Futures Calendar Spreads on Interactive Brokers

Trading futures calendar spreads is a good way to express a long or short opinion an underlying index or commodity, without the volatility and margin requirements of a fully directional naked future contract. We are using Interactive Brokers (IB) to trade future calendar spreads, but many other future brokers offer this. Here we can review an example Natural Gas /NG bullish calendar spread, that should benefit from a rise in the commodity price. This bull future spread means long a front month future contract, and short a back month future contract.

To describe trade entry and exit on this bull future spread we will use the IB “buy” and “sell” terminology as follows:
Trade entry – means to “sell” the spread (go long front month, then short back month)
Trade exit – means to “buy” the spread (short front month and go long back month). This is the exact logical opposite of trade entry.

Futures Calendar Spreads – Demo Account

Before you place any real trades here it is highly recommended use the IB demo trading mode of Paper Trading. Click “Try the demo” link below from the IB login screen. The IB future trading interface is somewhat non intuitive and requires a reasonable learning curve to fully understand what futures positions are being represented.

Interactive Brokers Paper Trading Login - Futures Calendar Spreads

Trade Entry

Trade Entry was on 27th Feb 2018

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry

These are screenshots of entering the order from the demo system. Using the demo system for dummy order execution avoids accidental executions with “real” money. Please note that the market has moved so that the demo system screenshots do not match the above “real” trade entry executions – however the process to follow remains identical.

For some historical context, this is the 1 year chart of the spread:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - Chart 1 Year

This is where to select the relevant menu item from the SpreadTrader utility:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Start menu

This is how to select the front month and back month. Importantly can not select just one calendar spread, must select two or more spreads otherwise the “Finish” button does not appear.

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Configure Futures Spreads

Click on the relevant “ask” for the calendar spread and the following order entry will appear.
As we are selling, make sure the limit price starts higher than current Ask.

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Order Entry

Followed by this order display:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180227 Trade Entry - SpreadTrader Order Display

Walk down the limit price downwards (because we are selling) by 0.001 increments on the order until you achieve a fill.

Trade Update

This trade update was on 18th April 2018 to enter a GTC order to allow possible trade exit after the time frame for the 30 day rule has elapsed.

Identify the long future leg in the front month from the Account Positions, and select Contract Description menu:

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Long Leg

Review the contract description and note the symbol. In this case the symbol is NGM8. Verify that the futures contract named month and actual expiration date are as expected.
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Long Leg Contract Description

Repeat process for the short future leg in the back month from the Account Positions, and select Contract Description menu:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Short Leg

Review the contract description and note the symbol. In this case the symbol is NGQ8.
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Short Leg Contract Description

Now look at the chart to identify a target exit price. Create a new chart of the calendar futures spread that is the long near month contract minus the short back month contract
Cut and paste NGM8-NGQ8 into the chart symbol entry text box and press ENTER. In this example NGM8 Jun 18 is the near month and NGQ8 Aug 18 is the back month.
Important – note that the label shown on the chart is the exact OPPOSITE way to what was entered!

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Chart 2 Months

Now create limit order exit trade to Buy. Right click on the chart and select Buy and drag down the line significantly underneath the chart. Click the “T” on the order.

To exit this trade need to sell the near month (that is long Jun 18 position) and buy back the far month (that is short Aug 18 position). IB defines this exit trade as a Buy 1 Calendar Spread. Since we are buying, start limit order with a low limit price, so that it can be cancel and corrected (updated) multiple times to achieve a better price. In this example started at 0.038. See the screenshots below for an example order.

Order Entry:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - SpreadTrader Order Entry

Order Preview:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Short Leg Order Preview

Active Orders:
NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Orders

Trade Summary

Looking at the chart, trying to achieve the lowest price makes sense, as we wish the difference between the near month Jun 18 and far month Aug 18 to shrink not expand. This can be a good til cancelled (GTC) order that can be hung out there until a price target is achieved – historically there seems to be support at 0.040 to 0.030 range, so that could be a good starting target (but you can obviously adjust for your trading style). If you want to get an immediate fill on a trade exit today, then just cancel and correct the order in 0.001 increments until it fills. Alternatively you can leave the order out there for the trading day to see if anyone nibbles at it, then get more aggressive on closing it nearer the end of the day.

