest loss in the graph occurs at exactly the strike price of the long options.

There are two reasons that I personally don’t like back spreads.  First, they are negative theta.  That means you lose money on your positions every day that nothing much happens to the underlying strike price. 

Second, and more importantly, the gains you make in the good time periods are inconsequential compared to the large losses you could incur in the other time periods.  If the stock moves in the opposite way you are hoping, you end up making a very small gain (the initial credit you collected when the positions were originally placed).  If the underlying doesn’t move much, your losses could be huge.  On the other hand, in order for you to make large gains when the market moves in the direction you hope it will, the move must be very large before significant gains come about.

Here is the risk profile graph for a back spread on SPY (buying 10 Dec-12 142 calls for $1.55 and selling 6 Dec-12 140 calls for $2.78 when SPY was trading at $142.20 and there were two weeks until expiration):

You have about $1100 at risk (the $1200 maintenance requirement less the $115 credit (after commissions) you collected at the outset.  If the stock falls by more than $2.20 so that all the calls expire worthless, you would gain the $115 credit.  If the stock moves higher by $2, you would lose just about that same amount.  It would have to move $2.20 higher before a gain could be expected on the upside, and every dollar the stock moved higher from there would result in a $400 gain (the number of extra calls you own).

The big problem is that if the stock doesn’t do much of anything, you stand to lose about $1000, a far greater loss than most of the scenarios when a gain could be expected.  In order for you to make $1000 with these positions, the stock would have to go up by $5 in the two-week period.  Of course, that happens once in a great while, but probably less than 10% of the time.  There there is a much greater likelihood of its moving less than $2 in either direction (and a loss would occur at any point within that range).

Bottom line, back spreads might be considered if you have a strong feeling that the underlying stock might move strongly in one direction or another, but I believe that there are other more promising directional strategies such as vertical spreads, calendar or diagonal spreads, or even straddles or strangles that make more sense to me.

Black Swan Insurance

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

This week I wrote an article for Seeking Alpha which describes an option portfolio that bets on VIX moving higher as uncertainty grows over the looming fiscal cliff.  The best part of the deal is that the options will make about a 50% gain even if VIX doesn’t go up a bit over the next three weeks until the options expire.
Please read this important article as it could show you a way to provide extremely good protection against you other investments should the market take a big dive this month.

Black Swan Insurance
Here’s the link:

Black Swan Insurance That Might Pay Off Even If There Is No Crash

This is a very simple strategy that involvBlack Swan Insurance That Might Pay Off Even If There Is No Crashes buying in-the-money Dec-12 13 calls and selling a smaller number of Dec-12 16 calls.  You are setting up a vertical spread for some of the calls and holding several calls uncovered long.  The 13 calls have essentially no time premium in them and the 16 calls have a lot of time premium since they are very close to the money.

The only scenario where these positions lose money is if VIX falls much below 15 when the options expire on December 19.  For its entire history, VIX has traded below 15 on only a few rare occasions, and it always moved higher shortly thereafter.

If VIX does get down close to 15 as expiration nears, additional calls might be sold against the uncovered long calls you own, maybe at the 15 strike..  This would expand the downside break-even range about a half a dollar.

There are a few things that you should know about trading VIX options. Weekly options are not available.  You are restricted to the regular monthly option series.  Even more restricting, calendar spreads and diagonal spreads are not allowed in VIX options because the underlying entity is a derivative rather than an actual stock.  You are pretty much restricted to vertical or back spreads unless you want to post a large maintenance requirement.

In spite of these limitations, VIX options are a lot better than VXX if you want to buy portfolio insurance.  VXX suffers from contango dilution most of the time while VIX fluctuates independent of any such headwinds.

 

Contango, Backwardation, and VXX

Monday, November 26th, 2012

This week we will discuss three investment concepts that you probably never heard of. If you understood them, they might just change your investment returns for the rest of your life.  Surely, it will be worth your time to read about them. 

Contango, Backwardation, and VXX

There seems to be a widespread need for a definition of contango.   I figure that about 99% of investors have no idea of what contango or backwardation are.  That’s a shame, because they are important concepts which can be precisely measured and they strongly influence whether certain investment instruments will move higher (or lower).  Understanding contango and backwardation can seriously improve your chances of making profitable investments.

Contango sounds like it might be some sort of exotic dance that you do against (con) someone, and maybe the definition of backwardation is what your partner does, just the opposite (indeed, it is, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves because we haven’t defined contango as yet). 

If you have an idea (in advance) which way a stock or other investment instrument is headed, you have a real edge in deciding what to do.  Contango can give you that edge.

So here’s the definition of contango – it is simply that the prices of futures are upward sloping over time, (second month more expensive than front month, third month more expensive than second, etc.), Usually, the further out in the future you look, the less certain you are about what will happen, and the more uncertainty there is, the higher the futures prices are.  For this reason, contango is the case about 75 – 90% of the time.

Sometimes, when a market crash has occurred or Greece seems to be on the brink of imploding, the short-term outlook is more uncertain than the longer-term outlook (people expect that things will settle down eventually).  When this happens, backwardation is the case – a downward-sloping curve over time. 

