Hedged entire position on 1st Dec 2021 (around $14) with 100 contracts at $13 put into Jan 2022. This was important because it enabled the UNG position to be held with huge down move to around $12 throughout Dec 2021 with the ultimate recovery back up towards $16 in Jan 2022. Throughout most of Dec 2021 UNG was in a range of between $11 and $13 with little movement outside that relatively tight trading range. This month long trade range was usually given the previously directional trending UNG price for the last 6 months.
Although the $13 put Jan 2022 hedge was ultimately a money loser, it did enable the position to be hedged towards the end of the huge downdraft from $20 (Oct 2021) to $12 (Dec 2021). Ultimately enabling exiting with the overall UNG position with a profit in Jan 2022. Just because the hedge doesn’t make you money, doesn’t mean it is useless – the overall position of underlying, plus any hedges, is the main consideration.
Natural Gas Exit 2022 – Sell Longs
Sold majority of long exposure on Jan 12th 2022 in two main trades during a large price rally up to over $16. First selling the underlying ETF 5000 UNG at $15.35 in the morning. Second selling the 50 long ITM Call strike $11 Jan 2022 in the afternoon for $4.98 (with UNG at about $15.99). This gave an average share price exit of about $15.67 on Jan 12th. The deep ITM calls were due to expire the following week and were trading like stock (about 99 delta). Therefore it is appropriate to use their sale price (with the UNG ETF position as well) to calculate an average exit price for the overall position. Looking at the 5 day chart for the week 10th to 14th Jan 2022 shows that this trading ended up being some of the best pricing for the week.
The position was exited quickly (all on the same trading day) when the opportunity presented. This was because half of the position was in deep ITM calls that were going to very likely be assigned (with an $11 strike) on January option expiration on 21st Jan 2022. It is hard to time the exact top in a market that aggressively moving higher, but on this occasion it was traded well this week.
Natural Gas Exit 2022 – Spreads
After most of the long deltas were sold, still need to sell remaining spreads in final week of Jan 2022 expiration. To further complicate matters this was a short trading week with only 4 trading days from Tues to Friday (because Monday was a trading holiday). The positions held on 18th Jan 2022 at start of trading week were 1) a bull call spread long $16 and short $18 expiring 21st Jan 2022 and 2) a bear put spread long $13 and short $11 expiring 21st Jan 2022. These options were the last remaining UNG positions in spreads only, so was much lower risk that long deltas previously held. The expectation was that there would continue to volatility in the final expiration week and that would generate an outside move in either direction. To make some money on at least one of these spreads, then UNG had to move quickly in either direction and not stay in a range. As it happened the market crashed down and on 20th Jan 2022 at under $13 the $13/$11 bear put spread was taken off with some time value remaining to extract at least some value from the hedges (rather than zero by expiring worthless in a few days). The $16/$18 bull call spread was a full loser.
They was no obvious catalyst for an extreme move in either direction after option expiration on Jan 21st, because presumably this cold spell would be short lived. Therefore no new option positions were rolled or started. Additionally holding UNG long term is typically not a good long term multi year trade due to in built ETF decay, and this position has been held for about 4 months so far (which would likely include some ETF decay). Since there was no desire to maintain a UNG position into the rest of 2022, then all positions either expired or were taken off – leaving no open positions after 21st Jan 2022.
Natural Gas Exit 2022 – Future Idea
There was one potential strategy that wasn’t used at the time, but that could be useful in future. However this can usually only be considered when the call put skew is 2:1 on call side – as was the case in the large price spike into Oct 2021. Since the equivalent OTM call premium was twice that of the equivalent strike OTM put premium, then it was possible to sell 1 call and buy 2 puts for an even money collar. For example in Oct 2021 with UNG at $20, could have hedged with short 1 call Dec 2021 strike $24, but long 2 puts Dec 2021 at strike $18 – all for even money.
That gives an interesting risk profile:
If the market goes up a lot then that would still have given decent upside potentially, obviously capped out at the short call strike.
If the market stays in a range, then ultimately the 1 x short call and 2 x long put would lose value and ultimately expire worthless. With hindsight, this would be equivalent to holding the position without any hedges – but obviously risk management on larger positions is important to preserve capital – did not KNOW that this would be the case in advance.
If the market goes down a lot then importantly money could be made in an extreme crash – because the doubled up puts actually make the natural gas position to go net short the lower UNG prices goes. This works because even though the underlying UNG ETF position (with a delta of 100) is declining, having double the number of puts means their negative deltas can more than offset the underlying position. For example if UNG was at $15 then the deltas on the doubled up puts would be approximately 65 delta + 65 delta = – 130 delta. Since the UNG delta will always be 100 delta, the overall position would have a delta of 100 (underlying) minus 130 delta (double puts) – for a total of about negative 30 delta. This is what actually happened with a move down towards $12 in Dec 2021.