NG Feb 2018 Short Futures Calendar NGM8 - NGQ8 20180418 Trade Update - Chart 6 Month Limit Order

In theory most futures calendar spreads are mean reverting, so we are looking for a move back towards the long term mean to capture some gain. We are not looking to make a killing on the directional trade – even though this is a “long” natural gas trade it usually a pretty slow moving spread. Additionally the spread may only go into that range for a few hours or days during its remaining trade lifecycle into end of May expiration, so we just want to grab a good price with a GTC if it’s there. Also we don’t want to hang around for the unpredictable spread volatility for the 2 weeks or so prior to expiration, so if it is still open at that time we’d probably just close when it gets too close to expiration.

Oil Futures – Trade Exit – 29th Aug 2016

We can use Futures Options to enter a bullish oil trade using Crude Oil /CL Bull Call Spread – this gives a slightly bullish bias in oil. The Bull Call Spread is a limited risk reward trade with typically a one to one risk reward. The specific trade was entered on 29th July with $41 / $42 bull call spread when Crude Oil /CL was around $41.5 – essentially attempting to exactly middle the spread around the current price, but still defining the amount of risk to take. The trade cost $5.4, simply $540 per Crude Oil /CL contract. At expiration it could be exited for a max amount of $10 ($460 gain) or expire worthless for $0 ($540 loss). This was slightly worse than our typical 50/50 bet (about a 46/54 bet!) but it was close enough to get the trade executed, without having to wait too long for the market to position itself exactly in between the strikes.

Trade Entry

This shows trade entry prices:
CL Jul 2016 Bull Call Spread trade entry - 20160729

Looking at our portfolio, we also have on a post Brexit short CAD call spread that was acting as a nice counter balance to this trade. The Canadian Dollar /6C and Crude Oil /CL prices are positively correlated, meaning most of the time if oil prices go up, then Canadian Dollar would also rally.

Trade analysis

On 26th August /CL closed at $47.29 which is about $5.29 (12.6%!) over our max profit strike, which is very likely to realise the maximum profit of $460 if held all the way to expiration. The current open unrealised profit is $350. The blue rectangles on the Crude Oil /CL option chain below highlight the $41 and $42 strike options that make up the trade. The red circles highlight the strike and delta for the $42 call. This shows that the $42 call has about a 76 delta which meant that it had about a 76% chance of the spread being in the money by expiration (and making the maximum profit).
CL Jul 2016 Bull Call Spread option chain analysis - 20160826

However the 30 day rule period will be up on Monday 29th August, therefore we set the limit profit order to trigger at $400 profit or $9.5 limit (which is 85% of max profit). We would like $400 out of the trade, so we have to set the limit $0.1 higher to allow for commissions. With no commissions $400 profit would be $9.4, but including commissions it is $9.5. Technically there is $60 extra to make in this trade by holding all the way to expiration, but that would be about $940 risk to make $60 over 20 days into expiration so probably worth just closing it. It could be left to expire for next 20 days, but according to the option market there is a still a 25% chance that oil crashes to our higher $42 strike by expiration – so it is safer to exit on Monday for most of the profit and not have to worry about it.

The following chart shows the full trade life cycle marked up with our comments:
CL Jul 2016 Bull Call Spread chart trade analysis - 20160826

Oil Futures – Trade Exit

In the slight oil rally on 30th Aug the limit order was triggered and trade exited. This shows trade exit prices:
CL Jul 2016 Bull Call Spread trade exit - 20160830

In summary we made almost the full profit available in this trade, and exited as soon as possible after the 30 day rule allowed, but still let the market trigger the limit order for us to get the target $400 – this was a solid 74% profit on capital risked (profit $400 / risk capital $540 = 0.74).

Gold Futures – Trade Exit – 15th Aug 2016

Gold Futures – Trade Exit on 15th Aug 2016. We can use Futures Options to go through Bull Call Spread example. We originally entered a gold Bull Call Spread with a slight bullish bias in Gold, but mostly just to get some trades on. The Bull Call Spread is a limited risk reward trade with typically a one to one risk reward. Typically we would pick the options on futures that expire 45 to 60 days out. This gives plenty of time for the trade to move in the expected direction. This means that you don’t have to monitor the trade too closely throughout its lifetime, with is important with a 30 day rule.

However even if the trade is totally wrong, then can likely salvage a bit of value to either exit, or re-establish in the next monthly cycle. e.g. if the trade was placed for $500, it might only be worth $250. At that point could sell the whole spread, then do the same trade at the same strikes for the following month – this simply allows time in the trade if you still like the trade idea.