So what’s the big deal about the shape of the price curve?  In itself, it doesn’t mean much, but when it gets involved in the construction of some investment instruments, it does become a big deal.

All about VXX

One of the most frequent times that contango appears in the financial press is when VXX is discussed. VXX is an ETN (Exchange Traded Note) which trades very much like any stock.  You can buy (or sell) shares in it, just like you can IBM.  You can also buy or sell options using VXX as the underlying (that’s why it important at Terry’s Tips). 
VXX was created by Barclay’s on January 29, 2009 and it will be closed out with a cash settlement on January 30, 2019 (so we have a few years remaining to play with it).

VXX is an equity that people purchase as protection against a market crash.  It is based on the short-term futures of VIX, the so-called “fear index” which is a measure of the implied volatility of options on SPY, the tracking stock for the S&P 500.  When the market crashes, VIX usually soars, the futures for VIX move higher as well, pushing up the price of VXX.

In August of 2011 when the market (SPY) fell by 10%, VXX rose from $21 to $42, a 100% gain.  Backwardation set in and VXX remained above $40 for several months.  VXX had performed exactly as it was intended to.  Pundits have argued that a $10,000 investment in VXX protects a $100,000 portfolio of stocks against loss in case of a market crash.  No wonder it is so popular.  Investors buy about $3 billion worth of VXX every month as crash protection against their other investments in stocks or mutual funds.

There is only one small bad thing about VXX.  Over the long term, it is just about the worst stock you could ever buy.  Check out its graph since it was first created in January of 2009.

 

Have you ever seen such a dog?  (Maybe you bought stock in one or two of these, but I suspect no matter how bad they were, they couldn’t match VXX’s performance). On two occasions (November 9, 2010 and October 5, 2012) they had to make 1 – 4 reverse splits to make the stock have a reasonable value.  It never really traded at $2000 as the graph suggests, but two reverse splits will make it seem that way.
VXX is designed to mimic a 30 day futures contract on the VIX spot index (note: the VIX “spot” index is not directly tradable, so short term futures are the nearest proxy). Every day, Barclays VXX “sells” 1/30th of its assets in front month VIX futures contracts and buys second month contracts which are almost always more costly. This is where contango becomes important.
 It’s the old story of “buy high” and “sell low” that so many of us have  done with their stock investments, but Barclays does it every day (don’t feel sorry for them – they are selling VXX, not buying it, and they are making a fortune every month).
There are two other reasons besides contango that VXX is destined to move lower over time. First, when the value of an instrument is based on changes in the value of another measure, a mathematical glitch always occurs.  When VIX is at 20 and increases by 10%, it goes up by 2, and the tracking instrument (VXX) is likely to move by about that percentage in the same direction. If the next day, VIX falls by 10%, it goes down by 2.20 (10% of 22).  At the end of the two-day period, VXX will end up $.20 lower than where it started.

This is the same thing that happens if you lose 50% of the value of a stock investment.  The stock has to go up by 100% for you to get your money back.  In the day-by-day adjusting of the value of VXX based on changes in VIX, the value of VXX gets pushed lower by a tiny amount every day because of the mathematical adjustment mechanism.

A third reason that VXX gets lower in the long run is that Barclay’s charges a 0.89% fee each year to maintain the ETN. 

In summary, because of the predominant condition of contango as well as the way VXX is constructed, it is destined to go down consistently every month.  Coming soon, we will discuss option strategies that can prosper from this phenomenon.

A Timely Test of the Ultimate Hedge Against a Market Crash

Monday, November 12th, 2012

A week ago I gave you details on how to use stock options to create the perfect hedge against a market crash.  Last Monday, a mini-crash took place.  It was the worst day for the market all year. While the market (SPY) fell 2.3%, VXX rose 7.6%.  The Crash Control portfolio I set up as a hedge against a crash gained 18%, and is poised to gain at an accelerated rate if the market continues to fall. 

The market totally vindicated my analysis.

First, the high inverse correlation between VXX and the market came true, and the options strategy we set up using VXX as the underlying had a high correlation with the price of VXX.  So when the market tanked, the Crash Control portfolio prospered.

The great thing about this market-hedge options portfolio is that it is designed to make a small profit even if the market doesn’t crash.  It’s like buying insurance and getting a settlement even though the bad event that you bought insurance for didn’t actually happen.

A Timely Test of the Ultimate Hedge Against a Market Crash

The link to the follow-up on the options market hedge strategy is:

A Timely Test of the Ultimate Hedge Against a Market Crash

I suspect you will find this market-crash options strategy is so complex that you would be happier just subscribing to Terry’s Tips, sign up for Auto-Trade, and have thinkorswim execute the trades for you in your account.

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I have been trading the equity markets with many different strategies for over 40 years. Terry Allen's strategies have been the most consistent money makers for me. I used them during the 2008 melt-down, to earn over 50% annualized return, while all my neighbors were crying about their losses.

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