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Essential Options Trading Guide
Options trading may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s easy to understand if you know a few key points. Investor portfolios are usually constructed with several asset classes. These may be stocks, bonds, ETFs, and even mutual funds. Options are another asset class, and when used correctly, they offer many advantages that trading stocks and ETFs alone cannot.
- An option is a contract giving the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy (in the case of a call) or sell (in the case of a put) the underlying asset at a specific price on or before a certain date.
- People use options for income, to speculate, and to hedge risk.
- Options are known as derivatives because they derive their value from an underlying asset.
- A stock option contract typically represents 100 shares of the underlying stock, but options may be written on any sort of underlying asset from bonds to currencies to commodities.
What Are Options?
Options are contracts that give the bearer the right, but not the obligation, to either buy or sell an amount of some underlying asset at a pre-determined price at or before the contract expires. Options can be purchased like most other asset classes with brokerage investment accounts.
Options are powerful because they can enhance an individual’s portfolio. They do this through added income, protection, and even leverage. Depending on the situation, there is usually an option scenario appropriate for an investor’s goal. A popular example would be using options as an effective hedge against a declining stock market to limit downside losses. Options can also be used to generate recurring income. Additionally, they are often used for speculative purposes such as wagering on the direction of a stock.
There is no free lunch with stocks and bonds. Options are no different. Options trading involves certain risks that the investor must be aware of before making a trade. This is why, when trading options with a broker, you usually see a disclaimer similar to the following:
Options involve risks and are not suitable for everyone. Options trading can be speculative in nature and carry substantial risk of loss.
Options as Derivatives
Options belong to the larger group of securities known as derivatives. A derivative’s price is dependent on or derived from the price of something else. As an example, wine is a derivative of grapes ketchup is a derivative of tomatoes, and a stock option is a derivative of a stock. Options are derivatives of financial securities—their value depends on the price of some other asset. Examples of derivatives include calls, puts, futures, forwards, swaps, and mortgage-backed securities, among others.
Call and Put Options
Options are a type of derivative security. An option is a derivative because its price is intrinsically linked to the price of something else. If you buy an options contract, it grants you the right, but not the obligation to buy or sell an underlying asset at a set price on or before a certain date.
A call option gives the holder the right to buy a stock and a put option gives the holder the right to sell a stock. Think of a call option as a down-payment for a future purpose.
Call Option Example
A potential homeowner sees a new development going up. That person may want the right to purchase a home in the future, but will only want to exercise that right once certain developments around the area are built.
The potential home buyer would benefit from the option of buying or not. Imagine they can buy a call option from the developer to buy the home at say $400,000 at any point in the next three years. Well, they can—you know it as a non-refundable deposit. Naturally, the developer wouldn’t grant such an option for free. The potential home buyer needs to contribute a down-payment to lock in that right.
With respect to an option, this cost is known as the premium. It is the price of the option contract. In our home example, the deposit might be $20,000 that the buyer pays the developer. Let’s say two years have passed, and now the developments are built and zoning has been approved. The home buyer exercises the option and buys the home for $400,000 because that is the contract purchased.
The market value of that home may have doubled to $800,000. But because the down payment locked in a pre-determined price, the buyer pays $400,000. Now, in an alternate scenario, say the zoning approval doesn’t come through until year four. This is one year past the expiration of this option. Now the home buyer must pay the market price because the contract has expired. In either case, the developer keeps the original $20,000 collected.
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Call Option Basics
Put Option Example
Now, think of a put option as an insurance policy. If you own your home, you are likely familiar with purchasing homeowner’s insurance. A homeowner buys a homeowner’s policy to protect their home from damage. They pay an amount called the premium, for some amount of time, let’s say a year. The policy has a face value and gives the insurance holder protection in the event the home is damaged.