So with hindsight this 2:1 collar would have been a great strategy to participate in the upside and the downside. Especially when the Natural Gas market expectation was significantly higher prices in the next month (high OTM call premium), but where history shows huge crashes over a few trading sessions are possible (look at any multi year historical price chart). If this situation presents itself in future, then the 2:1 collar strategy is one we would definitely consider.
Natural Gas Exit 2022 – Summary
Using some hedges (such as the $13 put) allowed us to maintain the position during the dip down to nearly $12 (and lower) in Dec 2021. This would have been very poor risk management to maintain that size of position without a hedge, even though in the end would have made more money without the hedge. The ultimate exit was quite fortunate as were running out of time with Jan 21st 2022 option expiration less than 10 away. There was a huge futures price spike due to storm and cold spell that enabled a swift and profitable exit. However in Oct 2021 this could have executed or hedged at around $20, so this did “leave” about $4 of UNG “on the table” (or about $40k) with better trading. In summary made about 200% but could have made 500% with better trading.
This Bonfire Night update on our 2021 Natural Gas (NG) position trade explains why our existing NG exposure is being maintained even though the price has run up a lot. We will discuss how the seasonal factors and option pricing skew have persuaded us to add to the position trade and hold through Winter 2021. However due to the high price rise, we will only be adding option trade overlays that take advantage of the higher option volatility on the Natural Gas ETF (UNG). If UNG runs higher then these new option trades will make money up to a target strike – but if UNG stays the same or sells off then they will expire worthless.
Natural Gas Winter 2021 – Existing Position Trade
The existing NG position has already been quite profitable. To recap the existing position trade has two main parts 1) 50 contract Aug/Sept calendar spread – that is short $15 Aug 2021 and long $15 Sept 2021 pair for total cost of $0.22 and 2) 50 contract long underlying LEAP call Jan 2022 $11. See the previous long natural gas since Q1 2021 post (from July of this year) for all of the background to how these UNG positions were traded starting in March 2021 . Anyhow as luck would have it, in August 2021 the NG market pulled back and allowed the short UNG Aug $15 call (the short call in the calendar spread) to expire worthless. Fortunately the market rallied back strongly in Sept 2021 because the only remaining position from the calendar spread was the long Sept $15 Call. This call ended up $2.65 ITM with UNG $17.65 on Sept 17th. This meant that there was a market enforced trading decision to make with following possibilities:
1) Sell to close $15 Sept 2021 call for an immediate profit.
2) Roll into another call in a future month (e.g. Dec 2021 or Jan 2022) further out in time. The term “Rolling” here means sell to close the existing call, then buy to open the new call.
3) Deliberately get assigned UNG at $15 and create a new ETF position
Normally we would consider the original Aug/Sept calendar spread as one self contained trade, and simply close for a nice profit (option 1). However we decided to push the envelope, and keep UNG trade on since it was acting very bullish. Hard to know where the top is in a strongly rallying commodity. Commodities can tend to have blow off tops, when supply/demand move to extremes. This isn’t obviously a guarantee for a similar blow off top high in NG, but the chart pattern is similar. historically NG can rally very fast. So on balance decided to maintain the larger position.
The issue with maintaining position was that option volatility was very high. This meant that rolling (option 2) would have required purchasing $2 or $3 of pure time value to roll to similar $15 strike in Jan 2022. So rolling long calls when volatility is that high is not desirable, even if it is more capital efficient (than just buying the ETF outright). UNG would need to rally about 20% by Jan 2022 just to break even.
Therefore decided to go with getting assigned at $15 and creating a new UNG share position (option 3). Deliberately did nothing until Sept 17th expiration Friday, then as UNG closed over $15 our account got assigned on 5000 shares UNG. As a reminder – one option contracts controls 100 shares, so 50 contracts x 100 shares = 5,000 shares. The trade was already in the money with some profit, so that gives some buffer before losing money on the actual ETF position (if UNG were to pull back). However this requires using $75k cash to buy 5000 shares at $15. The brokerage will assign ITM calls automatically, so on the Monday after expiration will be long 5000 UNG shares. This did not require purchasing any time value with options because a stock or ETF position has no time decay (no theta value). Sometimes it is “ok” to use ETF (or stock) to compliment the overall position, specifically because ETF positions don’t decay with time. It also allows selling options against the stock to bring in some time value.
