Covered Calls Explained

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The Basics of Covered Calls

Professional market players write covered calls to increase investment income, but individual investors can also benefit from this conservative but effective option strategy by taking the time to learn how it works and when to use it. In this regard, let’s look at the covered call and examine ways it can lower portfolio risk and improve investment returns.

What Is a Covered Call?

You are entitled to several rights as a stock or futures contract owner, including the right to sell the security at any time for the market price. Covered call writing sells this right to someone else in exchange for cash, meaning the buyer of the option gets the right to own your security on or before the expiration date at a predetermined price called the strike price.

A call option is a contract that gives the buyer the legal right (but not the obligation) to buy 100 shares of the underlying stock or one futures contract at the strike price any time on or before expiration. If the seller of the call option also owns the underlying security, the option is considered “covered” because he or she can deliver the instrument without purchasing it on the open market at possibly unfavorable pricing.

Covered Call

Profiting from Covered Calls

The buyer pays the seller of the call option a premium to obtain the right to buy shares or contracts at a predetermined future price. The premium is a cash fee paid on the day the option is sold and is the seller’s money to keep, regardless of whether the option is exercised or not.

When to Sell a Covered Call

When you sell a covered call, you get paid in exchange for giving up a portion of future upside. For example, let’s assume you buy XYZ stock for $50 per share, believing it will rise to $60 within one year. You’re also willing to sell at $55 within six months, giving up further upside while taking a short-term profit. In this scenario, selling a covered call on the position might be an attractive strategy.

The stock’s option chain indicates that selling a $55 six-month call option will cost the buyer a $4 per share premium. You could sell that option against your shares, which you purchased at $50 and hope to sell at $60 within a year. Writing this covered call creates an obligation to sell the shares at $55 within six months if the underlying price reaches that level. You get to keep the $4 in premium plus the $55 from the share sale, for the grand total of $59, or an 18% return over six months.

On the other hand, you’ll incur a $10 loss on the original position if the stock falls to $40. However, you get to keep the $4 premium from the sale of the call option, lowering the total loss from $10 to $6 per share.

Bullish Scenario: Shares rise to $60 and the option is exercised
January 1 Buy XYZ shares at $50
January 1 Sell XYZ call option for $4 – expires on June 30, exercisable at $55
June 30 Stock closes at $60 – option is exercised because it is above $55 and you receive $55 for your shares.
July 1 PROFIT: $5 capital gain + $4 premium collected from sale of the option = $9 per share or 18%
Bearish Scenario: Shares drop to $40 and the option is not exercised
January 1 Buy XYZ shares at $50
January 1 Sell XYZ call option for $4 – expires on June 30, exercisable at $55
June 30 Stock closes at $40 – option is not exercised and it expires worthless because stock is below strike price. (the option buyer has no incentive to pay $55/share when he or she can purchase the stock at $40)
July 1 LOSS: $10 share loss – $4 premium collected from sale of the option = $6 or -12%.

Advantages of Covered Calls

Selling covered call options can help offset downside risk or add to upside return, taking the cash premium in exchange for future upside beyond the strike price plus premium.during the contract period. In other words, if XYZ stock in the example closes above $59, the seller makes less money than if he or she simply held the stock. However, if the stock ends the six-month period below $59 per share, the seller makes more money or loses less money than if the options sale hadn’t taken place.

Risks of Covered Calls

Call sellers have to hold onto underlying shares or contracts or they’ll be holding naked calls, which have theoretically unlimited loss potential if the underlying security rises. Therefore, sellers need to buy back options positions before expiration if they want to sell shares or contracts, increasing transaction costs while lowering net gains or increasing net losses.

The Bottom Line

Use covered calls to decrease the cost basis or to gain income from shares or futures contracts, adding a profit generator to stock or contract ownership.

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What is a Covered Call? Learn the Pros and Cons

Before diving into the complexities of what a covered call trade is and how it can be used to generate portfolio income lets first define what an option contract is and what it means to each party involved. There are two main types of options, call options and put options. A call option is a contract that gives the holder (buyer) the right, but not the obligation, to buy a security at a specified price for a certain period of time.

Buying one call stock option gives the purchaser the right to buy 100 shares of a stock. If the stock price is greater than the options exercise (strike) price the option can be exercised and the option buyer will make a profit based on the difference between the current price and the strike price. When this happens the option is considered to be ‘in the money’. If the price of the stock is below the strike price on expiration the option becomes worthless or ‘out of the money’.

It is possible for an investor to either buy or sell options; selling naked calls means an investor sold a call option without owning any underlying stock to offset option. Selling naked calls is a very risky endeavor. If an investor sells a naked call and the stock dramatically rises above the options strike price the investor will owe 100 times the difference between the stock price and the options strike price.

Both buying call options and selling naked call options are speculative strategies where the investor stands to only make a profit if they correctly guessed the direction of the stock’s price.

Between the date the option contract is initiated and the date it expires the price of the stock will constantly fluctuate. The more a stocks price is expected to fluctuate over this time frame the harder it is to predict whether or not the option will be in the money at expiration. To account for this, options are priced at a premium, and that premium declines as the expiration date nears. All else held the same, an option expiring in one month will be worth more today than tomorrow if the stock price remains the same. For more detailed information on how options are priced read The Greeks: From Past to Present.

Covered Calls Explained

What is a covered call? Let’s now look at an example. XYZ stock is trading at $52 today; a call option to purchase XYZ at $55 one month from now is priced at $3. To initiate a covered call on XYZ stock an investor would purchase 100 shares of XYZ and sell a call option which obligates him to sell XYZ at $55 one month from now if exercised by the option buyer. For simplicity we will ignore commissions.