What if, instead of a home, your asset was a stock or index investment? Similarly, if an investor wants insurance on his/her S&P 500 index portfolio, they can purchase put options. An investor may fear that a bear market is near and may be unwilling to lose more than 10% of their long position in the S&P 500 index. If the S&P 500 is currently trading at $2500, he/she can purchase a put option giving the right to sell the index at $2250, for example, at any point in the next two years.
If in six months the market crashes by 20% (500 points on the index), he or she has made 250 points by being able to sell the index at $2250 when it is trading at $2000—a combined loss of just 10%. In fact, even if the market drops to zero, the loss would only be 10% if this put option is held. Again, purchasing the option will carry a cost (the premium), and if the market doesn’t drop during that period, the maximum loss on the option is just the premium spent.
Put Option Basics
Buying, Selling Calls/Puts
There are four things you can do with options:
- Buy calls
- Sell calls
- Buy puts
- Sell puts
Buying stock gives you a long position. Buying a call option gives you a potential long position in the underlying stock. Short-selling a stock gives you a short position. Selling a naked or uncovered call gives you a potential short position in the underlying stock.
Buying a put option gives you a potential short position in the underlying stock. Selling a naked, or unmarried, put gives you a potential long position in the underlying stock. Keeping these four scenarios straight is crucial.
People who buy options are called holders and those who sell options are called writers of options. Here is the important distinction between holders and writers:
- Call holders and put holders (buyers) are not obligated to buy or sell. They have the choice to exercise their rights. This limits the risk of buyers of options to only the premium spent.
- Call writers and put writers (sellers), however, are obligated to buy or sell if the option expires in-the-money (more on that below). This means that a seller may be required to make good on a promise to buy or sell. It also implies that option sellers have exposure to more, and in some cases, unlimited, risks. This means writers can lose much more than the price of the options premium.
Why Use Options
Speculation is a wager on future price direction. A speculator might think the price of a stock will go up, perhaps based on fundamental analysis or technical analysis. A speculator might buy the stock or buy a call option on the stock. Speculating with a call option—instead of buying the stock outright—is attractive to some traders since options provide leverage. An out-of-the-money call option may only cost a few dollars or even cents compared to the full price of a $100 stock.
Options were really invented for hedging purposes. Hedging with options is meant to reduce risk at a reasonable cost. Here, we can think of using options like an insurance policy. Just as you insure your house or car, options can be used to insure your investments against a downturn.
Imagine that you want to buy technology stocks. But you also want to limit losses. By using put options, you could limit your downside risk and enjoy all the upside in a cost-effective way. For short sellers, call options can be used to limit losses if wrong—especially during a short squeeze.
How Options Work
In terms of valuing option contracts, it is essentially all about determining the probabilities of future price events. The more likely something is to occur, the more expensive an option would be that profits from that event. For instance, a call value goes up as the stock (underlying) goes up. This is the key to understanding the relative value of options.
The less time there is until expiry, the less value an option will have. This is because the chances of a price move in the underlying stock diminish as we draw closer to expiry. This is why an option is a wasting asset. If you buy a one-month option that is out of the money, and the stock doesn’t move, the option becomes less valuable with each passing day. Since time is a component to the price of an option, a one-month option is going to be less valuable than a three-month option. This is because with more time available, the probability of a price move in your favor increases, and vice versa.
Accordingly, the same option strike that expires in a year will cost more than the same strike for one month. This wasting feature of options is a result of time decay. The same option will be worth less tomorrow than it is today if the price of the stock doesn’t move.
Volatility also increases the price of an option. This is because uncertainty pushes the odds of an outcome higher. If the volatility of the underlying asset increases, larger price swings increase the possibilities of substantial moves both up and down. Greater price swings will increase the chances of an event occurring. Therefore, the greater the volatility, the greater the price of the option. Options trading and volatility are intrinsically linked to each other in this way.
On most U.S. exchanges, a stock option contract is the option to buy or sell 100 shares; that’s why you must multiply the contract premium by 100 to get the total amount you’ll have to spend to buy the call.
|What happened to our option investment|
|May 1||May 21||Expiry Date|
The majority of the time, holders choose to take their profits by trading out (closing out) their position. This means that option holders sell their options in the market, and writers buy their positions back to close. Only about 10% of options are exercised, 60% are traded (closed) out, and 30% expire worthlessly.
