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How to Trade Credit Spreads

One of the best strategies for smaller accounts, credit spreads offer a great way to leverage your cash while still taking advantage of the benefits that option selling offers

Part One: The Basics

So what is a spread? A high level conceptual explanation is that you’re essentially betting on a stock to finish above or below a certain price upon expiration. One of the advantages here is that you can set this number out of the money, so if a stock is trading at $100, you can bet that it’ll remain below $110 by a certain date. This is a bearish position, so if you’re correct and it goes down, you’ll make max profit. The catch though is that even if you’re wrong, you basically have a 10% upward cushion before you start to lose any money. So the easiest way to describe it is a strategy that lets you make money if you’re right, but also make money if you’re slightly off.

How does it work? So in the above example, if we were bearish on a stock we would open what’s called a call credit spread. We could set it up where we sell a 110c for a credit of $1.50, and buy a 115c for a debit of $0.50. This means that in this transaction we receive $1.50, and pay $0.50 for a net credit of $1. That credit is your max profit on the play. If you’re familiar with options you’ll know that if the stock finishes at or below $110 upon expiration, both of these calls will be worthless. That’s great news for us because the long leg we bought (115c) for 0.50 will be a loss, but we’ll get to keep the full $1.50 from the short leg (110c) that we sold, resulting in us realizing our max gain on the trade of $1.

Why not just sell the 110c and collect the full $1.50? While it cuts into our profits, the reason we buy the 115c in this example for $0.50 isn’t to cut into our profits when we’re correct, but rather protect us when we’re wrong. If the stock in the example stays below $110, we’re good to go and we’ll hit max profit. But what if it goes to $120, $150, or something crazy happens and it hits $200. If the stock hits $150 upon expiration, that 110c that we sold for $1.50 will be worth $40, meaning that we’ll incur a $3,875 loss in pursuit of a $150 gain. We’ve seen crazy run ups from the likes of TSLA and ZM lately, and people who sold what we call “naked options” got absolutely killed. With our spread, yes our 110c will be worth $40 meaning we’re down $4,000 on that position, but the 115c we bought behind it will be worth $35 meaning we’re up $3,500 there for a net loss of $500. Additionally, we get to keep that $1.00 credit we received up front no matter what, so our loss with this spread is actually $500-$100=$400 as opposed to the $3,875 loss that we would’ve seen had we sold the 110c by itself. THAT is the value in selling a spread as opposed to a naked option.

Why are you multiplying everything by 100? Each options contract is worth 100 shares, so a contract that is trading for $1.50 actually costs $150 to purchase.

Another high level point I like to make is that there are really 5 different things that can happen when you make a play. Let’s say you think a stock will go up. It can (1) go up a ton and you’d be correct, (2) go up a little and you’d be correct, (3) trade flat and you’d be incorrect, (4), go down a little and you’d be incorrect, or (5) go down a lot and you’d be incorrect. With a bullish spread, you’d hit max profit on 4/5 , or 80% of the possible outcomes, whereas if you bought stock or purchased an option you’d only be profitable on (1) or (2). Obviously the actual outcomes are a little more complex, but for a base-level understanding of the advantages a spread provides, I think this is a good way to look at it.

So that’s the value of a spread. A lot of traders are introduced to option selling and are scared of the prospect of incurring a huge loss like we mentioned above, but using credit spreads is a great way of receiving the benefits that selling has to offer while limiting a lot of the risks. So let’s move onto actually opening a spread.

Part Two: Making the Trade

So for actually opening a spread up, we have a four-step approach we take: Pick a Stock Pick a Direction Pick a Strike Price Execute the Trade

1: Picking a Stock:

One of the most important things I tell people is to trade what you know. I have a watchlist of 25-30 stocks that I watch and get familiar with during the day. That way if I recognize a good opportunity, I’ll have a decent base of knowledge to rely on to make what I feel is a smart play. It’s super easy to get caught up in the “stock of the week” and try to jump in on a play because a ticker is in the news. If you’re not familiar with a stock, don’t trade it.

For this example (the one used in the video), Wayfair was trading in a 195-210 range for a little bit and then had a big day where it broke up out of that range and up towards $220. This was an unusual move that I noticed since it was on my watchlist, so I decided to make a play.