Gold Futures – Trade Exit

The specific trade was entered on 14th July with $1325 / $1335 bull call spread when /GC was around $1330 – essentially attempting to exactly middle the spread around the current price, but still defining the amount of risk to take. The trade cost $5, simply $500 per /GC contract. At expiration it could be exited for a max amount of $10 ($500 gain) or expire worthless for $0 ($500 loss).

This shows trade entry and exit prices:
GC Aug 2016 Bull Call Spread trade exit - 20160815

On 15th August /GC was about $1345 which is about $10 (0.75%) over our max profit strike, which is not a lot distance for the several days remaining in the trade. The trade had a profit of about $200 out of a maximum of $500, but clearly was only slightly out of money so that could be erased with a swift down move. However on investigating the delta of $1335 call gave about 63 delta which meant that it had about a 63% chance of making money by expiration. However we also know the probability of a touch at a higher strike is much higher than the probability of finishing at a particular strike at expiration. To define that another way – although this was currently looking like a marginal trade, there was still a high probability of exiting with a 50% of max profit ($250 profit target out of a maximum $500) between now and expiration.
There we set the limit profit order to trigger at $250 profit or $7.6 limit. Technically this would be $7.5 limit, but we set an extra $0.1 on the limit price (or $10 value) higher over our profit target to allow for commissions. The commissions on this trade are 2.31 for each option leg for entry and exit, which is $9.24, which is over time this adds up, so moving the limit by $0.1 covers those commissions nicely.
We then went to sleep, and luckily in the morning the limit had been filled due to a nice rally.

The following chart shows the full trade life cycle marked up with our comments:
GC Aug 2016 Bull Call Spread chart trade analysis - 20160825

In summary there was more profit available in this trade that ultimately we didn’t take, however we did make a solid 50% profit on capital risked. Also the trade reversed recently in the last week, meaning that if we had held on into expiration we would know be looking at -$200 loser (using today’s prices). The difference between taking the $250 or waiting for the -$200 loser is $450, so that is a significant swing for the trade size. Therefore taking the profit on the profit target was the right decision, and consistently taking profits on the winners helps balance out any future losing trades. We are getting better about not being disappointed with not making the “maximum” each time, and now we try simply moving on to the next trade.

Brexit trading update – the aftermath

This will be the final general Brexit trading update – after this will resume general separate trade updates, but just wanted to get down all the trading moves made since last Friday and this week.

In summary it is a political mess in UK following Brexit. Prime minister resigned, opposition leader under threat for not campaigning strong enough for stay vote and Scotland threatening to veto the decision. On top of that Europeans telling UK to get on with a timetable for leaving. Not to mention the final hammerblow of England losing to Iceland in Euro 2016 (Brexit likely not as traumatic as the football exit for some people…).

However .. on to the trade update. If your trading account is still alive after the last few days after brexit… Congratulations! We were NOT expecting a leave vote to win, however we have to adjust our positions. Fortunately the implied volatility is still sky high on currencies and equities, so adjusting by selling premium is not that hard.

We are now now bearish USDGBP for the next few months. Not betting on immediate rebound. Any rallies are to be sold. There will probably be huge counter trend rallies based on discussions or actual BOE currency intervention, however those should be taken as a opportunity to short at higher levels. Limited risk reward with all bearish trades (eg call spreads or put / put spreads). Also medium term bearish on UK equities, but fallout from US equities will almost certainly be less for US versus UK. Not convinced that US market will react dramatically to Brexit over next few months (isn’t not likely on it’s own to cause a bear market). Would like to do short premium trades that take advantage of the high implied volatility env. Once again… if your trading account is still alive after the last few days of trading brexit your risk management rules are working.

Our portfolio had a relatively large number of short premium strategies going into the vote. These had to have minor some adjustments after the vote, which we did relatively quickly in most cases. There were also some strategic portfolio hedges to protect existing long positions that were quickly added on the Friday after Brexit (fortunately at pretty decent prices). Here are the trades we actually did …

Brexit trading update – Friday

Hedged our entire GBP cash position with a combination futures trade. This was hedged at 1.385 into the bounce on Friday morning at much better prices than overnight.
Brexit trading update - 6B Jun 2016 Bear Call Spread and Put - chart trade entry - 20160624

The combination /6B futures trade was needed to have full downside protection – without over paying TOO much for volatility (although some volatility premium needed to be sacrificed to hedge against total free fall).
Brexit trading update - 6B Jun 2016 Bear Call Spread and Put - trade entry - 20160624

Added these two bearish trades with a SPY put butterfly in the morning and IWM put butterfly near the close. These have no downside risk and were added when vol was high so could get strikes wide apart.

