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Why Size Matters In Options Trading


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  • Why Size Matters In Options Trading

    In my previous article I wrote about how style drifting could kill your trading account. It's a must read in my opinion.

    Today, I want to talk to you about another major blunder new (and even experienced) investors make. Like style drifting, it can do a lot of damage to one's account.

    What am I referring to?

    Investors can put themselves at a terrible disadvantage simply by sizing their positions incorrectly. This usually occurs when their position is too big relative to the risk and account size.

    The key to getting the relative sizing correctly is understanding the risks associated with the position. Let me walk you through a likely trade scenario an investor not familiar with relative sizing might make.

    For example, let's say on 7/31/14 an investor looking to take advantage of a short term move... sold call spreads in UVXY. UVXY is the PROSHARES Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures ETF. It attempts to replicate, net of expenses, twice the return of the S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures index for a single day.

    On 7/31/14, UVXY was trading at $31.70. Let's assume on that day an option investor sold 20 $36/$39 call spreads (expiring 8/8/14)... collecting a premium of $0.57 or a total $1140 (minus fees and commissions).

    Their goal is to get out of the position when the premium of the spread reaches $0.29... in which they would be buying back the spread for a profit of $560.

    Taking profits at 50% of the premium collected is a great level to exit... as outlined in my previous article.

    The max risk on this trade at expiration is $4,860.00 (the value of the spread minus the premium collected multiplied by the number of contracts times the multiplier).

    $3 - $0.57= $2.43 x 20 = $48.60 x the multiplier of 100 shares = $4,860

    However, the option investor is only willing to risk $1,000 on the position on a $50,000 portfolio. They will buy back the spread for a loss if it gets close to $1.05. On 7/31/14, the UVXY exploded... moving up more than 16% and closed at $31.70.

    The investor felt that this was a good time to sell some premium as the UVXY has a history of sharp moves up followed by sharp declines.

    Well, on 8/1/14, UVXY continued to climb higher as fears escalated both geopolitically and within the US equity market. It finished the day up nearly 10% and closed at $34.73. The value of the spread closed at $0.93.

    Although the investor was looking at a paper loss of $720, they decided to get out of the position... if UVXY gapped up on the following Monday, it would probably get past the amount they were willing to lose.

    (Note: UVXY is a product I wouldn't personally sell call spreads on... I'll explain my reason a little bit later.)

    Now, when I typically short premium via structured trades... I size the trade to represent my max risk and play the odds. For example, if I were to put on this trade and was risking $1,000 on the trade... I'd sell 4 call spreads which would have a max risk of $972.

    I'm not a proponent of stopping out of short premium trades.

    As you know, most options expire worthless. However, there are cases where outliers occur and short premium trades go ITM and end up being losers.

    By sizing my trades according to the amount I'm willing to lose... I'm not really stressed about any large overnight moves or morning gaps.

    You see, I've already outlined my line in the sand.

    In fact, this is one of the problems that I have noticed with those that use option strategies like iron condors.

    Now, I'm extremely disciplined about following my rules. I know that if option volatility isn't elevated (or rich)... it doesn't make sense to add on more risk (to receive a greater premium) because that's how potentially big losses can occur.

    Some of my clients achieve a great deal of success after a few weeks of learning my simple rules-based approach. However, when some tell me their profits, relative to their account size. I won't hesitate to let them know if they're taking on too much risk and sizing poorly.

    Of course, some listen... but others will still size up to big... thinking that they will always have a chance to get out of position before it reaches max loss. But sometimes it doesn't work that way... stocks can gap up or down pre-market... and you may never get a chance to cut losses at desired levels.

    If you're over-leveraged or sized incorrectly... one loss can wipe out several weeks or months of gains. Not only that, but if you're sized up too much... you might not have enough capital to adjust the position if it starts moving south.

    I just wanted to mention my approach and what has worked for me... however, I understand that some investors like to use more leverage on their trades.

    For that reason, I'll explain to you what else you need to take into consideration if you trade bigger than what you're willing to lose.

    So where did our option investor go wrong?

    First, they were trading options that were expiring in a little bit over a week. By selling 20 call spreads right off the bat, they didn't give themselves a whole lot of margin for error.

    These short call spreads were still OTM, meaning the time decay and option volatility would really get sucked out of the option premium... if UVXY prices declined or even traded flat for a couple of days.

    By fully sizing up, you leave yourself no margin for error.

    In fact, if they still believed in the trade they would of have probably wanted to sell more call spreads at those strike prices or even further out for higher premiums.

    However, they were forced to get defensive because they were sized up incorrectly.

    (Note: The following Monday, UVXY traded at $31.50... down 9%... the value of the call spread was $0.47. On Tuesday, it rebounded to $35.93... the value of the call spread was back to around $1.00. In 3 Ways To Keep More Profits & Know When To Sell, I explain the importance of closing out a position into strength.)