2: Picking a direction:

So if we look at Wayfair’s YTD chart, it has exploded this year. A clear upward trend, but a recent trend that I noticed from following the stock was that every time it broke out like this, there would be a little bit of a pullback afterwards. Additionally, I felt the stock was overvalued on a fundamental basis (had a negative book value at the time of the trade) so I wanted to play this stock back down. This is probably the quickest and easiest step of the four, since you’ll likely already have an opinion on most of the stocks that you follow.


3: Picking a Strike Price:

So we know that we’re going to be playing Wayfair back down, but now the question is what spread are we going to set up to do that. In this example Wayfair was trading at $218.42 at the time that we decided to make this trade. In the video we illustrate a trading channel that Wayfair was at the top of. It was also approaching the ATH of $221.54. A lot of the time that will act as resistance for a stock, meaning it’ll bounce down off of it. So in order to give ourselves a bit of a cushion we decided to set our short leg at 222.50, meaning that we’re playing the stock to stay below $222.50 by the end of that week.

So with this play it means in plain English that if we’re correct and the stock goes down, we hit max profit. But if we’re wrong and it goes up, we still have a $4.08 cushion before we’re not hitting max profit anymore. So we could be a little wrong, have the stock go up a few dollars, and still walk away with max profit.


4: Executing the Trade:


I’ll be the first to tell you that when I started trading spreads I didn’t realize you could open both legs of the spread at was. I was stupid. I would like to think I’m at least a little bit smarter now. If you look at the options screen for most brokers, you’ll just see single legs. Switching over to “vertical” allows you to set up the entire spread in one trade. If you use something like RH, there’s a feature that allows you to select multiple options, so you’ll select the one you wish to sell (short leg) and the one you wish to buy (long leg).

In this example we selected the 222.5/227.5c spread, meaning that we sold the short leg of 222.5 and the long leg of 227.5. The net credit was 1.45, which is our max gain on the trade. A wider spread gives a larger credit but also increases max loss. This is a $5 wide spread but we could have made it a tighter spread with a $2.5 width. Typically the best risk to reward ratio is on the tightest spreads, but a slightly wider spread will raise your breakeven price and studies have shown that it actually results in better expected value long term.

Circling back to the credit we received of $1.45, this means that our max profit was $145 and our max loss was $355 for each spread that we sold. We know that because our broker tells us that, but a quick way to calculate it is the width of the spread minus the credit. A $1.45 credit on $5 wide spread means a $5-$1.45=$3.55 max loss.

When I evaluate trades like this I look for a max profit to max loss ratio of 1:2 to 1:4. Based on different scanners I’ve seen, the best expected values tend to fall on spreads within that risk/reward ratio. The ratio on this trade is 1:2.44.

So we put our order in for a credit of $1.45, it filled, and now we get to sit back and watch. Sometimes your order won’t fill right away. In fact, most of the time it won’t fill right away. It’s important to be patient with your fill price and not chase it downwards. We want the highest credit possible. So if the credit on these spreads dropped to 1.30 when I was trying to place an order, it usually isn’t a great idea to drop my order price down to 1.30 just to get a fill. The only time I would recommend that is if you’re trying to open a spread right before the market closes. Otherwise, hang tight. Patience pays.

Part Three: Managing the Trade

So now that we’ve made the trade, it’s time to manage it. In my opinion one of the best parts about trading spreads is that they don’t require active management. You get to sit back and watch the price. Once the trade has been opened, which is also quick, it takes very little effort.

So with the Wayfair example we used, our analysis turned out perfectly, as Wayfair touched the ATH and dipped back down to end the week safely at $214. We hit max profit on that trade, but what if the trade goes against us? That’s what we’ll take a look at in this section.

One thing we didn’t address in part two is when to open the trade. We like opening spreads on Mondays and Tuesdays, and monitoring them during the week. This is the part of my strategy that is a little bit controversial, as there is a (legitimate) school of thought that selling spreads about 45 DTE is better value. I like that idea and if you would rather do that then absolutely go for it. It’s important to trade what you’re comfortable with. All of the lessons in here still apply to that strategy. With that said though, I stick with the weekly strategy of opening them at the beginning of the week and look to close them throughout the week.

The way I see it, your % of max profit should be the metric you’re looking at when deciding what to do with a spread. Divided up equally, that means if you progressed through the week to max profit in a linear fashion, you would be at 20% of max profit on Monday, 40% on Tuesday, and so forth. A good rule of thumb I use is that if you’re ever on the fence about whether or not to close something out, do so if your return exceeds the linear return for that day of the week. The market can move quickly and I’ve had several times where I have regretted not closing a spread out. It’s important to take profit.