Fluctuations in option prices can be explained by intrinsic value and extrinsic value, which is also known as time value. An option’s premium is the combination of its intrinsic value and time value. Intrinsic value is the in-the-money amount of an options contract, which, for a call option, is the amount above the strike price that the stock is trading. Time value represents the added value an investor has to pay for an option above the intrinsic value. This is the extrinsic value or time value. So, the price of the option in our example can be thought of as the following:
|Premium =||Intrinsic Value +||Time Value|
In real life, options almost always trade at some level above their intrinsic value, because the probability of an event occurring is never absolutely zero, even if it is highly unlikely.
Types of Options
American and European Options
American options can be exercised at any time between the date of purchase and the expiration date. European options are different from American options in that they can only be exercised at the end of their lives on their expiration date. The distinction between American and European options has nothing to do with geography, only with early exercise. Many options on stock indexes are of the European type. Because the right to exercise early has some value, an American option typically carries a higher premium than an otherwise identical European option. This is because the early exercise feature is desirable and commands a premium.
There are also exotic options, which are exotic because there might be a variation on the payoff profiles from the plain vanilla options. Or they can become totally different products all together with “optionality” embedded in them. For example, binary options have a simple payoff structure that is determined if the payoff event happens regardless of the degree. Other types of exotic options include knock-out, knock-in, barrier options, lookback options, Asian options, and Bermudan options. Again, exotic options are typically for professional derivatives traders.
Options Expiration & Liquidity
Options can also be categorized by their duration. Short-term options are those that expire generally within a year. Long-term options with expirations greater than a year are classified as long-term equity anticipation securities or LEAPs. LEAPS are identical to regular options, they just have longer durations.
Options can also be distinguished by when their expiration date falls. Sets of options now expire weekly on each Friday, at the end of the month, or even on a daily basis. Index and ETF options also sometimes offer quarterly expiries.
Reading Options Tables
More and more traders are finding option data through online sources. (For related reading, see “Best Online Stock Brokers for Options Trading 2020”) While each source has its own format for presenting the data, the key components generally include the following variables:
- Volume (VLM) simply tells you how many contracts of a particular option were traded during the latest session.
- The “bid” price is the latest price level at which a market participant wishes to buy a particular option.
- The “ask” price is the latest price offered by a market participant to sell a particular option.
- Implied Bid Volatility (IMPL BID VOL) can be thought of as the future uncertainty of price direction and speed. This value is calculated by an option-pricing model such as the Black-Scholes model and represents the level of expected future volatility based on the current price of the option.
- Open Interest (OPTN OP) number indicates the total number of contracts of a particular option that have been opened. Open interest decreases as open trades are closed.
- Delta can be thought of as a probability. For instance, a 30-delta option has roughly a 30% chance of expiring in-the-money.
- Gamma (GMM) is the speed the option is moving in or out-of-the-money. Gamma can also be thought of as the movement of the delta.
- Vega is a Greek value that indicates the amount by which the price of the option would be expected to change based on a one-point change in implied volatility.
- Theta is the Greek value that indicates how much value an option will lose with the passage of one day’s time.
- The “strike price” is the price at which the buyer of the option can buy or sell the underlying security if he/she chooses to exercise the option.
Buying at the bid and selling at the ask is how market makers make their living.
The simplest options position is a long call (or put) by itself. This position profits if the price of the underlying rises (falls), and your downside is limited to loss of the option premium spent. If you simultaneously buy a call and put option with the same strike and expiration, you’ve created a straddle.
This position pays off if the underlying price rises or falls dramatically; however, if the price remains relatively stable, you lose premium on both the call and the put. You would enter this strategy if you expect a large move in the stock but are not sure which direction.
