After bottoming out in October, the equities market bounced back with an impressive march higher. But faster than you can say “Happy birthday, bull market,” government shutdowns and other items loom in the horizon.
So, if you’re like most U.S. investors, you’ve probably got quite a few stocks in your portfolio that are now trading below freshly tagged multi-year highs. Since previous price peaks can act as areas of technical resistance, it’s only natural to be concerned about a forthcoming period of consolidation. Or, to be brutally honest — stagnation.
Fortunately, there’s a simple option strategy any investor can use to generate immediate income on his equity investments — even during those frustrating times when the market is grinding sideways.
A covered call is an option that you sell (or write) on a stock that you’re holding in your portfolio. By selling to open one call option, you’re accepting the obligation to deliver 100 shares of the underlying equity at the strike price of the option, should the stock price surpass the strike price, prior to the contract’s expiration date (in other words, should the option go “in the money”).
To build your cash-collecting call trade, take a look at a price chart of the security in question. You’ll need to pinpoint where you expect the shares to find resistance, because the strike price of your sold call(s) should generally correlate with this price zone.
In the best-case scenario, you want your sold call to expire worthless — or “out of the money” — so that you can (a) retain the entire premium received as pure profit; and (b) avoid taking any further action to close out the trade, which would rack up additional brokerage costs.
On the other hand, a call that’s too far away from the stock’s current price will barely be worth the effort. To see what we mean, simply check out the option chain of any given stock. As your eye travels over higher and higher strike prices, you’ll see the premiums begin to vanish.
Luckily, in the age of 1-point and 2.50-point strike prices for many popular stocks, it’s much easier than ever before to find a happy medium for your focus strike.
Once you’ve selected your ideal strike price, you’ll want to narrow your focus to shorter-term options. The comparatively richer option premiums of longer-dated contracts may be tempting, but trust us — the covered call strategy is best conducted over a relatively narrow window of time.
Put simply: The shorter the time frame of your trade, the less opportunity the shares have to rally above your focus strike. Plus, the effects of time decay are more pronounced on options that are closer to expiration — and in an option-writing strategy, time decay is your best friend. As the contracts shed their time value at an accelerating pace, they’ll naturally decline in price. This means the calls will be cheaper to buy back in the event that you should decide to liquidate your position ahead of expiration.
Investors should also be aware of the stock’s historical volatility, particularly as it relates to the option’s implied volatility. Equities with relatively low historical volatility (that is, slow-moving stocks) are attractive covered call candidates, because it suggests a relatively low probability of drastic price swings that could put you at risk of assignment. When implied volatility is inflated relative to historical volatility, it points to prime premium-selling opportunities.
On that same note, though, don’t forget to check the corporate calendar. A looming event, such as an earnings report or product launch, could be the underlying cause of inflated volatility. These events can often translate to significant price changes in the underlying stock, which raises the risk profile of a sold call position.
So, having selected an appropriate strike price and expiration month, your next responsibility is to place the trade with your broker. In order to make sure this is a covered call, be sure you sell no more than one option contract for every 100 shares of stock you own. Pocket your premium, and then sit back and wait for the options to expire worthless, as you predicted.
However, following a two-year rise in the broader equities market, it’s quite possible that you’re holding a few stocks in your portfolio that have delivered healthy returns. If you’re satisfied with the gains you’ve collected and are ready to move your investing capital elsewhere, writing covered calls is a savvy way to “get paid to get out.”
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