This week we will continue our discussion of a popular option spread – the calendar spread which is also called a time spread or horizontal spread. We will check out the feasibility of buying spreads at different strike prices in an effort to reduce risk.
Calendar Spreads Tweak #1
First, let’s look at a typical calendar spread on Facebook (FB). Last Friday, when FB was trading about $124.20, we bought 5-month-out 20Jan17 calls and sold one-month-out 30Sep16 calls. The spread would cost $5.43 ($543), and this is what the risk profile graph looked like:
Note that the break-even range extends from about $3 on the downside to $5 on the upside, a range of $8. (The loss or gain when the short calls expire on September 30 is indicated in the column on the right titled “P/L Day.”) The maximum gain is precisely at the $125 price, and it is about $150 which would result in a nice 27% gain for the month.
Next, I tested whether I could expand the break-even range by adding the same calendar spread at the 120 and 130 strike prices (the 20Jan17 series only offers strikes at $5 increments, unlike the weekly series). The 120 spread would cost $464 and the 130 spread would be $483, so buying all three spreads would involve an investment of about $1500. Here is what the risk profile graph looks like for the three spreads:
Note that the break-even range is almost exactly the same with the three spreads. The maximum gain is also about $150, but with three spreads, it would mean a 10% gain rather than a 27% one because you would have about $1500 invested rather than $543. Clearly, adding calendar spreads at strikes $5 above and below the current stock price is not the way to go – about triple the investment, the same expected maximum gain, and about the same break-even range.
Presumably, you are trading calendars on a stock you believe is headed higher. You might choose to buy an at-the-money calendar and a second one at a higher strike. If you do this, your investment is about $1000 and this is the risk profile graph:
The break-even range is once again about $8 from the lowest point to the highest, but it extends just over a dollar on the downside and $7 on the upside. If you are bullish on the stock, this seems to be a better way to go. The maximum gain is about $150 once again, and this results in a 15% gain for the month. The best thing about this choice of two spreads is that the maximum gain can be achieved across a 5-point range rather than being available at only one precise price point.
Another strategy might be to buy the 125 calendar spread, and then wait to see which way the stock moves, and then buy another calendar in that direction. As we have seen, the cost of an at-the-money calendar is not much greater than the same calendar which is $5 away from the money. The big risk with this strategy is that the stock might whipsaw. For example, it might fall $3 which might prompt you to buy a 120 calendar, and then shoot higher, going up to $128 which might cause you to add a new spread at the 130 strike.
As usual, there are no easy ways to make sure gains in this world. The best bet seems to be to take a position that the stock is headed in one particular direction (usually up unless you are trading on some ETP that is destined to go down, like VXX), and combine an at-the-money spread with one at a higher strike price. Most months you should be making a significant gain if your stock behaves as you expect, and that gain can materialize over a nice range of possible prices.