Basically, you need the stock to have a move outside of a range. A similar strategy betting on an outsized move in the securities when you expect high volatility (uncertainty) is to buy a call and buy a put with different strikes and the same expiration—known as a strangle. A strangle requires larger price moves in either direction to profit but is also less expensive than a straddle. On the other hand, being short either a straddle or a strangle (selling both options) would profit from a market that doesn’t move much.
Below is an explanation of straddles from my Options for Beginners course:
And here’s a description of strangles:
How to use Straddle Strategies
Spreads & Combinations
Spreads use two or more options positions of the same class. They combine having a market opinion (speculation) with limiting losses (hedging). Spreads often limit potential upside as well. Yet these strategies can still be desirable since they usually cost less when compared to a single options leg. Vertical spreads involve selling one option to buy another. Generally, the second option is the same type and same expiration, but a different strike.
A bull call spread, or bull call vertical spread, is created by buying a call and simultaneously selling another call with a higher strike price and the same expiration. The spread is profitable if the underlying asset increases in price, but the upside is limited due to the short call strike. The benefit, however, is that selling the higher strike call reduces the cost of buying the lower one. Similarly, a bear put spread, or bear put vertical spread, involves buying a put and selling a second put with a lower strike and the same expiration. If you buy and sell options with different expirations, it is known as a calendar spread or time spread.
Combinations are trades constructed with both a call and a put. There is a special type of combination known as a “synthetic.” The point of a synthetic is to create an options position that behaves like an underlying asset, but without actually controlling the asset. Why not just buy the stock? Maybe some legal or regulatory reason restricts you from owning it. But you may be allowed to create a synthetic position using options.
A butterfly consists of options at three strikes, equally spaced apart, where all options are of the same type (either all calls or all puts) and have the same expiration. In a long butterfly, the middle strike option is sold and the outside strikes are bought in a ratio of 1:2:1 (buy one, sell two, buy one).
If this ratio does not hold, it is not a butterfly. The outside strikes are commonly referred to as the wings of the butterfly, and the inside strike as the body. The value of a butterfly can never fall below zero. Closely related to the butterfly is the condor – the difference is that the middle options are not at the same strike price.
Because options prices can be modeled mathematically with a model such as the Black-Scholes, many of the risks associated with options can also be modeled and understood. This particular feature of options actually makes them arguably less risky than other asset classes, or at least allows the risks associated with options to be understood and evaluated. Individual risks have been assigned Greek letter names, and are sometimes referred to simply as “the Greeks.”
Below is a very basic way to begin thinking about the concepts of Greeks:
The Basics of Options Profitability
Options traders can profit by being an option buyer or an option writer. Options allow for potential profit during both volatile times, and when the market is quiet or less volatile. This is possible because the prices of assets like stocks, currencies, and commodities are always moving, and no matter what the market conditions are there is an options strategy that can take advantage of it.
- Options contracts and strategies using them have defined profit and loss—P&L—profiles for understanding how much money you stand to make or lose.
- When you sell an option, the most you can profit is the price of the premium collected, but often there is unlimited downside potential.
- When you purchase an option, your upside can be unlimited and the most you can lose is the cost of the options premium.
- Depending on the options strategy employed, an individual stands to profit from any number of market conditions from bull and bear to sideways markets.
- Options spreads tend to cap both potential profits as well as losses.
Basics of Option Profitability
A call option buyer stands to make a profit if the underlying asset, let’s say a stock, rises above the strike price before expiry. A put option buyer makes a profit if the price falls below the strike price before the expiration. The exact amount of profit depends on the difference between the stock price and the option strike price at expiration or when the option position is closed.
A call option writer stands to make a profit if the underlying stock stays below the strike price. After writing a put option, the trader profits if the price stays above the strike price. An option writer’s profitability is limited to the premium they receive for writing the option (which is the option buyer’s cost). Option writers are also called option sellers.
Option Buying vs. Writing
An option buyer can make a substantial return on investment if the option trade works out. This is because a stock price can move significantly beyond the strike price.