Another thing I’ll add to this is that this weekly strategy gets a little risky on Thursday afternoon headed into Friday. If your spread is remotely close to being in the money on Thursday afternoon, close it out. Now that I type that out I realize that may all sound a little convoluted, but it’s better visualized in the video I’ve linked for this section.

Now let's get into what happens if a trade really starts to move against you. With the strategy we use there are really two options: (1) Close the trade for a loss and move on, or (2) Roll the strikes higher.

The first option is pretty self explanatory, but a quick note I want to add here is that you can have a stock move way against you but still be able to close the trade for less than max loss. The example I use in my video is I played FB earnings, thought it would go down, but it shot way above my spread and well into max loss territory. We opened a 245/247.5c spread for a credit of $0.54. FB was reporting earnings on a Thursday night and we sold this spread that expired the following day, so there wasn’t a ton of time to manage it. Long story short, FB killed earnings and shot up to $256 that morning. Really not a prayer that it would come back down to the spread I opened by the end of the day. But despite the fact that this trade went way against us and we had almost no time to manage it since it was a Friday play, we were still able to close out for a debit of $1.90. Yes that’s a loss of $1.36 per spread, but we SAVED an additional $0.60 cent loss by avoiding a max loss debit of $2.50. That’s another benefit of spreads.

Let’s talk about option two. This is the best option to use if you’re confident that you’re correct about the ultimate price action on a stock, but you need a little extra wiggle room on the trade. For this example we’ll look at a TSLA call spread that I opened. TSLA was trading at $1542 after an incredible run, so I figured I would play it below 1600 with a 1600/1610c spread that offered a credit of $2.52. As is the theme with this section, TSLA exploded the following morning (Tuesday) and went all the way up to $1794 at one point. My spread was literally almost $200 out of the money. One of the biggest possible moves against myself that I had ever seen. Despite this crazy move, it was only Tuesday and we were able to close the first spread for a debit of only $5.25 (as opposed to a $10 max debit). We opened 6 of these off the bat so this was a loss of $1638. From there we “rolled” our strikes higher, opening 10 1750/1760c spreads for a credit of $3.45. So the closing and subsequent opening of a spread like we did here is what we are referring to when we say we “rolled the strikes higher”.

By the end of the week TSLA had finally crashed a bit and it finished at $1506. This meant the second of spreads we opened were easily max profit. And while we lost $1,638 on the first set of spreads we opened here, we profited $3,450 on the second set of spreads so we were able to still finish the week with a $1,812 profit on TSLA. The funny thing with this one is that the original spread would have hit max profit since it dropped all the way back down to 1500, but we would have had the same result had TSLA finished anywhere below 1750.

Rolling the strikes higher gave me extra breathing room and turned a potential disaster into a profitable trade. One thing I’ll add though is that with this method you do run the risk of increasing your potential max loss. Because of that, I’ll only roll my strikes higher ONCE. Anything past that is chasing a losing trade. If I roll my strikes higher and it’s still going against me, I’m at the point where I need to accept the fact that I don’t fundamentally understand a stock as well as I thought I did and move on. There is always another trade out there.

The final point I’ll add to this is ALWAYS CLOSE OUT YOUR SPREADS. The only time I’ll let a spread expire worthless is if my spread is OTM by a crazy amount and it would quite literally take a historic after-hours move on Friday to take me back ITM. Other than that, close your spreads out. Even if it’s just for a $0.05 debit. It may seem annoying but I’ll tell you why in the following section.

Part 4: Additional Risks and Considerations

I will start this section by saying I’ve never been impacted by any of the following risks, but it’s important to be aware of 100% of the possible outcomes of your trade before you enter it. They’re infrequent but this really wouldn’t be a comprehensive guide if I omitted them. They are as follows: (1) Early Assignment, (2) Dividend Risk, (3) Pin Risk.

1: Early Assignment:

The best way to start this section is by talking about why your max loss is actually your max loss. We know it’s quickly calculated as the width of your spread minus the credit, but why is that?

Let’s use a 110/115c spread as an example. We’ll say we received a credit of $1. We know that if the stock finishes anywhere below 110 then both legs are worthless and we’ll hold onto that $1 credit. But what happens if we’re in a max loss position. Let’s say the stock finishes at $120.