The overall position is now 5000 UNG and 50 Jan 2022 $11 calls. This combined position has a delta of nearly 100, because the Jan call is so far ITM it is trading almost equivalent to a stock or ETF position. Stock or ETFs always trade with a delta of 100 because they are the actual underlying for any derivative option (and have no time decay). Therefore the overall UNG position here is almost equivalent to 10,000 shares. The average price of the new long UNG 5,000 shares is about $15.22 (including the profit from the expired short Aug call). The average price of the Jan 2022 $11 call was $0.94 so UNG can pull back to about $11.94 before that starts losing money. For simplicity this ignores any time embedded value in the call – in reality there would always be some time value in the call – unless it was the final trading hours into Jan 2022 expiration. Getting back to estimating the breakeven point – this gives us an approximate break even point of $15.22 + $11.94 / 2 = $13.58 for this unrealised long UNG position. This is a very aggressive position sizing, however this is an example of pyramiding into winners – which we are trying to do as improved trading discipline (but it is surprisingly hard to do). We are hoping to get a market top at higher prices, and are willing to let the underlying unrealised profit thrash around. Hopefully it will go higher, because the trend is up. Keeping one very successful unrealised profit trade open is very hard to do physiologically. The pull backs always feel difficult to hold through, because always pricing relative to the latest price peak. For example, “if we’d sold last week, now we’d have $20k more than today”. The issue is that if you sell before a big move is fully realised, then you likely aren’t getting back in – no matter how good your technical analysis is at identifying top and bottoms. We are attempting to apply the trading logic from Reminiscences of a Stock Operator – “The big money was not in the individual fluctuations but in the main movements – that is, not in reading the tape but in sizing up the entire market and its trend.” and “It never was my thinking that made the big money for me. It was always my sitting.”. There is no guarantee that NG will hold up and has a history of huge sell offs, however if don’t hold then are foregoing possibility of very large gains.
Natural Gas Winter 2021 – Call Volatility Skew
In additional to the winter seasonality advantage, the overall position trade is being maintained partially because the near term options skew to the upside. As NG is entering into Q4 2021 there is significantly implied volatility in near month options indicating that potentially a much higher price move is still quite possible. Additionally there is currently an incredible call option upside skew, when compared to put options.
The following is the Dec 2021 UNG option chain on 26th Oct 2021:
With UNG at $20.40 comparing the 30 delta calls and puts for Dec 2021 (53 days time) shows a huge call skew. The option market thinks that UNG has a 30% probability of closing at $18 to downside ($18 put with 0.3067 delta) or $32 to upside ($32 call with 0.2970 delta). To put this another way – UNG options were implying in 53 days time that a $2.40 move lowerhad the same 30% probability as an $11.60 move higher. That is a 4.8 to 1 upside skew in calls versus puts at the 30 delta option! This level of skew is not normal, so we may be able to structure some short option strategies to take advantage.
Since the main position trade consists of long stock and deep ITM calls, we can change option strategy to take advantage of high volatility. Additionally would like to be greedy and make even more if UNG rallies into winter 2021. However do not want to add significantly more capital into UNG. Therefore will look at very wide 2:1 ratio call spreads, partially financed by way OTM short puts.
Both of these high volatility option strategies are available with option legs a long way OTM because UNG volatility is over 100%. As the following 1 year chart of UNG volatility shows – implied volatility has been over 100% at some points in Oct 2021, peaking around 120% in early October with a low point of around 90% in mid October.
The trade construction is Buy 50 contracts of a call at high OTM strike, then sell 100 contracts at even higher strike. This a 2:1 ratio call spread is called that because the number of call contracts at the higher strike is usually double the lower strike – in this example a 100 contract: 50 contract ratio call spread. The 2:1 ratio call spread is typically placed for small credit or debit, then idea being to get the 100 contracts sold to approximately pay for the 50 purchased contracts. It can be hard to find match the exact strikes for an even money (no credit or debit) so often there is a small debit or credit.
To help pay for any debit incurred and to maintain a small positive theta (time decay) in the position, we will also look to sell an OTM put for a small credit. The 2:1 ratio call spread is better added as a compliment to an existing bullish ETF position in a high volatility environment because the strikes can be placed further apart. The further apart the strikes, the more profit potential.
For example this trade was done in the Nov 19th 2021 option expiration cycle with long 50 call contracts at $30, short 100 call contracts at $38, and short 50 put contracts at $13. Note this option structure means that have to deliver 5000 shares at $38 because of the extra 50 contracts short – however this is fully covered because we already own 5000 shares.
This was repeated on Dec 2021 option expiration cycle with long 50 call contracts at $28, short 100 call contracts at $38 and short 50 put contracts at $12. This option structure was also fully covered because we already own the 50 call contracts Jan 2022 at $11. Should UNG reach $38 at Dec expiration we would be able to deliver the 5000 shares (via the 50 contracts of the Jan 2022 calls).
These are covered positions on the upside, but with an another important kicker. If UNG closes over the $38 at Nov expiration, then profit would be equivalent to a close at $46. The embedded call spread (long $30, short $38) would be worth $8. So having to deliver ETF stock at $38 (from the $38 call), would be give an equivalent exit price of $38 (short call strike) + $8 (embedded call spread max value) = $46.