An option writer makes a comparatively smaller return if the option trade is profitable. This is because the writer’s return is limited to the premium, no matter how much the stock moves. So why write options? Because the odds are typically overwhelmingly on the side of the option writer. A study in the late 1990s, by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), found that a little over 75% of all options held to expiration expired worthless.
This study excludes option positions that were closed out or exercised prior to expiration. Even so, for every option contract that was in the money (ITM) at expiration, there were three that were out of the money (OTM) and therefore worthless is a pretty telling statistic.
Evaluating Risk Tolerance
Here’s a simple test to evaluate your risk tolerance in order to determine whether you are better off being an option buyer or an option writer. Let’s say you can buy or write 10 call option contracts, with the price of each call at $0.50. Each contract typically has 100 shares as the underlying asset, so 10 contracts would cost $500 ($0.50 x 100 x 10 contracts).
If you buy 10 call option contracts, you pay $500 and that is the maximum loss that you can incur. However, your potential profit is theoretically limitless. So what’s the catch? The probability of the trade being profitable is not very high. While this probability depends on the implied volatility of the call option and the period of time remaining to expiration, let’s say it 25%.
On the other hand, if you write 10 call option contracts, your maximum profit is the amount of the premium income, or $500, while your loss is theoretically unlimited. However, the odds of the options trade being profitable are very much in your favor, at 75%.
So would you risk $500, knowing that you have a 75% chance of losing your investment and a 25% chance of making a profit? Or would you prefer to make a maximum of $500, knowing that you have a 75% chance of keeping the entire amount or part of it, but have a 25% chance of the trade being a losing one?
The answer to those questions will give you an idea of your risk tolerance and whether you are better off being an option buyer or option writer.
It is important to keep in mind that these are the general statistics that apply to all options, but at certain times it may be more beneficial to be an option writer or a buyer in a specific asset. Applying the right strategy at the right time could alter these odds significantly.
Option Strategies Risk/Reward
While calls and puts can be combined in various permutations to form sophisticated options strategies, let’s evaluate the risk/reward of the four most basic strategies.
Buying a Call
This is the most basic option strategy. It is a relatively low-risk strategy since the maximum loss is restricted to the premium paid to buy the call, while the maximum reward is potentially limitless. Although, as stated earlier, the odds of the trade being very profitable are typically fairly low. “Low risk” assumes that the total cost of the option represents a very small percentage of the trader’s capital. Risking all capital on a single call option would make it a very risky trade because all the money could be lost if the option expires worthless.
Buying a Put
This is another strategy with relatively low risk but the potentially high reward if the trade works out. Buying puts is a viable alternative to the riskier strategy of short selling the underlying asset. Puts can also be bought to hedge downside risk in a portfolio. But because equity indices typically trend higher over time, which means that stocks on average tend to advance more often than they decline, the risk/reward profile of the put buyer is slightly less favorable than that of a call buyer.
Writing a Put
Put writing is a favored strategy of advanced options traders since, in the worst-case scenario, the stock is assigned to the put writer (they have to buy the stock), while the best-case scenario is that the writer retains the full amount of the option premium. The biggest risk of put writing is that the writer may end up paying too much for a stock if it subsequently tanks. The risk/reward profile of put writing is more unfavorable than that of put or call buying since the maximum reward equals the premium received, but the maximum loss is much higher. That said, as discussed before, the probability of being able to make a profit is higher.
Writing a Call
Call writing comes in two forms, covered and naked. Covered call writing is another favorite strategy of intermediate to advanced option traders, and is generally used to generate extra income from a portfolio. It involves writing calls on stocks held within the portfolio. Uncovered or naked call writing is the exclusive province of risk-tolerant, sophisticated options traders, as it has a risk profile similar to that of a short sale in stock. The maximum reward in call writing is equal to the premium received. The biggest risk with a covered call strategy is that the underlying stock will be “called away.” With naked call writing, the maximum loss is theoretically unlimited, just as it is with a short sale.