SPY put butterfly
Brexit trading update - SPY Jun 2016 Put Butterfly trade entry - 20160624

IWM put butterfly
Brexit trading update - IWM Jun 2016 Put Butterfly trade entry - 20160624

Hedged our entire Canadian dollar real estate position with a combination futures trade. This might be an over reaction to Brexit because the Canada/USA economic trading relationship is not likely to be directly affected. However if the market goes into “risk on” mode and oil prices decline then the USDCAD rate would suffer.
Brexit trading update - 6C Jun 2016 Bear Call Spread and Put - trade entry - 20160624

Brexit trading update – Monday

Shorted ATM volatility by adding a short call spread against the tested side of our existing FXB iron condor placed prior to Brexit. Also locked in a guaranteed profit on the short call spread by buying a very cheap call vertical. This is our way of rolling down within the confines of the 30 day rule – without this rule you’d just close out the call spread, and re-sell it at the lower strike. Trade has only $203 risk now:
Brexit trading update - FXB Jun 2016 Iron Condor trade adjustment - 20160627

Sold a QQQ iron condor similar to Tasty Trade’s good trade / bad trade – not our idea, but will take it.
Brexit trading update - QQQ Jun 2016 Iron Condor trade trade entry - 20160627

Short TLT bond call spread – don’t really like this trade from risk/reward (doesnt make much even if right) but just trying to sell bond premium in high vol with limited risk (and start a very small short position at recent all time highs).
Brexit trading update - TLT Jun 2016 Bear Call Spread trade entry - 20160627

Brexit trading update – Tuesday

Didn’t do much because implied volatility had contracted quite a bit, so there wasn’t that much premium to sell. Still not happy with QQQ and TLT positions – slight rise in market or bonds is going to hurt these positions.

Brexit trading update – Wednesday

Didn’t do much, big market rally again. Implied volatility reduced again. Sitting on hands for now. GBP rally somewhat muted given general “risk off” market rally.

Brexit trading update – Thursday

Portfolio is now getting too short for comfort – we have also iron condor established early in June in XME, EWZ that are rallying hard through the short call strike today. Adjusted the QQQ iron condor established on Monday to get some more long deltas in the portfolio.
Brexit trading update - QQQ Jun 2016 Iron Condor trade adjustment - 20160630

Brexit trading update – conclusion

Handled the actual event pretty well, but was caught off guard a bit because do not expect this massive bounce. Lost about 1% of the account in the bounce because pushing too hard on the short side (but that was arguably justifed given the initial market reaction). Ironic though because through out actual brexit in about Monday – the account was flat to slightly up. So navigated it pretty well initially, but frustrated to be losing money in last couple of days when did so relatively well on the initial reaction. Live and learn – and definitely not a write off experience.

Natural Gas – Bullish Short Futures Calendar – Trade Entry – 22-Apr-2016

Trade entry was a Natural Gas /NG Bullish Short Futures Calendar entered on 22-Apr-2016. The following marked up chart shows the original trade entry on April 22nd with some historical context on the last months trading action:

Natural Gas April 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGN6 - NGM6 20160504 Chart

Trade Opinion

The aim is to be bullish natural gas, with the assumption that the nearer term month future will go up faster than the far month future. The near month future has about 45 days to go to expiration, so has time for the 30 days to pass, so it can be liquidated under the 30 day rule (as a spread).

The circled “random” chart prints on the chart image can be ignored, because presumably they are not real trades – however this does show that the spread is relative illiquid. This means that should always use limit orders for trade entry and trade exit, to avoid potentially large slippage. Even on 1 contract trade, this could be as much as $100 (0.01) either way throughout a trading day (check the chart) – so it can be significant to overall strategy profitability.

The spread can also move around between $100 and $200 (0.01 and 0.02) per day, but that is still within a manageable range on 1 future contract trade. The trade is a relative value mean reverting trade, so in theory it is not that likely to move massively in opposite direction for a long period of time – it will theoretically tend to move back into long term averages – so big spikes up or down tend to mean revert over time. The risk is that the “in theory” part is understated and the spread will lose more money than comfortable for a single portfolio position. In our portfolio this is managed by trading small enough (1 contract) to stay in the trade without worrying too much about temporary adverse moves over a few days.

