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.
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.