Posts tagged ‘derivatives’

Getting Paid to Eat Bon-Bons and Sell Options


I have a diverse set of interests, and two of my passions include eating assorted bon bons, and buying stocks low (selling them high). The only thing better than that is to also get paid for doing those same activities. Until I get paid for competing on the national bon bon competitive eating circuit, I’ll stick to getting paid for selling (“writing”) options.

The Mechanics of Option Writing

There are many places to learn about the basics of options, but for simplicity purposes think of options as tools for speculating, hedging, and generating income. Unfortunately, most people trading options lose money because of speculation and numerous shortcomings. Like guns, knives, or any other weapon, if properly used, these self-defense option tools can provide owners with significant benefits. If however the weapons are used irresponsibly, the consequences can be deadly. The same principles apply to options investing – beneficial in the right hands, disastrous in the wrong hands (see also Butter Knife or Cleaver article).

A Pricey Option Illustration

In order to illustrate the mechanics of option writing, let’s use Priceline.com Inc. (PCLN) as an example:

Suppose I did my in-depth fundamental research on Priceline and upon completion of my due diligence I realized that the stock is fairly valued at its current share price of $529. However, upon further consideration I realize I would love to buy 100 shares at a discount price of $500 if Priceline shares pulled back. In mirror-like fashion my fundamental valuation process may also indicate an adequate selling valuation level at a $560 premium.

Based on these previous assumptions, I could profitably sell (“write”) one naked put option with a strike price of $500 and an expiration date in October (approximately five months from today), in exchange for $3,560 in upfront cash less comissions.* That’s right, someone is going to pay me thousands of dollars to buy something I am openly willing to purchase at lower prices anyway. In bon bon terminology, speculators are paying me to eat bon bons, an activity I love even without upfront cash payments from others. In the case of an escalating Priceline share price, I prefer to sell covered calls (i.e. own underlying stock position plus simultaneously selling a call option), consistent with my valuation sell price targets (strik price of $560 per share).

Selling Insurance

Since writing options is effectively like selling insurance, it intuitively follows the best time to sell insurance is when people (investors) are the most nervous. If you were a fire insurance carrier and wanted to maximize collections, setting prices a week after a large fire in the hot, dry summer season around the firework-laden 4th of July may not be a bad choice. In the equity markets, the VIX (Volatility Index) is often referred to as the “fear gauge,” which can be used as an indicator to optimize premium collections from options sales.

Options, which are part of the derivatives family, get lumped into these wide set of financial instruments that billionaire investor Warren Buffett called “weapons of mass destruction.” The ironic part of that whole situation is that despite the evil titling of these instruments, Buffett has used these “weapons of mass destruction” extensively, more recently with his strategies related to selling index options – see Insurance Weapons of Mass Destruction. For those who followed the financial crisis of 2008-2009, observers fully realize that American International Group (AIG) was selling insurance on credit defaults (Credit Default Swaps). Regrettably, the CDS market was not regulated to a similar extent as the more sophisticated options and futures market.

Eating bon bons for pay can be satisfying, and so can trading stocks for cash, when buying them low and selling them high. On the other hand, these same activities can prove to be harmful if abused or misused. If you eat bon bons in moderation, and receive premiums from thoroughly researched naked puts and covered calls, then you have nothing to worry about.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: *Based on 5-9-11 closing trade data from Yahoo Finance. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in PCLN, AIG, VXX or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 10, 2011 at 1:05 am Leave a comment

Ball & Chaining the Rating Agencies

After sifting through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress is spreading the blame liberally across various constituencies, including the almighty rating agencies (think of Moody’s [MCO], Standard & Poor’s [MHP], and Fitch). The Senate recently added a proposed amendment to the financial regulation bill that would establish a government appointed panel to select a designated credit rating agency for certain debt deals. The proposal is designed to remove the inherent conflict of interest of debt issuers – such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), UBS, and others – shopping around for higher ratings in exchange for higher payments to the banks. The credit rating agencies are not satisfied with being weighed down with a ball and chain, and apparently New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic with the agencies. Cuomo recently subpoenaed Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS and five other banks to see whether the banks misled credit-rating services about mortgage-backed securities.

