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.

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.

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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.

How and Why to Use a Covered Call Option Strategy

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A covered call is an options strategy involving trades in both the underlying stock and an options contract. The trader buys or owns the underlying stock or asset. They will then sell call options (the right to purchase the underlying asset, or shares of it) and then wait for the options contract to be exercised or to expire.

Exercising the Option Contract

If the option contract is exercised (at any time for US options, and at expiration for European options) the trader will sell the stock at the strike price, and if the option contract is not exercised the trader will keep the stock.

A put option is the option to sell the underlying asset, whereas a call option is the option to purchase the option. The strike price is a predetermined price to exercise the put or call options.

For a covered call, the call that is sold is typically out of the money (OTM), when an option’s strike price is higher than the market price of the underlying asset. This allows for profit to be made on both the option contract sale and the stock if the stock price stays below the strike price of the option.

If you believe the stock price is going to drop, but you still want to maintain your stock position, you can sell an in the money (ITM) call option, where the strike price of the underlying asset is lower than the market value.

When selling an ITM call option, you will receive a higher premium from the buyer of your call option, but the stock must fall below the ITM option strike price—otherwise, the buyer of your option will be entitled to receive your shares if the share price is above the option’s strike price at expiration (you then lose your share position). Covered call writing is typically used by investors and longer-term traders, and is used sparingly by day traders. 

How to Create a Covered Call Trade

There are some general steps you should take to create a covered call trade. 

  1. Purchase a stock, buying it only in lots of 100 shares.
  2. Sell a call contract for every 100 shares of stock you own. One call contract represents 100 shares of stock. If you own 500 shares of stock, you can sell up to 5 call contracts against that position. You can also sell less than 5 contracts, which means if the call options are exercised you won’t have to relinquish all of your stock position. In this example, if you sell 3 contracts, and the price is above the strike price at expiration (ITM), 300 of your shares will be called away (delivered if the buyer exercises the option), but you will still have 200 shares remaining.
  3. Wait for the call to be exercised or to expire. You are making money off the premium the buyer of the call option pays to you. If the premium is $0.10 per share, you make that full premium if the buyer holds the option until expiration and it is not exercised. You can buy back the option before expiration, but there is little reason to do so, and this isn’t usually part of the strategy.

Risks and Rewards of the Covered Call Options Strategy

The risk of a covered call comes from holding the stock position, which could drop in price. Your maximum loss occurs if the stock goes to zero. Therefore, you would calculate your maximum loss per share as:

Maximum Loss Per Share = Stock Entry Price – Option Premium Received

For example, if you buy a stock at $9, and receive a $0.10 option premium on your sold call, your maximum loss is $8.90 per share. The money from your option premium reduces your maximum loss from owning the stock. The option premium income comes at a cost though, as it also limits your upside on the stock. 

You can only profit on the stock up to the strike price of the options contracts you sold. Therefore, calculate your maximum profit as:

Maximum Profit = ( Strike Price – Stock Entry Price) + Option Premium Received

For example, if you buy a stock at $9, receive a $0.10 option premium from selling a $9.50 strike price call, then you maintain your stock position as long as the stock price stays below $9.50 at expiration. If the stock price moves to $10, you only profit up to $9.50, so your profit is $9.50 – $9.00 + $0.10 = $0.60.

If you sell an ITM call option, the underlying stock’s price will need to fall below the call’s strike price in order for you to maintain your shares. If this occurs, you will likely be facing a loss on your stock position, but you will still own your shares, and you will have received the premium to help offset the loss. 

Final Thoughts on the Covered Call Options Strategy

The main goal of the covered call is to collect income via option premiums by selling calls against a stock that you already own. Assuming the stock doesn’t move above the strike price, you collect the premium and maintain your stock position (which can still profit up to the strike price). 

Traders should factor in commissions when trading covered calls. If commissions erase a significant portion of the premium received—depending on your criteria—then it isn’t worthwhile to sell the option(s) or create a covered call.

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