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What Option Open Interest Means to the Trader

Option open interest is the number of options contracts open in a specific option series.  Open interest serves as a measure of option liquidity in the underlying option series.  The higher the open interest, the tighter the bid/ask spreads will be so slippage in trades will be lower.  When looking at option series, you want to be sure open interest is at least 5,000 and that the bid/ask spreads are no larger than 20 point apart.

When net buying or selling occurs in the underlying security, the open interest will show this change in the same direction of trader moves.  Increases in call open interest indicate the underlying is advancing up while increases in put open interest indicate more selling pressure.

Here are some rules on how to interpret open interest levels for OTM calls and puts in relation to the stock’s price movement:

  • Growing OI in Calls – confirms strength of stock’s advance
  • Declining OI in Calls – bearish divergence of stock’s advance
  • Flat OI in Calls – slightly bearish as no additional support for stock advance
  • Growing OI in Puts – confirmation of stock’s decline
  • Declining OI in Puts – slightly bullish as no additional support for stock decline
  • Flat OI in Puts – slightly bullish as it is not confirming decline

The growing interest in OTM and ATM options will confirm the stocks continued movement in the same direction.  Basically, this means the traders who have
been right are still buying more options for continuing the same direction.  In comparison, when open interest falls it indicates that traders are leaving the trade so it will likely end the current movement.  Traders are taking their money off the table.

The chart below displays a put/call open interest chart for Salesforce.com (CRM).  Notice how the blue line has been declining from 1.25 down to 0.95.  This indicates the number of puts are declining while the calls are increasing.  The traders are starting to turn more bullish on CRM as its stock price (red line) has increased to $125.

Put/Call open interest chart for CRM - getrichinvestments.com

Click to enlarge

Using Put-Call Ratios in Covered Call Trades

The Put-call ratio is a market sentiment statistic that has been around for quite some time and are followed by option traders.  This stat is based on open interest for each option strike price.  A put-call ratio is the number of put contracts divided by the number of call contracts open.  An increasing ratio is a clear indication that investors are starting to move toward instruments that gain when prices decline rather than when they rise. Since the number of call options is found in the denominator of the ratio, a reduction in the number of traded calls will result in an increase in the value of the ratio. This is significant because the market is indicating that it is starting to dampen its bullish outlook.

You can use these ratios when considering the strike price of the option that you are considering selling.  If there are more open calls than puts, you sell the strike price higher than current stock price as the indicator is showing a bullish sign.  If there are more puts, you should sell the stock price lower than the current stock price as this indicates a potential bearish move.  The ratios are influenced by option speculators who are gamblers, not stupid, very wise and putting up real dollars to back their options.

The put-call ratio is a true indicator of option market sentiment.  You can rely on the put-call ratio continuously because it is very reliable.  Recall that the idea of contrarian sentiment analysis is to measure the pulse of the speculative option crowd, who are wrong more than they are right. We should therefore be looking at the equity-only ratio for a purer measure of the speculative trader. In addition, the critical threshold levels should be dynamic, chosen from the previous 52-week highs and lows of the series, adjusting for trends in the data.

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