This logic would also repeat for Dec. If UNG closes over $38 at Dec expiration, then profit would be equivalent to a $48 closing price. The embedded call spread (long $28, short $38) would be worth $10. So having to deliver ETF stock at $38 (from the $38 call), would be equivalent exit of $38 (short call strike) + $10 (embedded call spread max value) = $48.
If this very bullish scenario were to take place, then it could be possible to maintain the position by do some rolling adjustments nearer to Nov or Dec expiration. However if UNG was massively over $38 it would probably just be simpler to let the entire option structure expire and take the full position profit.
On the downside the short put is cash secured, and is definitely a downside risk that would need to managed if NG drops significantly into winder 2021. This is a possibility, because anything can happen in the market, but not likely. However on trade entry the short put had an 11 delta, which means that it has an 89% chance of expiring worthless at Nov or Dec expiration. A short put trade seems worth the risk, since we are bullish on NG price (it should maintain over $13 by Nov option expiration) and bearish on NG volatility (think volatility will decline from current elevated levels). Short 50 contracts in Nov expiration at $13, and short 50 contracts in Dec expiration at $12. These short put credits help finance the slightly debit for the 2:1 call ratio spreads.
One nuance to the put selling approach is that they are diagonal at lower strikes the further out in time they go. The Dec $12 strike is lower than the $13 Nov strike. This is to allow for market probabilities to play out into Dec (50+ trading days to expiration) and Nov (only 30+ trading days to expiration). There is more time for the a down move to occur by Dec, so it makes sense to sell a lower strike in Dec than Nov. Either way the probabilities are similar, because on trade entry both Nov and Dec short puts were around 11 delta.
As the 2:1 ratio calls and short puts have been held for several trading days, the market has moved down from Oct 20th to Oct 26th. However the Nov short put is now almost worthless. The volatility in the calls has reduced, so that the $38 short calls have made money and more or less cancelled out the loss of the $30 call. This entire structure of $30/$38 2:1 call ratio and $13 put short, should expire for an approx $600 profit – if UNG is above $13 by Nov expiration.
Similarly the Dec structure volatility has reduced, however the Dec options still have some bid, because the chances of UNG being able to move to option strikes by Dec is more likely. These Nov and Dec 2:1 call ratios will be maintained until expiration, as they represent a “free shot” at UNG being over $30 in Nov and $38 in Dec (with no incurred cost). If a price near $30 ever happened the calls would jump to life again, even if they have a very low probability and so a low price today. This is “ok” because the market paid the premium of the lower call for us as they were financed by the 2 short calls – which is why it is a “free shot”.
Natural Gas Winter 2021 – Speculative Butterfly
Since there will be a $30 call held until 19th Nov expiration, we wanted to add a small speculative long, but with low risk. So we bought in the Nov 26thweekly cycle a 50 contract butterfly $24.5/$30/$35 for $0.29 – total cost about $1500. Normally don’t pay for premium, but considered it partially financed by the short puts from the earlier Nov/Dec trades. It is total speculation, but would be more likely to hit (as only 20% OTM on trade entry). The maximum theoretical gain for this new speculative trade is exactly $30 on 26th Nov and would be about $28,500. Sometimes added a butterfly in high volatility as a compliment to an existing position gives something to focus on in the next expiration cycle, while waiting for the main underlying UNG position trade to play out. This gives some entertain while waiting for the underlying UNG position trade to hold into Dec 2021 and maybe longer in Jan 2022.
Natural Gas Winter 2021 – Summary
Natural Gas (NG) price has consistent seasonal drawdowns typically in winter for home heating from November to March. In 2021 there are potentially a sharp spike in near term prices, because of recent inventory dropdowns before coming into the typically higher demand winter season.
A good source of fundamental NG news is naturalgasintel.com. Despite fundamentals pointing to warm weather in Nov, NG is flat for October (albeit with huge amount of volatility in a range). The lack of significant decline in October in the face of bearish warmer weather could be seen as bullish for rest of 2021. The following summary chart shows UNG price action and volatility in context of the last year’s trading:
This was an update on how to lever up the existing LEAP call and ETF position, using options to potentially increase position trade return. The aim is to maximize return from a commodity price spike over the next 1 to 3 months over Winter – this is not a forever long term hold. The trade exit for this will possibly be in Dec (to close year end trading nicely) or maybe by Jan 2022 (for 2022 taxes). Not entirely clear if this becomes a structural bull market for NG in next few years (and we accidentally bought the bottom). More likely scenario is that NG supply is tight and demand is up in winter 2021, so better to sell into any major price spikes in Dec or Jan. The underlying NG future (near month Nov) is around $6, so if there was a spike towards $10 then traders would probably look at double figures as a logical point to take profit. When trading UNG it is important to look at underlying /NG futures because that is where the majority of NG trading is done. UNG ETF does trade in a liquid way, but it is not the entire market. Price targets and support/resistance in UNG will not impact trader sentiment as much as price targets being reached in the /NG futures. In short /NG futures drive the NG market, not UNG ETF. UNG can also experience much more volatile trading days leading into monthly /NG future expirations. So knowing the exact monthly /NG future expiration dates can explain UNG moves.
