All About Debit Spreads - Definition, An Example, and How to Use
A debit spread comes about when you purchase one option and simultaneously sell an option (for the same underlying security, of course), and you have to shell out some cash to buy the spread. When you buy a debit spread, except in unusual circumstances (see below), you only have to come up with the difference between what the option cost that you bought and what you received from selling the other option to someone else.
Debit spreads are purchased to reduce risk. The other side of the coin is that the maximum gain is limited. For example, you might buy a one-month call option at the 70 strike for XYZ stock selling at $70 and pay $3.00. If you just bought the option, your cost would be $300 plus commissions, and that is the maximum you could lose. If the stock goes up to $80, you could sell the option for $10.00 and make a whopping gain of $700. However, it doesn't happen that way very often. Stocks usually don't shoot up by $10 in a single month.
Another choice would be to buy a debit spread, sharing both the risk and potential reward with someone else. You could probably sell a one-month 75 call on the above stock for $1.50. If you did that, you would collect $150 from someone else and cut your total risk in half. (Your debit spread in this case would be called a vertical spread.) If the stock goes up to $75 in one month (a much more likely event that having it go up to $80), you would make a gain of $350 less commissions on an investment of $150. At a $75 ending price, the person who bought the 75 call would lose his entire investment while you made over 200% on yours.
If the stock did manage to go up to $80, your debit spread would still earn you $350, but that is the maximum you could ever gain. Meanwhile, at $80, the person who bought the 75 call would also make $350 on his investment. In the real world, however, your chances of a maximum gain are many times greater than the person who did not buy a debit spread, but only bought a call option instead (and paying the same amount, $150, for his investment as you did for your debit (vertical) spread).
Debit spreads do not have to be only vertical spreads. A calendar spread, also called a time spread or a horizontal spread, is also a debit spread. Diagonal spreads can also be debit spreads. For example, you could buy a call option with many months of remaining life and sell a higher-strike call with only a single month of remaining life. That would be a debit (diagonal) spread. As with most debit spreads, you would only have to come up with the difference between what you paid for the long option and what you received by selling the short option.
There are certain spreads where you have to come up with more cash than the debit spread cost. For example, if you bought a diagonal call spread, buying a 70 strike call with 6 months of remaining life and selling a 65 call with only a single month of remaining life, you might be able to buy the spread at a debit. However, theoretically, you could lose $500 on the spread (if the stock shot higher, above $70, and never returned.
The broker would charge you a $500 maintenance requirement on this spread even though it is highly unlikely that you would ever lose that much. At the end of the first month when the 65 strike call expired, you would have to buy it back for its intrinsic value. Of course, it is unlikely that you would lose much if the stock did shoot up above $70. When you bought back the expiring 65 call, your 70 call with several months of remaining life could probably be sold for a greater amount than it cost you to buy back the 65 call.
In my discussion of spreads, I am assuming that you will never allow an in-the-money call or put to be exercised (i.e., either buying someone's stock at the call price or forcing someone to buy shares of your stock at the put price). The great majority of the time, option traders choose to close out in-the-money options at or near expiration rather than buying or selling shares of stock. Shares of stock are for stock investors. Option investors are different - they prefer to tie up less money (while also trying to make a much higher return on investment than owning stock). Owning stock usually involves waiting patiently for years for it to go up. Option traders are not so patient. They like to see action today and tomorrow, not a decade from now.
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