Natural Gas Current Trade position on May 4th

The original position was entered as follows:

Natural Gas April 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGN6 - NGM6 20160422 Trade Entry

The unrealised gain loss on 4th May was:
Natural Gas April 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGN6 - NGM6 20160504 Unreleased Gain Loss


Need to stay another 2.5 weeks in this trade because of 30 day rule, but then can re-evaluate. If some mean reversion has occurred and the Natural Gas /NG price has risen, the spread could come back to profitability. It is currently in an expected range, so no need to adjust yet.

Brexit Trade Exit – 18-Apr-2016

Last month Brexit Short Pound Long Euro Trade update we started a medium term trade betting that the pound will trade lower into June Brexit on fear of an exit poll. The trade was to short Great British Pounds (GBP) using 3 E-micro futures /M6B in Jun 2016 (symbol /M6BM6), and long Euro (EUR) using 2 E-micro futures /M6E in Jun 2016 (symbol /M6EM6). Each side had a notional value of approximately $26k USD. The 3:2 ratio is simply chosen so that the notional amounts are identical, because of the different contract size for each currency. Trade entry was 14th March 2016. We originally attempted to hold it as a position trade into the brexit referendum date in June 2016, but if our risk management rules take us out we will exit.

The Great British Pounds (GBP) future was the original short, and we sold Euro (EUR) against it to offset the risk somewhat. Because the Euro moves closely with the Pound over last year, this is a fairly closely correlated pairs trade. Pound is relatively flat for last month, and the euro had rallied a bit.
Recall from last month, we also had also completely hedged with opposite fx positions into the March 17th BOE meeting.

Profit Loss update at end week April 15th

Looking at the overall position on April 15th 2016 approximately 1 month later we have:
$250 profit on short 3 E-micro futures /M6B
$350 profit on long 2 E-micro futures /M6E
-$100 on long pound fx hedge
-$150 on short euro fx hedge

M6B Short April 2016 GBP Brexit Pair 20160415 - trade adjustment

Over this month the Pound has been down about 1% and Euro up about 1.5% (so not a huge amount of movement). However this price movement has given some options to make position adjustments.

M6B Short April 2016 GBP Brexit Pair 20160415 - 1 month correlation

We exited all positions, except the Pound future, for a total profit of $100. Then immediately added a stop to buy back the short pound at 1.4269 (entry was 1.4282). This stop was chosen only to allow for about 0.0013 slippage on the micro future and still guarantee a small profit of about $20 on the short future position. This would give us a total minimum profit of about $120 ($100 + $20) on the entire position, and still gives approximately a 1% wiggle room to the stop. However it is still possible (and potentially likely) to get stopped out, but crucially we can still maintain the short pound position with no risk from the overall trade. If we get stopped out, will likely be able to establish at better levels. If GBPUSD continues to go down, then will have established a decent sized position for no risk – if that happens, then likely would exit before the Brexit decision in next few weeks.

Final (enforced) Exit on Mon Apr 18th

Update: as of Monday, got stopped out this morning at 1.4270 so no longer have any position. Note the 0.0001 slippage from the actual 1.4269 stop. Cannot rely on stops to exit exactly at specified price, so always allow for some slippage between the stop and your required exit price. The slippage is typically dependent on product liquidity and when the stop executes. These FX Micro futures on /M6B are typically liquid with 0.0001 spreads during the day, but appear to move to 0.0002 in overnight US trading. You may get better executions during US hours. For example our execution was with only 0.001 slippage at 10.56am.

Total P&L was $120 – we had locked in a gain originally of $350, but that last adjustment from Friday cost us about $230 in giving back profits. However even though it got stopped out today, we did manage the risk well and ultimately turned the position into a “zero risk” trade.

Trade exit final review on Fri Apr 29th

Reviewing this trade again after the exit 2 weeks ago, shows that the in short term the trade theory was invalidated. The following chart shows how the trade would have moved significantly against it, if we had stayed in it.
M6B Short April 2016 GBP Brexit Pair 20160430 - trade exit review

However we did make a small profit – we might look a retrying this trade soon as these high levels. The importance of our risk management is that we are not emotional scarred from being wrong, so we can evaluate any new trade on its merits, not trying to get back to break even.

Futures Options and Calendars near expiration

Trading futures options vertical spreads and futures calendar spreads can have their own nuances when the trade gets close to expiration. Here we look at some real life examples from our Natural Gas /NG trades in the past few months.

