Beware of Earnings Unless You Dare

Although the first week of this most recent earnings season has been less than spectacular, as the financial sector has suffered under a low interest rate environment, I continue to look at the more speculative portion of my portfolio as being available to generate quick income from stocks before or after earnings are announced.

During a week that stocks, interest rates, oil, precious metals and currencies have all gyrated wildly, what’s a little added speculation with earnings?

The process of trading in anticipation or after earnings news is one that seeks to balance risk with reward, accepting a relatively small reward in exchange for taking on a level of risk that appears to be less than the market is expecting.

The basic concepts and considerations in the approach are related to:

  • personal ROI goal;
  • individual temperament for risk, and
  • time and ability to trade in or out of risk in response to events.

The concepts are covered in previous articles, but in summary, the objective is to find a stock that can deliver an acceptable ROI when selling a weekly put option at a strike level that is lower than the bottom of the range defined by the option market’s implied volatility for that stock.

For my tolerances I seek a 1% ROI for a weekly position at a strike price that is outside the boundaries implied by the option market.

While achieving the desired ROI is an objective metric, and should be done within the context of acceptable risk, the decision process to initiate a trade is frequently based upon share behavior.

My preference, when it appears that both the risk and the reward measures are satisfactory, is to sell puts into share weakness in advance of earnings. If that condition isn’t met, I may also consider the sale of puts after earnings if there is significant price weakness after the report.

After Friday’s strong close, which may have come as a surprise to most everyone after a week of declines, many stocks reporting earnings next week may now be coming off of Friday’s advances. Insofar as Friday’s performance may have represented a reflexive bounce higher, I would be initially reluctant to jump into any put sale related trades for concern about an equally reflexive drop lower.

However, a number of the positions covered in this article have already suffered large losses in advance of their earnings report, some perhaps due to altered guidance and many are already well off from their highs, even as the S&P 500 is barely 4% lower after a quick triple bottom.

I tend to be more interested in those stocks that have already fallen than I am in those whose shares are moving higher prior to earnings, as that moves the strike level that I would have to use to achieve my desired 1% ROI for the week higher, and may also shift premium enhancement on the call side of the equation, rather than to the put side, which also contributes to a lower ROI.

While the traditional opinion and belief is that put sellers must be willing to own the shares in which they have sold puts, I often do not want to take ownership unless an ex-dividend date is approaching. While many sell puts in order to gain an entry into share ownership at a lower and more attractive price, I do so generally in order to capture the income stream from the option sales.

For that reason, it is important to have liquidity in the options market in order to be able to concurrently close the position and open a new one for a forward week if assignment is unwanted. Ideally, that would also be done at a lower strike price, however, in an otherwise low volatility environment, as we currently have, despite some recent increase, that is a difficult objective unless there is additional stock specific volatility, as may be seen in the energy sector currently.

Whether able to rollover to a lower strike level or not, the primary goals are to delay or prevent assignment and to collect additional net premiums in an attempt to ultimately see the position expire or be closed.

Among the stocks for consideration this week are many that can be readily recognized for inherent risk, which may also influence price behavior on a regular basis regardless of upcoming earnings or guidance.

This week I’m considering the sale of puts of shares of Cree (NASDAQ:CREE), Freeport McMoRan (NYSE:FCX), F5 Networks (NASDAQ:FFIV), General Electric (NYSE:GE), International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM), Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK) and United Continental Holdings (NYSE:UAL).

 

 

Generally I don’t spend too much time considering the relative merits of the stocks being considered for earnings related trades, preferring to remain agnostic to those issues and simply following guidelines outlined above.

Looking at this week’s list, there is no shortage of stories in advance to scheduled earnings, such as SanDisk releasing altered guidance or Freeport McMoRan feeling the sudden weight of collapsing copper prices, in addition to its growing exposure to gold and energy prices.

While I don’t use margin to add stock positions, it is often perfectly suited for this kind of trading activity. I generally use these trades in an account hat has margin privileges. While selling cash secured puts decreases the amount of margin that is available to you, it does not draw on margin funds and, therefore, doesn’t incur interest expenses. Those expenses will only be incurred if the shares are assigned to you and are subsequently purchased through the use of the credit extended.

One thing noticed among the positions cited above is that fewer are meeting my criteria and being assigned a “YES” designation. That may reflect an increasing sense of pessimism among option market traders as compared to previous quarterly earnings periods. Normally I would only consider those with a “YES” rating, but may now also consider those that are “MARGINAL.”

If considering the sale of put options, there is always a possibility of early assignment, especially if shares go far below the strike price and when using a weekly contract. If that occurs, the seller of the put contracts should be prepared to either own shares or attempt to rollover the put option to a forward date.