Slippery Slope of Government Intervention

Many different professions, inside and outside the financial industry, provide critical advice in exchange for monetary compensation. In many industries there are inherent conflicts of interest between the professional and the end-user, and a related opinion provided by the pro may result in a bad outcome. If government intervention is the appropriate solution in the rating agency field, then maybe we should answer the following questions related to other fields before we rush to regulation:

  • Should the government control which auditors check the books of every American company because executives may opportunistically shop around for more lenient reviews of their financials?
  • Perhaps the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should dictate which investment bank should underwrite an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or other stock issuance?
  • Maybe the government should decide which medicine or surgery should be administered by a doctor because they received funding or donations from a drug and device company?  

Where do you draw the line? Is the amendment issued by Al Franken (Senator of Minnesota) a well thought out proposal to improve the conflicts of interest, or is this merely a knee-jerk reaction to sock it some greedy Wall Street-ers and solidify additional scapegoats in the global financial meltdown?

In addition to including a controversial government-led rating agency selection process, the transforming regulatory reform bill also includes a dramatic change to ban “naked” credit default swaps (CDS). As I’ve written in the past, derivatives of all types can be used to hedge (protect) or speculate (e.g., naked CDS).  Singling out a specific derivative product and strategy like naked CDSs is like banning all Browning 9x19mm Hi-Power pistols, but allowing hundreds of other gun-types to be sold and used. Conceptually, proper use of a naked CDS by a trader is the same as the proper use of a gun by a recreational hunter (see my derivatives article).

Solutions

Rather than additional government intervention into the rating agency and derivative fields, perhaps additional disclosure, transparency, capital requirements, and harsher penalties can be instituted. There will always be abusers, but as we learned from the collapse of Arthur Andersen on the road to Enron’s bankruptcy, there can be  cruel consequences to bad actors. If investment banks misrepresent opinions, laws can lead to severe results also. Take Jack Grubman, hypester of Worldcom stock, who was banned for life from the securities industry and forced to pay $15 million in fines. Or Henry Blodget, who too was banned from the securities industry and paid millions in fines, not to mention the $200 million in fraud damages Merrill Lynch was forced to pay.

At the end of the day, enough disclosure and transparency needs to be made available to investors so they can make their own decisions. Those institutional investors that piled into these toxic, mortgage-related securities and lost their shirts because of over-reliance on the rating agencies’ evaluations deserve to lose money. If these structures were too complex to understand, then this so-called sophisticated institutional investor base should have balked from participation. Of course, if the banks or credit agencies misrepresented the complex investments, then sure, those intermediaries should suffer the full brunt of the law.

Although weighing down the cash-rich credit rating agencies (and CDS creators) with ball and chain regulations may appease the populist sentiment in the short-run, the reduction in conflicts of interest might be overwhelmed by the unintended consequences. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to do my homework on a naked CDS related to a AAA-rated synthetic CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in MCO, MHP, GS, MS, JPM, UBS, BAC, T or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 17, 2010 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

Financial Engineering: Butter Knife or Cleaver?

Recently, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker blasted the banking industry for innefectual derivative producs (i.e., credit default swaps [CDS] and collateralized debt obligations [CDOs]) and a lack of true innovation outside of the ATM machine, which was introduced some 40 years ago. In my opinion, the opposing views pitting the cowboy Wall Street bankers versus conservative policy hawks parallels the relative utility question of a butter knife versus a cleaver. Like knives, derivatives come in all shapes and sizes. Most Americans responsibly butter their toast and cut their steaks, nonetheless if put in the wrong hands, knives can lead to minor cuts, lost fingers, or even severed arteries.

That reckless behavior was clearly evident in the unregulated CDS market, which AIG alone, through its Financial Products unit in the U.K., grew its exposure to a mind boggling level of $2.7 trillion in notional value, according to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail. The subprime market was a big driver for irresponsible CDO creation too. In The Greatest Trade Ever, Gregory Zuckerman highlights the ballooning nature of the $1.2 trillion subprime loan market (about 10% of the overall 2006 mortgage market) , which exploded to $5 trillion in value thanks to the help of CDOs.