In summary we are maintaining position trade over many months, and complementing it with option strategy overlays to hopefully boost returns. The intent is to be long into year end and re-evaluate along the way. The position is bigger than usual with “high conviction” . The position has been correct for several months now, so some amount of unrealised profit volatility can be tolerated. the position will likely ultimately be stopped out by short calls meeting profit targets.
Natural Gas (NG) price has been consistently declining due to significant over supply for the last few years. In general there are consistent seasonal drawdowns of NG supply throughout a trading year, usually due to consumer energy demand for heating or cooling. Typically large drawdowns of NG supply in winter for home heating from November to March. However there can also be periodic supply drawdowns during summer heatwaves with energy demand for home cooling.
Natural gas is historically cheap on an absolute basis, but needs a catalyst to justify a longer term higher prices. The historically cheap price is encouraging countries to reevaluate its use. NG is not considered as “clean” as alternative energy being found near oil deposits. However practically energy will have to come from somewhere. As China’s climate change commitments force transition into “cleaner” energy solutions, they need to plug the gap between oil/coal and transition to alternatives like wind/solar. However NG could becomes up to 15% of China’s energy market by 2030 then that potentially increase demand and maintain pricing this decade. Taking the other side of the argument though, the increase in Chinese NG production into 2030 could dampen the NG price further by over supplying the market.
There could be a good decade long position trade here, but history shows that NG has been following the pattern of lower lows for many years. The following chart shows the Nymex natural gas futures price for Aug 2021 settlement. Starting at $8.88 in Nov 2008, down to a low of $2.21 in Feb 2020, followed by the current price with a bounce back to around $4 in July 2021.
As the commodity price chart shows – it is hard to justify as a long “buy and hold” trade due to this secular bear market. However it’s rapid spikes make it an excellent trading vehicle, with the right timing. Fortunately 2021 appears to have produced a hot summer that has created a natural gas trading catalyst – so there is no need to wait until 2030 to find out how the trade performed…
Long Hot Summer
The main short to medium term factor driving NG prices is energy demand due to higher than normal US temperatures. Natural gas as a fuel has a different trading dynamic to natural gas producers stock (e.g. such as the FCG ETF). Natural gas price tends to trade off near term supply and demand (up to 6 months out), where as natural gas producer stocks tend to trade off medium to long term expectations for natural gas prices (often 12 months or more out in time). Additionally some producers have locked in contracts (“hedged” pricing) – so short term near month price changes don’t impact longer term prices that could be locked in or haven’t moved that much. The /NG futures curve as of July 2021 is an good example of this phenomena:
Natural gas is not a “forever” trade. However the short term market supply issues mean that pricing can potentially spike in the next few months. One of the main trading vehicles for natural gas is the UNG ETF that attempts to track the commodity price. The implied volatility on UNG options is certainly showing that a large move is possible – with implied volatility moving up from about 30% to over 50% in the last month.
However the July 2021 future curve (from Nymex natural gas futures) is implying a return to “normal” pricing in 2022. From a medium term trading perspective, any significant spikes should be used to reduce risk in the next few months.
The July 2021 futures curve is not always the shape of the commodity futures curve. Typically the main ETFs (such as UNG) that track NG have a structural decay problem, due to rolling futures every month. The ETFs do not hold natural gas as a raw commodity because of storage costs, so they maintain exposure using futures. Usually the ETFs futures holdings are near month to get as close as possible to the commodity spot price. However maintaining this position requires the consistent need to “roll” every month, usually when the near month future gets close to expiration. Rolling means selling the expiring near month and buying the next months future contract. This generates transaction costs every month, but more importantly roll costs can eat away at the capital in the ETF. The next section explains this roll cost in detail.
ETF Roll Cost
More importantly though for the Natural Gas ETF is whether commodity pricing is in contango. Contango is where the price of commodity contracts further out in time are more expensive. Futures prices out in time by many months are sometimes referred as “out on the curve”. The following graph that show an example commodity pricing curve in contango. This example is not for natural gas, so the exact numbers and dates are not that important – it is just a sample contango futures curve to show the idea.
Contango pricing plays an important part in the long term Natural Gas ETF (UNG) price. UNG typically holds near month Natural Gas futures to approximate the natural gas price. The near month futures contract is normally natural gas for delivery in the next 30 days or less. As the near month contract gets closer to expiration, the fund must roll into the next month’s contract to maintain exposure. If this is not done then the near month contract would expire, and the ETF would acquire several hundred million dollars worth of physical natural gas for delivery! Depending on the funds specific mandate, the “roll” may be done over several days and likely several days prior to expiration. The “roll” is a monthly process to maintain the price exposure.