The lower the volatility environment the less benefit there is to the put holder to delay assignment for deep in the money positions. In the event of early assignment the opportunity is then created to begin managing shares and enhancing return through the sale of call options. However, where possible, it may be best to consider pre-emptive action in order to prevent or delay assignment.

Finally, in the current market environment, moves, especially downward, seem to be sudden and magnified. If pursuing any of these earnings related trades it helps to have exit strategies planned in advance and to limit falling prey to surprise, as that may be the one thing that can be counted upon.

Taking a Gamble with Earnings

The coming week stands to be a busy one as about 150 of the S&P 500 stocks will be reporting their quarterly earnings.

While earnings had gotten off to a good start last week with a strong showing from those in the financial sector, the market’s initial optimism was tempered a bit during the first day Janet Yellen’s Humphrey-Hawkins testimony and was sent into a pall with news of the tragic downing of a Malaysian civilian plan over the disputed Ukraine – Russian border area.

Regardless of the direction a stock’s price takes upon the earnings parade that also includes forward guidance there is often opportunity to profit from either the expected or unexpected news that’s delivered.

Whenever I ponder whether an earnings related trade is worth consideration I let the option market’s measure of the “implied price move” serve to determine whether there is a satisfactory risk-reward proposition. That calculation provides a price range in which projected price movements are thought to be likely.

If selling options, whether as part of a covered call strategy or through the sale of puts, there may be opportunity to achieve an acceptable premium even though if it represents a share price outside of the bounds set by the option market. Of course, that does depend to some degree on your own definition of “acceptable” and what you believe to be the appropriate level of risk to accompany that reward.

This coming week there appears to be a number of stocks that may warrant some attention as the reward may be well suited to the risk for some, as premiums tend to be heightened before known events, such as earnings.

A unifying theme for stocks that satisfy my criteria of offering a 1% or greater premium for a weekly option at a strike price outside of the boundary defined by the implied move calculation is underlying volatility. While already heightened due to impending earnings release and the uncertainty that accompanies the event, stocks that typically satisfy the criteria I’ve selected are already quite volatile.

While the implied volatilities may sometimes appear to be high, they are often consistent with past history and such moves are certainly within the realm of probability. That knowledge should serve as a warning that the unthinkable can, and does, happen.

While individuals can set their own risk-reward parameters, I’m very satisfied with a weekly 1% ROI.  The other part of the equation, the risk, is less quantitative. It is merely a question of whether the necessary strike level to achieve the reward is above or below the lower boundary defined by the stock’s implied move. 

I prefer to be below that lower boundary.

Among the companies that I am considering this coming week are Apple (AAPL), Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF), Comcast (CMCSA), Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), Facebook (FB), Freeport McMoRan (FCX), Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), Microsoft (MSFT), Pandora (P) and VMWare (VMW).

The basis for making any of these trades is entirely predicated upon what may be an inefficiency between the option premiums and the implied price movement. I give no consideration to fundamental nor technical issues and would prefer not to be in a position to take ownership of shares in the event of an adverse price move.

My preference when selling put contracts is to do so when shares have already been falling in price in advance of earnings. Given the flourish with which this past week ended that is a bit more difficult, as a number of the shares listed had sizable gains in the session, recovering from the previous day’s drops.

While I would prefer not to take ownership of shares, the investor must be prepared to do so or to attempt to manage the options contract, such as rolling it forward, if assignment appears inevitable.

During periods of low volatility it may sometimes be difficult to do so and achieve a meaningful additional premium without going out further in time than you may have envisioned, however.

The table above may be used as a guide for determining which of these selected companies meets risk-reward parameters. Re-assessments need to be made as prices and, therefore, strike prices and their premiums may change. Additionally, the target ROI may warrant being changed as time erodes. For example, if the trade is executed with only 4 days of time remaining on the contract the 1% ROI may find its equivalent in a 0.8% return.

While the list can be used prospectively there may also be occasion to consider put sales following earnings in those cases where shares have reacted in an extremely negative fashion to earnings or to guidance. If you believe the response was an over-reaction to the news there may then be opportunity to sell put options to take advantage of the negative sentiment that may be reflected in option premiums.

In such a case the sale of a put is a bullish sentiment and there may be opportunity to make that expression a profitable one as the over-reaction faces its own correction. My recent observation, however, is that it seems to be taking longer and longer to see some stocks mount meaningful recoveries after earnings disappointments, which I interpret as a bearish indicator for the market as a whole, as risk aversion is a priority.

Recently, I’ve spent some considerable time in managing some positions that had greater than anticipated price moves, including taking assignment and then managing the  position through the sale of call options.

Ultimately, regardless of the timing of an earnings related trade there is always opportunity when large price movements are anticipated, especially if those worst and best case scenarios aren’t realized.

Best of all, if the extreme scenarios are realized a nimble trader may have opportunity to create even more opportunities and allow the position to accumulate returns while doing so.