Derivatives History

However, many derivative products like options, futures, and swaps have served a usefull purpose for decades, if not centuries. As I chronicled in the Investing Caffeine David Einhorn piece, derivative trading goes as far back as Greek and Roman times when derivative-like contracts were used for crop insurance and shipping purposes. In the U.S., options derivatives became legitimized under the Investment Act of 1934 before subsequently being introduced on the Chicago Board Options Exchange in 1973. Since then, the investment banks and other financial players have created other standardized derivative products like futures, and interest rate swaps.

Volcker Expands on Financial Engineering Innovation

In his comments, former Chairman Volcker specifically targets CDSs and CDOs. Volcker does not mince words when it comes to sharing his feelings about derivatives innovation:

“I hear about these wonderful innovations in the financial markets, and they sure as hell need a lot of innovation. I can tell you of two—credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations—which took us right to the brink of disaster…I wish that somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy, just one shred of information.”

 

When Volcker was challenged about his skeptical position on banking innovation, he retorted:

“All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations. Indeed, it was quite good in the 1980s without credit-default swaps and without securitization and without CDOs.”

 

Cutting through Financial Engineering

The witch-hunt is on for a financial crisis scapegoat, and financial engineering is at the center of the pursuit. Certainly regulation, standardized derivative contracts, trading exchanges, and increased capital requirements should all be factors integrated into new regulation. Curbs can even be put in place to minimize leveraged speculation. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. CDSs, CDOs, securitization and other derivative products serve a healthy and useful purpose towards the aim of creating more efficient financial markets – especially when it comes to hedging. For the majority of our daily requirements, I advocate putting away the dangerous cleaver, and sticking with the dependable butter knife. On special occasions, like birthday steak dinners, I’ll make sure to invite someone responsible, like Paul Volcker, to cut my meat with a steak knife.

Read Full WSJ Article with Paul Volcker Q&A

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position in any company mentioned in this article, including AIG. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 8, 2010 at 12:08 am 4 comments

Buffett Sells Insurance: Weapons of ANTI-Destruction

Writing Options is the Opposite of Mass Destruction

Writing Options is the Opposite of Mass Destruction

Those same “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that Warren Buffett so ardently warned investors against are the same derivatives that catapulted Berkshire Hathaways (BRKA) Q2 earnings performance. Chris McKhann at OptionMonster summarized Buffet’s moves:

Buffett has sold a large number of puts on four major indexes starting in 2007: the S&P 500, the FTSE 100, the Euro Stoxx 50, and the Nikkei 225. He took in $4.9 billion, with a potential loss of more than $35 billion–but only if all four indexes were at zero come the expiration date (at which point we would be worrying about other things).

 

Derivatives are like a gun, if used responsibly for gaming or for self-defense, then they can be a useful tool. Unfortunately, like guns, these derivatives are used irresponsibly in many instances. This point is especially true in areas like Credit Default Swaps where there were inadequate regulations and capital requirements to prevent disastrous outcomes (e.g., AIG’s collapse). With proper transparency, capital requirements, and proper regulation, derivatives can be used to manage risk rather than create additional risk. 

Although I wouldn’t categorize myself as a value investor like Warren, I would prefer to call myself a growth investor with a value conscience. With that said, if you incorporate valuation within your investment discipline, I believe writing (selling) options is a brilliant idea. I can make this assertion because I’ve used this strategy for myself and my hedge fund. Volatility has a direct impact on the amount of premiums collected; therefore the trading levels of the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) will have a directly correlated impact on option writing profitability. For example, if I’m selling flood insurance, I’m going to collect much higher rates in the period right after Katrina occurred.

If you are willing to accept free money from speculators betting on short-term swings in prices (Warren sold long-term, multi-year options), while being forced to sell/buy stock at price levels you like, then why not?! However, buying and selling puts and calls is a different game in my book, and one I personally do NOT excel at. I’ll keep to utilizing “Weapons of Anti-Destruction” and collect premiums up-front, like Warren, from speculators and leave the rest of the options strategies to others.

Read Seeking Alpha Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts do not have direct positions in AIG or BRKA/B at the time the article was published. Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients do have long exposure to TIP shares. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

August 19, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment


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