Using the futures symbol for Natural Gas \NG the following example shows a roll between two separate months. The exact date and pricing shown is not as important as demonstrating the concept. For example if \NG August is $3.50 and \NG Sept is $3.55, then the fund has to sell $3.50 and buy $3.55. This generates a “roll cost” of $0.05 per month (difference between $3.55 and $3.50) just maintain the position. Additionally due to the higher price of the new purchased futures contract, the total number of futures contracts held by the ETF gets reduced. This price difference maybe relatively small (e.g. less than 1.5% of the fund) however compounded over time every month it adds up. This roll loss explains UNG terrible long term performance – as well the actual physical natural gas price trending down.
This chart dramatically shows why UNG is not a “buy and hold” investment, down more than 99% since inception:
It is important to note that the opposite condition to contango can assist the Net Asset Value of the ETF. The reverse of contango is called “backwardation” – when futures prices out several months are less expensive than near month futures. Backwardation helps the ETF maintain value and only contango has the rolling issue above.
Avoid Buy and Hold
Commodity ETFs like UNG or USO that are often in contango and use near month futures to track the commodity price, should not be held for long term trades. They are tradable for daily or monthly trends, but not usually years.
The other important thing to note is that commodity ETFs using futures don’t always rebound after big crashes. Often contango rolling impact is greatly increased after a crash due to market dislocations in the front month. One extreme example has to be this year in April 2021 when the May Oil price briefly traded at negative $40, but month further out were positive (massive contango). They also do not track the underlying commodity price accurately over a number of years.
This can be shown very clearly when comparing two ETFs that track the oil price using futures – USO and USL. Although both ETFs use futures, USO typically tracks only the daily changes in the near month oil future. USL tries to track the daily changes in the near month to 11 months out (from the near month). That is the average price for all futures contracts in the next year, not just the next month. Since the oil price is often in contango, USL will track it much closer than USO. The following chart shows the huge difference in performance, that can be clearly seen around April 2020 during the “negative oil” futures incident (USO is blue and USL is yellow):
Understanding the futures curve shape and the average duration of the futures held inside an ETF is important before placing a trade.
Options that have over 1 year to expiration are called Long-term equity anticipation securities. They are often abbreviated to “LEAP call” (for calls), “LEAP put” (for puts) or “LEAPS”(for any option either calls or puts). UNG OTM LEAP calls cost a relatively small amount, but can control large position sizes. Depending on how far OTM there is a higher probability (say 60% to 75%) that they lost value slowly over time. However they can only lose the entire premium paid for the position. But if natural gas spikes higher they can quickly go ITM and trade with much higher deltas. They therefore have a great asymmetric risk to reward profile, especially if started during low volatility. They are likely to fail, but if they win they can win big.
On trade entry by definition OTM leap calls will ultimately expire worthless more than half the time (if they were held all the way to expiration. This is because they have a delta of less than 50% on trade entry. When a LEAP call is losing money any residual value for the decaying option can reclaimed by selling at 50%. For example, if originally bought Jun 2022 $12 calls for $1.5 then could sell after it has decayed to $0.75 to maintain some value. Another approach is simply to position size appropriately for the portfolio and let it expire worthless (having already accepted the full risk as part of the portfolio). Alternatively can roll out in time to further six months if want to maintain the position. Our approach is normally to exit position and maintain some value if not working or roll out in time. Don’t normally let the LEAP go all the way to expiration.
To manage upside we would typically take some profit off the table at 100%, if reached in short order. For example, consider buying a LEAP more than 1 year away for $1, then after a price rally selling half for $2 two months later. This means a zero risk trade for remaining 10 months of the option lifetime. The position is now half sized, so will not make as much potential profit. However half sized position can now be allowed to run for many months to see how it does. Since this example position contains no risk it could be allowed to run almost to expiration to see how it does. Unless the calls are very deep ITM (low time value) should consider rolling or selling with 60 to 30 days to expiration to avoid option decay.
Paying attention to implied volatility (IV) on trade entry for LEAP calls is important to maintain trade value. Since LEAP calls are sensitive to increases in volatility, rising volatility can provide a trade profit even if the underlying does not move that much. The important IV measure is not just the absolute percentage (%) as “high” (e.g. 50%) or “low” (e.g. 10%). The measure used for trade entry is the percentage (%) relative to the recent IV historical trading range (usually 1 year). Ideally LEAP calls are bought when IV is towards the low end of its annual trading range. For example, assume an IV trading range for the previous of year of 9% to 20%. Buying when UNG IV is 10% would be buying at the bottom of the volatility range. Once the trade is on, looking at option vega will show how much the option would increase with a 1% move higher in volatility (all other variables being equal). It is quite possible to see a significant % profit in a LEAP call if volatility rises quickly. Importantly LEAPs trade on expectations for future volatility at option expiration not on for expectations for the next few days or months. Although short term and long term volatility are usually correlated they may not necessarily move with the same magnitude. A short term spike in IV may not move IV in longer dated LEAPs. For example, a natural gas supply crunch that will likely be resolved next month, may not move option pricing in 12 months because the market expects it to be resolved by then.