Often times, traders or investors will combine options using a spread strategy, buying one or more options to sell one or more different options. Spreading will offset the premium paid because the sold option premium will net against the options premium purchased. Moreover, the risk and return profiles of a spread will cap out the potential profit or loss. Spreads can be created to take advantage of nearly any anticipated price action, and can range from the simple to the complex. As with individual options, any spread strategy can be either bought or sold.
Reasons to Trade Options
Investors and traders undertake option trading either to hedge open positions (for example, buying puts to hedge a long position, or buying calls to hedge a short position) or to speculate on likely price movements of an underlying asset.
The biggest benefit of using options is that of leverage. For example, say an investor has $900 to use on a particular trade and desires the most bang-for-the-buck. The investor is bullish in the short term on XYZ Inc. So, assume XYZ is trading at $90. Our investor can buy a maximum of 10 shares of XYZ. However, XYZ also has three-month calls available with a strike price of $95 for a cost $3. Now, instead of buying the shares, the investor buys three call option contracts. Buying three call options will cost $900 (3 contracts x 100 shares x $3).
Shortly before the call options expire, suppose XYZ is trading at $103 and the calls are trading at $8, at which point the investor sells the calls. Here’s how the return on investment stacks up in each case.
- Outright purchase of XYZ shares at $90: Profit = $13 per share x 10 shares = $130 = 14.4% return ($130 / $900).
- Purchase of three $95 call option contracts: Profit = $8 x 100 x 3 contracts = $2,400 minus premium paid of $900 = $1500 = 166.7% return ($1,500 / $900).
Of course, the risk with buying the calls rather than the shares is that if XYZ had not traded above $95 by option expiration, the calls would have expired worthless and all $900 would be lost. In fact, XYZ had to trade at $98 ($95 strike price + $3 premium paid), or about 9% higher from its price when the calls were purchased, for the trade just to breakeven. When the broker’s cost to place the trade is also added to the equation, to be profitable, the stock would need to trade even higher.
These scenarios assume that the trader held till expiration. That is not required with American options. At any time before expiry, the trader could have sold the option to lock in a profit. Or, if it looked the stock was not going to move above the strike price, they could sell the option for its remaining time value in order to reduce the loss. For example, the trader paid $3 for the options, but as time passes, if the stock price remains below the strike price, those options may drop to $1. The trader could sell the three contracts for $1, receiving $300 of the original $900 back and avoiding a total loss.
The investor could also choose to exercise the call options rather than selling them to book profits/losses, but exercising the calls would require the investor to come up with a substantial sum of money to buy the number of shares their contracts represent. In the case above, that would require buying 300 shares at $95.
Selecting the Right Option
Here are some broad guidelines that should help you decide which types of options to trade.
Bullish or bearish
Are you bullish or bearish on the stock, sector, or the broad market that you wish to trade? If so, are you rampantly, moderately, or just a tad bullish/bearish? Making this determination will help you decide which option strategy to use, what strike price to use and what expiration to go for. Let’s say you are rampantly bullish on hypothetical stock ZYX, a technology stock that is trading at $46.
Is the market calm or quite volatile? How about Stock ZYX? If the implied volatility for ZYX is not very high (say 20%), then it may be a good idea to buy calls on the stock, since such calls could be relatively cheap.
Strike Price and Expiration
As you are rampantly bullish on ZYX, you should be comfortable with buying out of the money calls. Assume you do not want to spend more than $0.50 per call option, and have a choice of going for two-month calls with a strike price of $49 available for $0.50, or three-month calls with a strike price of $50 available for $0.47. You decide to go with the latter since you believe the slightly higher strike price is more than offset by the extra month to expiration.
What if you were only slightly bullish on ZYX, and its implied volatility of 45% was three times that of the overall market? In this case, you could consider writing near-term puts to capture premium income, rather than buying calls as in the earlier instance.
