When most people begin to invest they start with mutual funds or ETFs (exchange traded funds). Perhaps advancing into stocks after a while. Finally, with some experience and confidence under their belt, they try options. Options trading is not for the feint of heart. They can be quite volatile. There is a chance to double your money in a short period of time, but there is also a chance of losing it all. But with some education under your belt and a disciplined approach you can do quite well.
First, what are options? There are two types: puts and calls. A ‘put’ option gives the buyer the right to *sell* 100 shares of a certain stock at a certain price by a certain date. A ‘call’ option is the opposite — it gives the buyer the right to *buy* 100 shares of stock at a certain price by a certain date. In both cases the ‘certain price’ is called ‘strike price’ and the ‘certain date’ is the ‘expiration date’ of the option.
Options trading is done for many reasons. Typically people buy puts as insurance; you know you will always receive at least the strike price for your stock. Other people use calls and puts for short-term speculation where they feel strongly about a stock rising or falling in a short period of time. And, lastly, some investors (and professional traders) use the option’s time decay to generate recurring monthly income.
When trading options there is a fundamental question of whether or not you should be a buyer or a seller of options. You can make money both ways but since options are a zero-sum game and the fact that the majority of options held until expiration expire worthless, the odds are in your favor if you are a seller of options instead of a buyer.
The simplest, most popular, and most conservative strategy for selling options is called ‘covered calls’ — a situation where an investor owns 100 or more shares of an underlying stock and then sells call options against that position. If the stock is above the strike price of the call option on expiration day then the investor can either buy the option back (if he wants to hold on to his stock) or let it get called away (where the buyer of the option will ‘exercise’ his right and force the seller of the option to sell him 100 shares at the previously agreed upon strike price).
Selling a call option on stock you already have puts a cap on your upside. You will never receive more than the strike price per share (although you can set the strike price to whatever value you like). The plus is that you receive premium (money) the day you sell the option, and that premium can be used to offset any decline in the stock. So you get some downside protection in exchange for putting a cap on the max you can make. In many cases you can make money even if the stock declines, as long as it goes down less than the premium you received.
Covered call investors have modern tools available to them to assist with the most time consuming parts of the strategy. Using a covered call screener to scan all possible investments is a huge time saver. The old way of doing it with a spreadsheet is laborious and seldom yields optimal results. Modern tools will incorporate earnings release dates and ex-dividend dates so that you get a complete picture of all possible trades.