Monday, March 30, 2009

Unconventional Way to go long Financials

Once-proud financial-service companies have been humbled, and currently trade at lowly prices usually reserved for unknown, unremarkable companies.

Citi (C) ended at $2.31 at Monday's close. American International Group (AIG) closed below a dollar. Both stocks are up roughly 250% off of all-time lows, but the future of the shares (and companies) are hazy at best. Risk-adverse investors don't necessarily want to gamble on such risky companies, especially while daily price fluctuations are so extreme. At the same time, however, bullish investors may want to be exposed to potential upside in shares of such trampled companies.

Rather than owning the shares of stock, investors could gain exposure to upside movement by selling naked put options.

Selling "naked" puts refers to selling puts without actually being short shares of the stock, which would sometimes create a riskier situation for the seller. However, with C shares so close to $0, even the worst-case scenario is very clear.

When puts are sold, the seller's account gets credited with the amount of the sale and an outstanding obligation shows up. If shares do move lower, the size of that obligation increases as the puts increase in value, and the seller essentially loses money. If shares increase in price, the size of the obligation gets smaller, and the seller enjoys some paper gains.

Below is a table of C January 2010 puts (courtesy of

Though there is little to no volume in the far in-the-money puts, the bid and ask spreads remain reasonable and transaction costs do not inhibit using this strategy. Options close to the current share price retain time value, providing a bonus for the seller.

At the $2.50 level, options traded hands yesterday at roughly $1.25 (we'll take the bid), implying that investors expect C shares to be worth no more than $1.25 in January of 2010. If shares close below that level, the put seller will lose money. If shares became completely worthless ($0) before then, the put seller would essentially owe $250 per contract while he was only credited $125 at the time of sale. However, if shares only appreciate 10% (to over the $2.50 strike price) within the next 10 months, the seller will get to keep the entire credit at the time of sale.

Utilizing this strategy with in-the-money options changes the risk and reward involved. If a seller sold $10 puts for $8.05, he has a possibility of making $800 per contract (if shares close above $10 in Jan '10) while only potentially losing $200 (if shares go to $0).

Selling even farther OTM puts exaggerates the risk/return profile further. Selling $40 puts in the bid/ask spread at $38 seems possible, even though its highly unlikely that C shares will see that share price within the foreseeable future. However, the trade can still be made. Again, downside risk is limited to coughing up $200 if shares hit $0 (which means repaying $4000 compared to an initial credit of $3800), while profit potential remains intact (a $10 share price close would net the seller $800 of profit, essentially). And with C, AIG, BAC, and many other companies trading relatively close to $0, this strategy can be employed for an entire portfolio of companies.

Requirements for selling naked puts differs based on broker, and the strategy isn't for everyone. Like owning shares, downside risk is limited (paying the entire difference between strike price and $0) if the shares become worthless, but gains are capped too (at the initial selling price of the contract). But this strategy may offer an interesting way to expose one's portfolio to the possibility of bullish performance without sacrificing too much capital.

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