Option Trading Tips
As an option buyer, your objective should be to purchase options with the longest possible expiration, in order to give your trade time to work out. Conversely, when you are writing options, go for the shortest possible expiration in order to limit your liability.
Trying to balance the point above, when buying options, purchasing the cheapest possible ones may improve your chances of a profitable trade. Implied volatility of such cheap options is likely to be quite low, and while this suggests that the odds of a successful trade are minimal, it is possible that implied volatility and hence the option are underpriced. So, if the trade does work out, the potential profit can be huge. Buying options with a lower level of implied volatility may be preferable to buying those with a very high level of implied volatility, because of the risk of a higher loss (higher premium paid) if the trade does not work out.
There is a trade-off between strike prices and options expirations, as the earlier example demonstrated. An analysis of support and resistance levels, as well as key upcoming events (such as an earnings release), is useful in determining which strike price and expiration to use.
Understand the sector to which the stock belongs. For example, biotech stocks often trade with binary outcomes when clinical trial results of a major drug are announced. Deeply out of the money calls or puts can be purchased to trade on these outcomes, depending on whether one is bullish or bearish on the stock. Obviously, it would be extremely risky to write calls or puts on biotech stocks around such events, unless the level of implied volatility is so high that the premium income earned compensates for this risk. By the same token, it makes little sense to buy deeply out of the money calls or puts on low-volatility sectors like utilities and telecoms.
Use options to trade one-off events such as corporate restructurings and spin-offs, and recurring events like earnings releases. Stocks can exhibit very volatile behavior around such events, giving the savvy options trader an opportunity to cash in. For instance, buying cheap out of the money calls prior to the earnings report on a stock that has been in a pronounced slump, can be a profitable strategy if it manages to beat lowered expectations and subsequently surges.
The Bottom Line
Investors with a lower risk appetite should stick to basic strategies like call or put buying, while more advanced strategies like put writing and call writing should only be used by sophisticated investors with adequate risk tolerance. As option strategies can be tailored to match one’s unique risk tolerance and return requirement, they provide many paths to profitability.
What Type of Trader Are You?
You know that the stock market provides an opportunity to make money, but you aren’t quite sure how investors know when to buy and sell. Or maybe you’ve heard terms like “noise trader” or “arbitrage trader,” and you want to know more about them. Either way, an overview of some of the most common types of trading strategies will provide insight into the trading terminology and strategies used by different investors attempting to build wealth in the markets.
Understanding these strategies can help you find one that best matches your personality.
Fundamental trading is a method by which a trader focuses on company-specific events to determine which stock to buy and when to buy it. To put this in perspective, consider a hypothetical trip to a shopping mall. In the mall, a fundamental analyst would go to each store, study the product that was being sold, and then decide whether to buy it or not.
While trading on fundamentals can be viewed from both short-term and long-term perspectives, fundamental analysis is often more closely associated with the buy-and-hold strategy of investing than it is with short-term trading. With that noted, the definition of “short term” is an important consideration.
Some trading strategies are based on split-second decisions and others that are based on trends or factors that play out over the course of a day, the fundamentals may not change for months or even years. At the shorter end of the spectrum, for example, the release of a firm’s quarterly financial statements can provide insight into whether or not the firm is improving its financial health or position in the marketplace. Changes (or lack of changes) can serve as signals to trade. Of course, a press release announcing bad news could change the fundamentals in an instant.
Fundamental trading has a real appeal to many investors because it is based on logic and facts. Of course, unearthing and interpreting those facts is a time consuming, research-intensive effort. Another challenge comes in the form of the financial markets themselves, which do not always behave in logical ways (especially in the short term) despite reams of data suggesting that they should.
Noise trading refers to a style of investing in which decisions to buy and sell are made without the use of fundamental data specific to the company that issued the securities that are being bought or sold. Noise traders generally make short-term trades to profit from various economic trends.
While technical analysis of statistics generated by market activity, such as past prices and volume, provides some insight into patterns that can suggest future market activity and direction, noise traders often have poor timing and over-react to both good and bad news.