LEAP calls are not “buy and hold” trades and so do require monitoring and risk management. Holding the LEAP call only can be a valid strategy. However over the long term selling calls mechanically or dynamically can improve returns and risk management. Selling calls does limit the theoretical unlimited upside, but on average it improves and smooths out returns. Selling calls does not have to be done against the entire LEAP call position, so with some strategies the theoretical unlimited upside can be maintained.
Selling Calls Mechanically
Another form of risk management is selling calls against the long LEAP call. This can be done ATM to try and exit position, but still get some premiums for next month. Alternatively this can be a scaling out exit strategy, to sell OTM calls next month, 2 months and 3 months out. For example if UNG is at $12, sell the July calls at $13, Aug at $14 and Sept at $15. This should give similar option premiums for each call sold, but gives more time for trade to rise and different time frames to sell calls. There is no role on the amount of contracts to sell, and it doesn’t have to match the long LEAP calls contract. For example if already own 100 LEAP calls, could sell 40 calls in July, 30 calls in Aug and 30 calls in Sept.
Alternatively if would like to exit half position can sell 50 next month ATM, leave the rest of the 50 contracts open. This gives the richest ATM premium that gets kept if position sells off. However if half the position gets called away in the next month cycle, then this still maintains half the position for further unlimited upside (no sold calls to cap the upside).
Repeating this monthly call selling strategies several times a year can help pay for the entire LEAP call. For example selling 10 calls ATM for $0.30 in six separate trades over 1 year would pay for buying a 20 LEAP calls at $0.90. This is a somewhat idealized example, because it assumes that the sold calls expire worthless each time. More realistic is to assume that half of the sold call premium is captured, so calls sold through out the year for $0.30 can on average to bought back for $0.15. This scenario is more realistic because it covers many call selling trading outcomes each month. For example selling 10 calls ATM for $0.30 in 12 separate trades could have multiple exit scenarios – some calls could expire worthless (full $0.30 gain) or need rolling into next month (e.g. buy back for $0.70 with $0.40 loss, then resell next month at $0.30). Taking loses on the sold calls still allows the position to make money, because the long LEAP call also increases in the rising market. However if the market rises too fast then sold calls could be hard to roll, so would be better just to exit the entire position.
Selling Calls Dynamically
Another more opportunistic strategy is to wait until IV increases during the year. This becomes more likely if the position was entered in relatively low volatility. When IV spikes up start selling “junk” options that are say 25% OTM. Depending on the level of the volatility spike these can be sold for between $0.10 and $0.25. Selling junk options for less than $0.10 is not recommended because commissions are a greater % of the trade. Also in a volatile market options that are way OTM but closer to zero (in the range $0.01 to $0.10) don’t decay that fast until very close to expiration – because there is always the underlying “threat” of a price spike.
Occasionally the commodity market presents some incredible premium on OTM options. For example on SLV in March 2021 during the Reddit meme stock volatility spike the IV doubled in a week from around 35% to briefly over 70%. During that week sold several SLV call options way over $0.10 that would normally have near zero value. Their volatility was implying a more than 100% move in silver by expiration in less than 60 days. Of course the options ultimately expired worthless, but also the premium got crushed within a couple of days after the high volatility mean reverted (see chart).
High IV in call options tends to revert back to a the mean value, which means that on average it doesn’t typically stay elevated for long periods of time – so was a quick return on investment. This mean reversion is why on average call selling works in higher volatility. Importantly having a long LEAP call covers when the underlying moves outside of the average price range – that is when the sold calls go way in the money at expiration. In the above SLV example, the call selling was always covered (not “naked”) because it was done against a SLV LEAP call that was already owned earlier in the year (and established in lower volatility). Admittedly this is one of the most extreme example from a commodity ETF in the last few years. However consistently selling the “junk” options to compliment a fully covered LEAP call position, can make regular income and still keep the long commodity trade idea alive. There is always the possibility of being “called away” on a huge market rally, but that would be a happy occurrence because the LEAP call would have greatly benefited.
Selling Calls for Hedging
One word of warning on dynamic call selling is don’t sell calls that are at or beneath the LEAP call strike. When beginning a trading position that will sell calls, it is better to sell way futher OTM or not bother selling any calls initially. Sell calls over time is to reduce cost basis in trade – in this case reduce the amount paid for the LEAP call. If that uncertain on amount at risk when starting a new position, then simply trade a smaller position size – don’t over hedge to start with.