Pros of Selling Covered Calls for Income

– The seller receives the premium from writing the covered call immediately on the date of the transaction, in this case $300. If the price remains below $55 at option expiration the seller will keep the 100 shares of stock and the $300 he received for the option.

– If the price of the stock is over $55 at option expiration the call option will be exercised. At this point the 100 shares of stock are sold, the investors profit is equal to the $300 received for selling the option plus the $300 in capital appreciation (100 shares * ($55 sell price – $52 purchase price)) for a total profit of $600.

– The premium received can help offset a downward move in the stock price. In this example the investor purchased the shares at $52, if the stock were trading at $49 on expiration and the investor decided to sell his shares the total profit would be $0. The $3 loss on the shares of stock is offset by the $3 received in option premium.

Cons of Selling Covered Calls for Income

– If the stock rises well above the strike price, the seller does not enjoy the full appreciation. The seller’s profit is limited to the premium received plus the difference between the stocks purchase price and the options strike price.

The option seller cannot sell the underlying stock without first buying back the call option. A significant drop in the price of the stock (greater than the premium) will result in a loss on the entire transaction.

– Premium amounts are based on the historical volatility of the underlying stock. Stocks with higher option premiums will have a greater risk of price fluctuation.

– Losses due to downward moves in the underlying stocks price are only limited by the amount of premium received.

Is Selling Covered Calls “Worth It”?

As you can see, selling covered calls for income offers both advantages and disadvantages to outright stock ownership. They can be a great tool to generate additional income from an equity portfolio; however using only a simple covered call strategy can get you into trouble due to its limited upside potential and limited downside protection.

Strategies using options to generate income can be as simple as selling covered calls, while others add strict rules and processes to manage income, emotion and risk. If you are looking to add an income producing strategy using options, compare the risk/reward profiles of every strategy and pick one that matches your objectives, risk tolerance, time horizon and temperament. For more information on using options in your portfolio read our free special report: Myths & Misconceptions About Exchange Traded Options.

Covered Calls

The covered call is a strategy in options trading whereby call options are written against a holding of the underlying security.

Covered Call (OTM) Construction
Long 100 Shares
Sell 1 Call

Using the covered call option strategy, the investor gets to earn a premium writing calls while at the same time appreciate all benefits of underlying stock ownership, such as dividends and voting rights, unless he is assigned an exercise notice on the written call and is obligated to sell his shares.

However, the profit potential of covered call writing is limited as the investor had, in return for the premium, given up the chance to fully profit from a substantial rise in the price of the underlying asset.

Out-of-the-money Covered Call

This is a covered call strategy where the moderately bullish investor sells out-of-the-money calls against a holding of the underlying shares. The OTM covered call is a popular strategy as the investor gets to collect premium while being able to enjoy capital gains (albeit limited) if the underlying stock rallies.

Limited Profit Potential

In addition to the premium received for writing the call, the OTM covered call strategy’s profit also includes a paper gain if the underlying stock price rises, up to the strike price of the call option sold.

The formula for calculating maximum profit is given below:

  • Max Profit = Premium Received – Purchase Price of Underlying + Strike Price of Short Call – Commissions Paid
  • Max Profit Achieved When Price of Underlying >= Strike Price of Short Call

Unlimited Loss Potential

Potential losses for this strategy can be very large and occurs when the price of the underlying security falls. However, this risk is no different from that which the typical stockowner is exposed to. In fact, the covered call writer’s loss is cushioned slightly by the premiums received for writing the calls.

The formula for calculating loss is given below:

  • Maximum Loss = Unlimited
  • Loss Occurs When Price of Underlying

Breakeven Point(s)

The underlier price at which break-even is achieved for the covered call (otm) position can be calculated using the following formula.

  • Breakeven Point = Purchase Price of Underlying – Premium Received

Example

An options trader purchases 100 shares of XYZ stock trading at $50 in June and writes a JUL 55 out-of-the-money call for $2. So he pays $5000 for the 100 shares of XYZ and receives $200 for writing the call option giving a total investment of $4800.

On expiration date, the stock had rallied to $57. Since the striking price of $55 for the call option is lower than the current trading price, the call is assigned and the writer sells the shares for a $500 profit. This brings his total profit to $700 after factoring in the $200 in premiums received for writing the call.

It is interesting to note that the buyer of the call option in this case has a net profit of zero even though the stock had gone up by 7 points.

However, what happens should the stock price had gone down 7 points to $43 instead? Let’s take a look.

At $43, the call writer will incur a paper loss of $700 for holding the 100 shares of XYZ. However, his loss is offset by the $200 in premiums received so his total loss is $500. In comparison, the call buyer’s loss is limited to the premiums paid which is $200.

Note: While we have covered the use of this strategy with reference to stock options, the covered call (otm) is equally applicable using ETF options, index options as well as options on futures.

Commissions

For ease of understanding, the calculations depicted in the above examples did not take into account commission charges as they are relatively small amounts (typically around $10 to $20) and varies across option brokerages.

However, for active traders, commissions can eat up a sizable portion of their profits in the long run. If you trade options actively, it is wise to look for a low commissions broker. Traders who trade large number of contracts in each trade should check out OptionsHouse.com as they offer a low fee of only $0.15 per contract (+$4.95 per trade).

Summary

Overall, writing out-of-the-money covered calls is an excellent strategy to use if you are mildly bullish toward the underlying stock as it allows you to earn a premium which also acts as a cushion should the stock price go down. So if you are planning to hold on to the shares anyway and have a target selling price in mind that is not too far off, you should write a covered call.

Similar Strategies

The following strategies are similar to the covered call (otm) in that they are also bullish strategies that have limited profit potential and unlimited risk.

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