Future Options Vertical spreads

What happens when both legs of a natural gas spread trade expire in the money at expiration ? Unfortunately in our case here this was full loss on a bull put spread, however given that the natural gas /NG price moved about 14% against the position, we are grateful for the protection afforded by the spread to limit the loss.

NG Mar 2016 Bull Put Spread 20160328 Trade Exit Chart

Both legs of the bull put spread got assigned into their respective futures positions at the option strike price, then they immediately get liquidated because they cancel each other out. This is literally buying and selling the same futures contract at the same time at two different prices. This results in an instant profit or loss, depending on what the spread was. The following trades highlighted in red show this exact process. Note that the trade times are all identical, because this was instantly matched by the futures clearing system.

NG Mar 2016 Bull Put Spread 20160328 Trade Exit

Although the future is assigned to the underlying commodity, these are options on futures that settle to the futures. Importantly the options expire a few days before their underlying future does. This gives you a few days so you don’t end up the proud owner of 10,000 million British thermal units (mmBtu) of Natural Gas!

Fear of Futures Settlement

There are several important dates: option expiration date and futures expiration date. On option expiration if your option is in the money, will be assigned into the futures contract.

If you own the underlying future on the future expiration date and it is NOT cash settled, then you could theoretically be made to deliver or receive the contract amount of the underlying commodity. In practice many brokers will monitor their clients positions and start contacting you if you have a commodity futures contract that requires physical settlement expiring in the next week. For example Interactive Brokers will email you 7 days before the futures contract expires to remind you of your responsibility. They additionally point out that they will liquidate the position on the final trading day if it looks like you are in danger of taking physical delivery.

Obviously for something like natural gas that is (probably) not desirable. However it is conceivable that someone might wish to talk delivery of precious metals, but most future brokers won’t let you.

Futures Calendar Spreads

Futures Calendar spread are buying one futures contract in one month at the same underlying, then at the same selling the same underlying futures contract in a different month. Typically “buying” the calendar spread is short near month, long far month. “Selling” the calendar spread is buying the near month and selling the far month. Typically being long the near month implies a bullish position on the underlying price. Being short the near month implies a bearish position in the underlying. With a futures calendar spread you are looking for it to move in a particular direction. The actual credit or debit received isn’t at relevant as the value you can take it off for. You are literally playing the near month contract against the far month contract, as a relative trade. That is of you are bullish you are betting that the near term contract goes up faster than the far month contract. Obviously they will be correlated and almost definitely move in the same direction, but you are playing the rate of change in the spread between the two contracts – basically a very highly correlated pairs trade but that can still move enough to profit.
Traditionally this is seen as a less risky way to express direction on an underlying. For example a natural gas futures contract for the near month could have a range of $5k a month, but the spread would only move up to $1000. This is reflected in the margin for a calendar spread which can be only a few hundred dollars, so the return on capital can be very good, even if the risk is controlled.

Also calendar spreads seem to see wilder less predictable swings into expiration. These do not always reflect the original trade result, even if the underlying moves as you actually expected. Usually a long near month, short far month futures calendar is typically bullish the underlying. For the example the following chart shows a recent /NG calendar, that was originally trading nicely with our original bullish intent up to about a week before expiration.

NG Mar 2016 Short Futures Calendar NGK6 - NGN6 20160422 Trade Exit

Then the spread suddenly reversed course, even though the underlying near and far month natural gas price went up. The differential between the near and far month changed from as expected in the early part of the month, to significantly inverse in the last few days. This actually ruined a profitable trade very quickly which was unfortunate. Moving from $360 profit to $110 loss (that could have been worse it went as low as $360 loss before we traded out of it). It is important to note again that the underlying price went up, which is what we were hoping for – yet the spread reacted opposite to what we expected. Lesson learned : take a spread profit when it is there, and don’t hang around too long into unpredictable expiration to squeeze out the last little bit of profit.

BTW – This chart was created after our trade has expired using this free historical future calendar online charting tool. This is really useful for checking historical performance quickly, especially to observe historical future calendar spread behaviour into expiration – so you know potentially what to expect in the future.

So what is the conclusion here?

The liquidity for futures contracts typically dries up a lot in the last few trading days of it’s life. This is typically because many traders have rolled their positions to the next futures month.

Combine that with the threat of broker liquidation at unfavorable prices, there is typically not much to recommend trading the final 5 days of a futures option or future contract.

