When we place an order for a stock or Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), there are a couple of ways we can make a purchase. The easiest is a Market Order, which simply instructs our custodian (TD Ameritrade Institutional) to purchase the specified number of shares at the current market price.
Sometimes, however, we may want to purchase shares at a lower price or wait until the market falls to a specific level. This can be achieved through a Limit Order – which says that we will buy our position only at or below a price we indicate. Of course, the challenge with a Limit Order is that there is no guarantee that the price will in fact fall to our target!
Many investors who use Limit Orders, especially in a Bull Market like we’ve had in recent years, see prices move up and their orders never fill. Then they are faced with the ugly choice of having to buy at a higher price than if they had just used a Market Order at the beginning. And instead of participating in the growth of the market, they sit on the sidelines in cash. So there can be a real opportunity cost to Limit Orders. In reality, Limit Orders are a type of market timing, where an investor thinks they can predict short term moves and profit from those fluctuations.
There is a third, more complicated option, which most investors don’t know how to do. Like a Limit Order, we can select a target price that we would like buy a stock or ETF within a certain time frame. And like a Limit Order, if the price falls to or below this level, we will buy the shares at our target price. Unlike a Limit Order, we can get paid for our willingness to buy these shares, regardless of whether or not the order fills, by using options.
It is done by selling a Put. A Put is an option which requires you to buy a security for a specific price (called the “strike price”) before or at the expiration of the option (typically one month to one year). When you sell a Put, you receive a premium upfront in exchange for agreeing to buy shares at the strike price. One options contract equals 100 shares.
Let’s walk through an example. You are looking to buy the iShares Emerging Markets Index, ticker EEM. As of the Friday August 17 close, you could have bought EEM at the market at $42.21. 100 shares would have cost $4,221. But maybe you thought it could go lower, so instead, you enter a Limit Order for $40. Now, if EEM falls to $40, you will buy your 100 shares for $4,000.
Alternatively, you could sell a November $40 Put on EEM for $83. That means you would get paid $83 in exchange for the right for someone else to make you buy 100 shares of EEM for $40 a share between now and November 16, 90 days from now. If EEM falls to $40 or below, you will buy 100 shares for $4,000 just like in the limit order, plus you made the $83. Even if EEM stays above $40, you keep the $83 no matter what.
I know that $83 isn’t much, it represents about 2% of the price of EEM. That’s over 90 days, so if we consider the value of selling this option on an annualized basis, it is a bit over 8% a year. That’s a lot better than using a limit order and not making anything.
Let’s consider the difference between a market order, a limit order, and selling a Put using two different scenarios, at 100 shares. Today’s price is $42.21 and I’m disregarding commissions and taxes in these examples.
1. The price rises to $45. If you bought at the market ($4,221), you would have a profit of $279. If you placed a limit order at $40, your order never filled and you have nothing. If you sold the put, you would not have any shares, but you would have the $83.
2. The price of EEM falls over time to $38 a share. If you bought 100 shares at the market ($4,221), your shares are now worth $3,800 and you are down $421. If you set a limit order at $40, you would have bought 100 shares for $4,000 and you are now down by $200. If you sold a put, you’d also buy 100 shares at $4,000, but since you collected the $83, you now have a lesser loss of $117.
So whether the price goes up or down, selling a Put is generally going to be better than a limit order. The only example where this might not occur is if a stock has a big gap down overnight – for example, it is at $41 one day and the next morning opens at $38. In this case, your limit order will fill at the open at $38. This does happen sometimes, but it is fairly unusual. Most limit orders, if they fill, end up being executed right at your limit price.
Who is taking the other side of the option? The buyer of a Put is likely a “hedger”: they are buying the Put as protection to preserve their money in case the stock goes down. Or they are a speculator who is betting that the stock will fall. Both are bad bets, statistically. When the expected return of the market is only 8%, paying an 8% annualized premium to hedge your position is in effect giving away all of your potential upside.
Instead, I’d rather be the person selling them this insurance and be the seller of the Put. I’ve spent may years selling Puts (and Calls, too) and am not recommending this is something you try to do on your own. Not every stock or ETF has an active options market and you should be very careful with thinly traded options.
But this is a strategy we use with some of our clients in place of Limit Orders and I wanted to share with all of you an very brief overview of how it works. Please note that options are only available on securities which trade on the exchange and not on mutual funds. What I do not recommend is selling Puts as a speculative bet. Only sell Puts for shares you want to buy and own as a long-term investment. Additionally, to sell Puts, you must either have either cash in the account or a margin account. If you’re interested in learning more about selling Puts in place of limit orders, please reply to this email.
Note: accounts must be approved for options before trading can begin. Please see The Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options for more information.