Using Options To Protect Gains While Maintaining Upside Potential

| February 24, 2020

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The stock market is hitting all-time highs and investors are torn between the possibility of an economic downturn, or entering a new leg of the bull market.

Last week’s article noted that money managers were increasingly using call options to gain additional exposure to the stock market.  Some of this behavior might be deemed as a reckless form of leveraging in an act of FOMO, or fear of missing out, as stocks shrug off every macro headwind virus to tariffs.

In the article, we touched on the use of a Stock Replacement, which is essentially replacing ownership of shares with the purchase of call options.  This is a good time to review the process and benefits.

Replace Rather Than Remove 

When people want to reduce risk but maintain upside exposure, they usually think in terms of buying put protection as a form of portfolio insurance.  While this can be effective in minimizing losses during a decline, it can have a significant drag on performance in the form of the cost of premium paid for put options.

An alternative approach is a stock replacement strategy in which one swaps owning shares of the underlying for being long call options. The two main advantages of a replacement strategy over a married put position are:

  1. It greatly reduces the capital requirements and provides the flexibility to redeploy cash in new investments or opportunistic fashion.
  2. It offers the benefit of leveraging options to maintain greater upside potential on further gains.

Basic Replacement

 My basic rules of thumb for implementing this are:

1. Buy call options that have at least six months remaining until expiration.  This will help reduce the negative impact of time decay (theta) in which premiums get eroded.  I’m assuming anyone who has enjoyed the gains of the past year or two has a long-term mentality, so using LEAPs, or those options that have a year or more, also makes sense.

2. Choose a strike price that has a delta of least 0.70.  This will usually mean buying a call that is about 10% in-the-money.  Let’s take a look at Apple (AAPL) which is set to report earnings after the close today.

The stock is currently trading at $245 a share.  Calls with a $225 strike price have a delta of 0.72.  This means that for every $1 move, the value of the option will gain (or lose) approximately $0.72.  But remember, delta works on a slope, meaning that as the price rises and the call moves further into-the-money the delta — increasing to the point it approaches 1.0, meaning the position gets longer or more bullish as price rises.  Conversely, if share price declines, so will the delta, so the rate of losses decelerates.

In the example above, one could buy the $225 call that expires June of 2020 for $1,700 a contract.  This is a steep discount to the $24,500 it would take to buy 100 shares.

Now, assume shares gained just 10% to $270 over the next three months.  The value of the call would be approximately $4,500 or a 75% increase.  This assumes no change in implied volatility, but takes into three months of theta into account which would equate to $1.05 of decay.  The delta at that point would be 0.98 or essentially one-to-one correlation.

Obviously the leverage of options greatly boosts the return, or losses, on investment on a percentage basis.

Calculating the Contracts

This brings me to an important point regarding determining the number of contracts one should buy.  There are two basic approaches: delta-equivalent or share-count.

In the delta-equivalent, if you own 1,000 shares and want to maintain the same exposure, you would need to buy 13 contracts of a call with a current 0.72  delta.  Be aware as price rises, your net exposure will increase up to a maximum of 1,300 share equivalent.  In the Apple example, your total cost for 13 of the June $225 calls is $36,000.

If you want to simply maintain a maximum 1,000 share equivalent, you would buy 10 contracts.  Again, the current net exposure would be only 700 shares on a delta basis.  In this case, your total cost and risk is $30,000.

These compare with the $245,000 it would cost to own 1,000 shares.  Or assuming 50% margin, that’s still a hefty $65,000.

Of course, these are just basic examples and one could tailor a position to align with the specific risk profile and investment outlook.  This could include more complex strategies such as spreads and combinations.

What you never want to do is use a dollar-equivalent approach. That is if you owned 1,000 shares of Apple, which currently has a notional value of $150,000, you don’t want to buy $150,000 worth of calls.  In our example above, that would be 110 contracts.  Which makes you net long 11,100 shares or a 9,000 on a delta basis.  Even if you assumed 50% margin and cut those numbers in half, it is still an incredible increase in risk.


Like anything in life, this comes with some comprise and potential pitfalls.  Putting aside a mismanaging of position size, one must always remember that if the option falls out-of-the-money, there is the potential for 100% loss at expiration.  In our example, that means that if shares of Apple are below $225 on expiration, or just a 9% decline, the calls will be worthless.

Another consideration is unlike shareholders, owners of options do not qualify to collect dividends.  Given that many of the past year’s best performers have been driven by a “bond equivalents” such as staples, utilities, REITs and MLPs, this may counter the reason you already own the shares.  And finally, selling a stock that has significant gains may have unwanted tax implications.

But for those sitting on shares with healthy profits that want to reduce risk but maintain upside exposure, a stock replacement strategy makes sense.

Note: This article originally appeared at Option Sensei on February 19, 2020.


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Category: Options Trading

About the Author ()

Steve Smith have been involved in all facets of the investment industry in a variety of roles ranging from speculator, educator, manager and advisor. This has taken him from the trading floors of Chicago to hedge funds on Wall Street to the world online. From 1987 to 1996, he served as a market maker at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE) and Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). From 1997 to 2007, he was a Senior Columnist and Managing Editor for, handling their Option Alert and Short Report newsletters. The Option Alert was awarded the MIN “best business newsletter” in 2006. From 2009 to 2013, Smith was a Senior Columnist and Managing Editor for Minyanville’s OptionSmith newsletter, as well as a Risk Manager Consultant for New Vernon Capital LLC. Smith acted as an advisor to build models and option strategies to reduce portfolio exposure and enhance returns for the four main funds. Since 2015, he has worked for Adam Mesh Trading Group. There, he has managed Options360 and Earning 360, been co-leader of Option Academy, and contributed to The Option Specialist website.