Brexit Trade Entry – 14-Mar-2016

This post describes a medium term trade betting that the pound will trade lower on uncertainty into the June 23rd UK referendum on whether to exit the European Union (EU) – dubbed Brexit by the media.

The trade is to short Great British Pounds (GBP) using 3 Micro GBP /M6B futures in Jun 2016 (symbol /M6BM6), and long Euro (EUR) using 2 Micro EUR /M6E futures in Jun 2016 (symbol /M6EM6).

Each side has a notional value of approximately $26k USD. The 3:2 ratio is simply chosen so that the notional amounts are identical, because of the different contract sizes for each currency. Trade entry was 14th March. This idea was from an FX Crosses trade idea from tastytrade.com, but one that we think we can use within our 30 day Rule restrictions. Typically this would be a scalping trade for few hundred dollars over a day or so, but we will attempt to position trade for a month or more.

For the record personally don’t think that United Kingdom (UK) would vote for an European Union (EU) exit, but with numerous exit polls and political statements along the way there will be a lot of uncertainty into the final results announcement on Jun 2016. However we don’t think we have a crystal ball so our personal opinion is not really relevant, therefore trade will be exited early and not wait for final result. This is trade is focused on the expectation of uncertainty into the result not the final result itself. This is a trade to “buy the Rumour, sell the news” trade or more accurately – because part of trade involves shorting pounds – it should be “sell the Rumour, buy back before the news”.

GBP EUR Correlation

The GBP EUR pair has a very tight correlation of about 0.71 in the last year. So what does that mean for our trade ? To recap correlation values typically vary between -1.0 (negative) and 1.0 (positive). A highly positive correlation means that the two products will typically move in the same direction mostly of the time (S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and Nasdaq (QQQ) would be a good example). A highly negative correlation means that the two products typically move in the opposite direction most of the time (S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and Volatility (VXX) would be a good example. Typically you would be looking for pair trades that were either below -0.5 or above 0.5 – because anything in between that range does not give enough of a correlation pattern (it could just be considered noise).

For the following we are using the relative charts of the ETFs FXB (Pound) & FXE (Euro) to show daily moves over a monthly time frame. For our high level correlation analysis, these E-micro futures move almost identically to these ETFs, so they can be considered equal for this analysis.

The GBP EUR pair has a very tight correlation for the 9 months of the last year, but there has been a recent 3 month divergence since Dec 2015:
Brexit - 6B Mar 2016 Pound Euro Pair 20160314 - 1 year correlation

For reference in the last month has extremely tightly correlated:
Brexit - 6B Mar 2016 Pound Euro Pair 20160314 - 1 month correlation

However looking at a zoomed in chart of the last 3 months it is easy to see that GBP has underperformed EUR by about 7%:
Brexit - 6B Mar 2016 Pound Euro Pair 20160314 - 3 month correlation

FED meeting – March 16th

Apart from general market risk, the FX market experiences higher implied volatility and rapid directional moves around central bank announcements. The FED announcement on March 16th and BOE announcement on March 17th will affect this trade.

This trade was not made delta neutral into FED meeting on March 16th. This is because the direction of euro and pound will likely be the same, even if the actual direction is unknown before hand. This trade does not make money guessing direction correctly, it makes money assuming the Pound under performs the Euro in the next month or so. Typically the euro and pound will trade in the same direction, but because we are long/short as a pair in the same amount the direction risk is minimized. It is possible, but not very likely, that the Euro and Pound trade in opposite directions after the FED announcement.

BOE meeting – March 17th

However this trade was made delta neutral before the BOE meeting on March 17th. This was because this is event directly specific to one of the currencies in the trade pair. Remember the aim of the trade is to express the view that the Pound will be weaker than the Euro over the lifetime of the trade into a potential Brexit – however trading central back announcements is just a trade outcome that cant be easily predicted and FX rates react in a very binary way (up or down very quickly). Since this event has the potential to move the GBP side of pair significantly, this introduces unnecessary event risk into our pair, so we will neutralise the trade for the event, and then re-evaluate afterwards.

The trade was totally hedged the night before the event, by purchasing about $26k GBP/USD spot FX and selling about $26k EUR/USD (the exact opposite of our futures position). We cannot exit any trade legs immediately due to the 30 day rule.