In this situation the short leg (110c) we sold would be worth $10 (120-110), meaning that we would owe $1,000 on that position. The long leg we bought would be worth $5 (120-115), meaning we are holding a position worth $500. The net effect is a $500 loss, but remember that’s netted against the $100 credit you received, so it’s a max loss of $400. That math checks out as the width of the spread is $5, the credit is $1, so the max loss is 5-1=$4*100=$400.

So that’s how it works upon expiration. But lets say this position moved against you, you still have a few days until expiration, but the stock is at $120. Since there are a few days left, you probably could close the contract for a debit of $3.50 rather than the max loss debit of $5. However, since your short leg is ITM the person you sold the option to may choose to exercise their option. As a result, that would require you to take on a short position of $110*100=$11,000 per contract sold. You may not be able to afford to cover that, or your broker may not let you hold that position. So what happens is your long leg gets exercised as well resulting in you taking a max loss early. So while on paper you received a credit of $1 that could have been closed for a debit of $3.50 and your loss was only $2.50, early assignment results in you prematurely taking a max loss.

When does this happen? It typically doesn’t, since it requires the buyer sacrificing the remaining extrinsic value on the option, but it’s more likely with certain stocks. There are three different classifications of a stock that relate to it’s borrowing ability: Easy to Borrow (ETB), Hard to Borrow (HTB), and Not Available to Borrow (NTB). The harder a stock is to borrow, the more likely it is that a call is exercised early because it gives the buyer a way to acquire a stock which may not be available to them through their broker. So if you’re selling call spreads that are close to being ITM, make sure to check out the borrowing status of the stock.

2: Dividend Risk:

This risk relates to the first one discussed, as it’s just another way you risk early assignment. If a company is announcing a dividend, there will be something known as an “ex-div” date, which means that all shareholders as of that date are entitled to receive the divident, which will be distributed usually at a later date. Because of this, call buyers may exercise an out of the money call option in an effort to acquire those shares.

Remembering that exercising an option means that you sacrifice all remaining extrinsic value, another reason a buyer may exercise a call option before an ex-dividend date is that the value of the dividend announced is greater than the extrinsic value remaining in the option. Say a 100c is trading at $2 and the underlying (stock) is currently at 101. The extrinsic value is the value of the option in excess of what it would be worth upon expiration. So the extrinsic value in this situation is $1, since the 100c trading for $2 is just $1 in excess of the current strike price. If the company in question here announced a $2 dividend, an option buyer would likely exercise their call option because the $2 dividend is greater than the $1 of extrinsic value.

3: Pin Risk:

We know that if your spread finishes out of the money it’s a max gain and if both legs of your spread finish in the money it’s a max loss. But what happens when the price of a stock finishes between the two legs of your spread? Let’s take a look.

So using a 100/110c spread as an example, let’s say that the stock finishes at 105. Your long leg, which is there to protect you, is worthless so you wouldn’t exercise it. However the short leg at 100 that you sold will be exercised by the buyer since it’s ITM. As a result, you’re now short 100 shares at a price of 100 and you’ll be holding that position over the weekend. This can go both ways from here, but since we’re focused on risk let’s say that this stock you’re now short shoots up over the weekend and some sort of news/event brings it up to $120.

With this short position of 100 shares at $100 you’re borrowing $10,000 worth of stock. Now that the stock is worth $120 this position is now worth $12,000. Over the weekend you’ve sustained a $2,000 loss. If we received a credit of $3 when we opened this spread, we may have thought that our max loss was 10-3=$7*100=$700. Since we failed to close the spread out, this position has now resulted in a $2,000 loss net of the $300 credit that you received when you opened the position. So on a trade where you thought you could lose at most $700, you’re now down almost $2k.

I can’t repeat it enough, but THIS IS WHY WE CLOSE OUT SPREADS BEFORE EXPIRATION. That is the single most important takeaway I can give you here. Spreads are great since they’re defined risk and defined gain. When you’re buying options you have a defined loss but a potentially infinite gain. This can make it really easy to get greedy and I’ve seen countless traders lose big profits because they keep holding out for more. When you have a defined gain and defined loss it makes it easier to make smart decisions, take profits, and continuously build on those profits over time.

That was an enormous wall of text but I hope it helps explain, from a base level, what spreads are and how they work. Switching from buying options to selling options has dramatically changed my performance in the market so I hope sharing this can do the same for someone else. If you have any questions let me know and I’d be happy to answer them.

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