The passing of Memorial Day, with its historical weight, is also a time to look forward — to the light and carefree days of summer.
While some have used this turning of the season to clear “sell in May and go away,” I think it’s a good time to brush up on your options knowledge. Yeah, I know, I’m a wet blanket at the beach.
While I wouldn’t chop off your arm for reaching for the latest Jack Reacher novel, nor object to the suggestion of Grisham’s courtroom intrigue, or deny the deal-making put forth by Trump as someone who writes about and actively trades options I belong to the camp that believes your time could be better spent learning how options, when properly utilized, can both boost returns and reduce risk.
Instead, impress your neighbors, annoy your family and study yourself into a well-deserved siesta with some of the best books and resources on options. It may lack the drama of reading about Greece and central banks interventionist policies, but I promise the long-term benefit is better.
I’ll tee up a few topics and offer some reading suggestions for those that want to delve deeper and don’t mind being spotted on the beach thumbing or swiping through an options book or tablet.
As with any tool, before using options, make sure you are familiar with the basic rules and guidelines that govern their behavior.
For starters, make sure you know the contract specifications of the product you are trading. Items such as margin requirements (pay special attention to leverage), the exercise and settlement procedures, and what strikes and expirations are currently listed for trading are important to know.
For example, you should be aware that index options, such as for those on the S&P 500 or SPX, can only be exercised on expiration day and are cash settled; also note that SPX options actually cease trading on the third Thursday of the month, a day earlier than equity options, though they officially expire on the third Saturday.
By contrast, equity options, including those on the Spyder Trust (SPY), can be exercised at any time during the life of the contract. This is especially important when trading options on stocks that pay dividends.
A terrific book that covers all the basic concepts and strategies is Options as a Strategic Investment by Lawrence McMillan.
The next level is Option Volatility and Pricing: Advanced Trading Strategies and Techniques by Shelton Natenberg.
Dealing in Dividends
If you own in-the-money calls on Exxon (XOM), make sure you know when the ex-dividend date occurs. You will need to exercise your calls if you want to qualify for the payment. Likewise, if you are short on an in-the-money call on a dividend-paying stock, be prepared for assignment and being short the actual shares the day before it goes ex-dividend.
Most ETFs pay dividends. Some, like the Spyders, payout on a quarterly basis, and for some reason, the ex-dividend date often falls on the Thursday prior to a quarterly expiration. Meaning many people have failed to exercise an ITM call and lose out on the dividend while others are unwittingly assigned puts and forced to pay.
Others, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIA) make monthly distributions. The point is, knowing the basic rules by which the various vehicles operate will help you avoid surprises such as an early assignment on an in-the-money call.
Options traders, like other professionals, love to use industry jargon. Talking the lingo serves several purposes: It connotes a high level of knowledge and expertise in one’s specific field, it accurately conveys complex concepts in a concise manner, and it just sounds so cool to say things like, “I’m long vol up the ying-yang and bleeding theta,” which basically means one owns options that are suffering from time decay.
The downside of lingo is that sometimes it’s used to purposely conceal the true level of understanding, or it’s simply a means for the speaker to bolster his self-esteem and get the upper hand in a negotiation.
This can be very off-putting to the layperson put in the position of deferring to the expert because he is reluctant to ask a “stupid question.” So, with that in mind, while it’s not important to know all the jargon, it is imperative to understand the concepts so as not to make a needless costly error.
Or that scalping gamma is a fancy way of saying, “I’m trying to buy low volatility and sell higher volatility as the price of the underlying stock moves back and forth within a trading range.”
For deeper dives, there are plenty of good books out there. One of my favorites on harnessing Vega and Gamma is Options Volatility Trading: Strategies for Profiting from Market Swings by Adam Warner.
A great site for finding and analyzing current and historical volatility, along with an amazing amount of free tools, is iVolatlity.com
Some of the best option books I’ve ever read, come to Charles Cottle whom I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a panel with on several occasions. His Options Trading: The Hidden Reality it blew my mind the first time that I had to go back and read it again. I still only understand only half of what he was saying.
That one will both enlighten and put you to sleep. Enjoy the rest of your week!
For some lighter fare, and the best, quickest, and cheapest way to get an introduction to options, click here to access my free ebook: The Ultimate Guide to Trading Options.