    What other information can we use to figure out the right size if you're going to use more leverage?

    Well, we need to know the risk associated with the trade or position.

    Are there any event or headline risks?

    Like an earnings announcement, conference call, analyst day, economic data release, Federal Reserve or other central bank meetings in the coming future, legal verdicts coming out, possible M&A or a reaction to earnings etc.

    In this example, the UVXY ETF is associated with fear in the marketplace. The event or headline risk would be macroeconomic as well as geopolitical.

    Are there any key technical levels?

    Some questions to ask yourself: Is a key moving average that is broken, support or resistance levels violated, a spike below or above the VWAP or whatever technical indicator you're looking at.

    Now, I know some option investors who don't use price charts or technical analysis; some are very successful.

    However, even if you don't... understand that there are other traders who do (with serious money behind them)... just knowing what levels they might be getting in and out of could be some useful information.

    Is There Liquidity Risk?

    During periods of high volatility... option and stock bid/ask spreads widen. Always play out a worse-case scenario in your head and try to calculate what the damage could be.

    For example, the value of the spread when the investor got out was $0.93... but good luck getting out that price... most likely they would have had to pay up to exit the trade.

    Sometimes the theoretical or mid-market price of an option... is just that... theoretical. The only thing that matters is what you can buy or sell at.

    Are you giving yourself enough margin for error when looking at the volatility?

    Over the last year, UVXY has had 23 (+/-) 10% single day moves or greater. In addition, option volatility can really take off in this ETF.

    For example, on 7/24/14 the 30-day option volatility in UVXY was 105.3%... on 8/1/14 the 30-day option volatility was 158.63%... on 8/4/14 the 30-day option volatility went down to 132.1%... on 8/5/14 the 30-day option volatility was back to 152.1%

    Pretty wild... right?

    (These kind of swings along with the wide bid/ask spreads and the upside risk are the reasons why I don't like selling call spreads in this ETF)

    The 52 week high in option volatility in UVXY is 185.18%. Again, the investor in our example was probably thinking now is a good level to short some premium.

    However, they wasted all there bullets without any room for error. Going all in or full size was not the right play in this situation.

    You see, it's important to have some kind of perspective and understanding of the stock or ETF you're trading. The type of move we saw in UVXY is not uncommon relative to how it trades.

    The option investor should have been aware of this and sized smaller.

    Putting volatility levels into context is essential if you're going to be using options to express investment ideas.

    Examine the time frame?

    In my previous article , I share a story of one of my trades, where I had to close out a position because I was leaving to go to a dentist appointment.

    I bought back some short puts for $0.10 expiring in an hour... those options that I bought back ended up closing deep ITM.

    Again, near-term options have the potential from being deep OTM to deep ITM very quickly (and vice-versa). Position sizing is critical for near term options... it doesn't matter if you're buying or selling premium.

    In many cases, if I do buy premium on an option expiring in a short time frame... I'll make it a binary trade.

    Basically the premium spent on the position is what I'm willing to lose. For example, if options are $0.50 and I want to risk $500 max on the trade... I will buy 10 contracts. If I get my move... I'll take my profits.

    Too many times... traders will buy 20 or 30 contracts under the same risk parameters... see the options go to $0.30 and get out... only to see the stock start moving in their direction... but no longer in the position.

    The same could be said for those who sell weekly options on Thursday or Friday... the options have the potential to move very quickly... if you're sized up too much... you'll be out of the trade with a loss before you even got a chance to see the idea play out.

    For longer term time frames you have to be more concerned about the volatility risk. A classic example is a biotech company that announces their drug results in a couple of weeks.

    In anticipation, traders start buying and selling options in the contract month the announcement will be made. Of course, option volatility rises due to the uncertainty of the outcome.

    Again, you almost have to treat these like binary trades as well. Even if you think you've got time on your options... anything could happen. For example, they could come out and say that will not have their results ready and change the announcement date to something else.

    Those who bought option premium will see the value of those options lose a lot of value because of the volatility crush.

    (For the record, I don't usually trade biotech's because of all these wild card factors)

    Putting it all Together

    Relative sizing is one of the toughest things to get right as an investor or trader. If you invest for a long enough time... you're bound to get it wrong on some positions. The key is trying to get a deeper understanding of the risk associated with the position, what option factors influence (time, volatility, stock price movement) it and how.

    For me, I like to play the number's game and let the probabilities work out... by sizing my positions with the max risk already set in place. However, I understand that some of you have a little bit more risk tolerance than me... so I wanted to show you what else to consider when taking on more risk by sizing up.

    Obviously experience is the best teacher... but I'm also here to help.

    In the UVXY example, the investor should have kept their sizing small in case they were off with the timing of the trade.

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