Even though that description may not sound very flattering, in reality, most people are considered to be noise traders, as very few make investment decisions solely using fundamental analysis. To put this style in perspective, let’s revisit our earlier analogy about a trip to the mall. Unlike the fundamental analyst, a technical analyst would sit on a bench in the mall and watch people go into the stores. Disregarding the intrinsic value of the products in the store, the technical analyst’s decision would be based on the patterns or activity of people going into each store.
Technical analysis, like other strategies that involve data analysis, can be time-consuming and may require quick reactions to take advantage of perceived opportunities.
Sentiment traders seek to identify and participate in trends. They do not attempt to outguess the market by finding great securities. Instead, they attempt to identify securities that are moving with the momentum of the market.
Sentiment traders combine aspects of both fundamental and technical analysis in an effort to identify and participate in market movements. There are a variety of sentiment trading approaches, including swing traders that seek to catch momentous price movements while avoiding idle times and contrarian traders that try to use indicators of excessive positive or negative sentiment as indications of a potential reversal in sentiment.
Trading costs, market volatility, and difficulty in accurately predicting market sentiment are some of the key challenges facing sentiment traders. While professional traders have more experience, leverage, information, and lower commissions, their trading strategies are restricted by the specific securities they are trading. For this reason, large financial institutions and professional traders may choose to trade currencies or other financial instruments rather than stocks.
Success as a sentiment trader often requires early mornings studying trends and identifying potential securities for purchase or sale. Analysis of this nature can be time-consuming, and trading strategies may require quick timing.
Market timers try to guess which direction (up or down) security will move to profit from that movement. They generally look to technical indicators or economic data to predict the direction of the movement. Some investors, especially academics, do not believe that it is possible to predict the direction of market movements accurately. Others, particularly those engaged in short-term trading, take the exact opposite stance.
The long-term track record of market timers suggests that achieving success is a challenge. Most investors will find that they are not able to dedicate enough time to this endeavor to achieve a reliable level of success. For these investors, long-term strategies are often more satisfying and lucrative.
Of course, day traders would argue that market timing could be a profitable strategy, such as when trading technology shares in a bull market. Investors who purchased and flipped real estate during a market boom would also argue that market timing could be profitable. Just keep in mind that it’s not always easy to tell when to get out of the market, as investors that got burned in the tech-wreck crash and real estate bust can attest. While short-term profits are certainly possible, over the long term, there is little evidence to suggest that this strategy has merit.
Arbitrage traders simultaneously purchase and sell assets in an effort to profit from price differences of identical or similar financial instruments, on different markets or in different forms. Arbitrage exists as a result of market inefficiencies—it provides a mechanism to ensure prices do not deviate substantially from fair value for long periods of time. This type of trading is often associated with hedge funds, and it can be a fairly easy way to make money when it works.
For example, if a security trades on multiple exchanges and is less expensive on one exchange, it can be bought on the first exchange at the lower price and sold on the other exchange at the higher price.
It sounds simple enough, but given the advancement in technology, it has become extremely difficult to profit from mispricing in the market. Many traders have computerized trading systems set to monitor fluctuations in similar financial instruments. Any inefficient pricing setups are usually acted upon quickly, and the opportunity is often eliminated in a matter of seconds.
The Bottom Line
So maybe none of these trading strategies seem to be a good fit for your personality? There are a host of other strategies to consider, and with just a little research, you may be able to find a strategy that is a perfect fit for you. Or perhaps, proximity to your investment goals rather than company-specific factors or market indicators is the primary factor driving your buy/sell decisions. That’s okay.
Some people engage in trading to try and achieve their financial goals. Others just buy, hold, and wait for time to pass and asset values to rise. Either way, knowing your personal style and strategy will help give you the peace of mind and fortitude to remain comfortable with your chosen path when market volatility or hot trends make headlines and cause investors to question their investment decisions.
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