At luck would have it, after the BOE meeting at 8am EST on March 17th, GBP moved rapidly higher (i.e. against our original position). By 4pm Thursday compared to 24 hours earlier before the BOE announcement (but after the FED announcement) GBP was 1.53% higher and EUR was 0.76% higher. If we had remained unhedged in the original futures only position into the BOE announcement, this would have lost approximately 0.77% of our trade, or would have lost about $200 of our unrealized $350 profit. However since the trade was now totally delta neutral so our unrealized $350 profit remained, because the spot FX positions exactly offset any movement in the micro futures (as expected).

Brexit Trade Exit – March 17th

Since we have a locked in guaranteed $350 gain, we may just hold the entire structure for a month due 30 day rule then exit with a gain. In future we would also probably just use GBP/USD or EUR/USD spot FX (standard FX trades) versus the Micro GBP /M6B and Micro EUR /M6E futures. Given that the BOE meeting was bullish for GBP we can simply hold this trade with no modifications. However in 30 days time we can reestablish this trade (if we still want to trade the potential Brexit) simply by trading out of the spot FX positions. Alternatively we can just exit all the legs simultaneously and take the profit.

How to defend a losing option trading position

In the spirit of full disclosure on our option trading, this trade lost money. However it could have been significantly worse. The point of this post is to be honest about when things go wrong, and more importantly how to worm your way out of them to survive another day. These trades were all with the context of having a 30 day rule, but the principals can be applied to trading without those restrictions.

Trade Entry
On 20th Dec 2015 entered into a crude oil /CL neutral strategy using an iron condor with about 60 DTE as follows:
CL Feb 2016 Iron Condor trade entry

2 Trade Adjustments
As the crude oil market sold off heavily in Jan 2016, the position was defended by adding 2 short call condor trades against the original iron condor position. A short call condor reduces the long delta in the original iron condor position. The first adjustment was to reduce long delta on 7th Jan 2016:
CL Feb 2016 Trade Adjustment 1 - 20160107

And again on 14th Jan 2016:
CL Feb 2016 Trade Adjustment 2 - 20160114

The untested short call spread cannot simply be rolled down because the original option position has not been open for more than 30 days, so that would clash with the 30 day rule. Therefore the short call spread closer to the money was added to create short delta (and reduce the long delta in the original position risk). The long call spread effectively is “cancelling” out the original short call spread, trying to simulate (as close as possible) exiting the original short call spread. Due to 30 day rule the same contract strike cannot be traded again within 30 days – so the new long call spread uses contract strikes that are only $0.50 either side of the original short call spread strikes.

Note that both of these adjustments need to be more than 30 DTE to avoid issues with the 30 day rule.

These adjustments changed the risk profile from a max loss of $1340 to $750:
CL Feb 2016 Iron Condor trade exit

Trade Exit
Crude Oil /CL price action was all over the place during the trade life cycle:
CL Feb 2016 Iron Condor price chart

Although because of the reduced max loss, the trade could be held through big down move, ultimately exiting into a nice pop on Feb 15th as Asia opened.
CL Feb 2016 Iron Condor price chart trade exit

Final Profit/Loss
Admittedly trade ultimately lost $187 (see below) however the risk was managed using short call spreads (delta hedging) along the way.
CL Feb 2016 Iron Condor trade exit positions

This was a quick example of how to play defensively with a position, not just “hope it all turns out ok in the end”. The techniques can be applied to defend any similar positions. You can also learn something about option payoff diagrams and delta hedging, with a position that is going against you.

Importantly all option legs in the trade were traded as an entire position – we didn’t try to “leg” out of the individual option positions (that is time the market by exiting individual option legs separately). Given that approach, the entire position could not be exited until 15th Feb, because the latest trade adjustment was added on 14th Jan – so if we are going to trade the entire structure as one position then we were forced to wait at least 30 days from 14th Jan to exit.

In summary the ability to manage risk on trades that go wrong, is as important as having winning trades.

Trading Small with Futures Options

Futures are very large principal products and the underlying value of a single futures contract can be anywhere from $23,000 for natural gas /NG and up to $160,000 for US Treasuries /ZB. This means that for many accounts trading them is prohibitively expensive. However fortunately there are options on these underlying futures, that provide a good amount of leverage. Using futures options it is possible to create trades that only risk a hundred dollars or less to make a few hundred dollars or more. These can have a risk reward of for example 1 to 3 (risk $100 with max profit of $300). This means that you can easily construct trades to work within a portfolio of smaller size for example $50,000. using futures options also allows you to benefit from time decay and also high implied volatility on the underlying (similar to standard equity options). this gives you a lot more flexibility than just trading the futures out right long or short.
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