When trying to rescue a position where the LEAP call has lost money, do not sell strikes in the near month below the LEAP call strike. This is sometimes called an “inversion” position. This position can potentially lose money if the commodity price increases, which the opposite of the original trade idea. This is because if the near term short option goes significantly ITM it will start acting like short stock – with a delta that trends towards negative one hundred (-100). The negative delta on the short call will be greater than the positive delta on the LEAP call (likely in the range of 50 to 70 delta). Therefore the entire position becomes net short. For example, 70 delta (from LEAP call) minus 90 delta (from deep ITM short call) is minus 30 delta (short position). These deltas are realistic examples for what would happen if the commodity rallied 20% with this “inversion” position (short strike call lower than long strike call).
Short calls are great to generate income or exit a winning trade. however when selling calls only to reduce long deltas (i.e. reduce risk) it is probably better just to sell (to close) some long LEAP call contracts. Selling calls should always be a compliment to main LEAP call position, not exclusively for reducing risk by adding short positions to a long position (hedging). Sometimes the best risk management is just to sell underlying position, not try and over hedge with calls. If the concern is losing all the LEAP call premium, then the position size is probably too large for the portfolio.
Importantly however the slower time decay of this strategy allows holding the entire position through a downdraft, because there is time to recover the loss. No action is required with correct portfolio position sizing, because the risk is accepted on trade entry. The position size can be 1% to 2% of the portfolio for a “normal” trade, or up 5% for a high conviction position trade. In previous trading experience we found that these LEAP call strategy should not be sized over 5%. This is because the position is still all time value and as such is decaying every day (even though daily decay is small). Additionally the combination of strategies in a portfolio is very important. Should not have an entire portfolio of OTM LEAPs as strategy for all portfolio positions. For example, having 20 distinct LEAP calls each with a position size of 5% would be have unmanageable theta (time) decay. Essentially an entire portfolio of LEAPs would have be 100% time value with no intrinsic value. If running LEAP strategies on a few underlying ETFs, then other portfolio positions should be in short volatility strategies (e.g. credit spreads) to compensate for the daily theta decay.
Trade entry was to go long natural gas in 2021. In March 2021, bought the UNG Jan 2022 LEAP call (10 months out) for $0.94. A few weeks later UNG went down to around $9, and the LEAP was losing money. However there has been a nice rally into July 2021. When UNG pulled back from peak around $13 to about $12.60, exited half the position in case this was the “big one” for a pull back. Natural gas is hard to trade because spike up quickly with a nice profit, then be back to break even 2 weeks later. Obviously as soon as the position is halved, the market rallies – but that’s just trading. Some physiological experience trading cryptos is helpful, because the UNG short term trading peaks and troughs can have similar severity (even though the fundamental drivers are obviously massively different).
To get some extra juice in the trade, sold the $15 Aug 2021 calls for $0.20 against the entire position. The high premium for selling a 15% OTM call option was possible due to high IV. This trade is to tempt the market to try and hit a $15 target in only a few weeks, but also to hedge a pull back.
However as the market rallied again past $13 a couple of days later, realized that had made a mistake on being the start of a big sell off. Therefore was looking keep the long position for potentially higher than $15. This may seem like flipping ideas and being too wishy washy. However UNG looks more bullish then expected and resistance at $13 disappeared quickly. Basically would like to maintain a larger position size, but would like to have finger on the exit button. Also since had just made a nice profit selling half the underlying LEAP, we had the “house money” to do another long trade. So in order to maintain long deltas, bought the $15 Sept 2021 calls for $0.42. This made a calendar spread in the $15 Aug/Sept pair for total cost of $0.22. The calendar spread is in addition to the now half position sized underlying LEAP call Jan 2022 $11.
This was an overview of how to use LEAP calls and short call overlays to trade commodity ETFs. The aim was to maintain a position, take risk off on the way up, and lighten up towards the end of the trend. Another trading update should be done when the current natural gas position is significantly changed or exited.
In 2020 and early 2021 we have started what will hopefully be a multi year position trade in uranium stocks. A position trade is taking a significant portfolio % trade (up to 10%) on a high conviction trade idea, to hold for several months until the fundamental trend peaks. Commodity trading is notoriously hard to time, because often there are several years in the wilderness, followed by huge peaks in a few months or years, following by equally rapid declines. Therefore some level of trend following is required to avoid having capital tied up unproductively for years.
The uranium sector is relatively niche compared to commodity sectors like oil, natural gas or gold. Historically the uranium sector has been underserved by ETF products, and there are currently only three URA, URNM and NLR. Both URA and URNM are more direct play on the uranium commodity producers, versus NLR that also includes nuclear power related stocks.
NLR will be ignored for this position trade, because it focuses on nuclear industry conglomerates, utilities and only some uranium miners. It trades more like large cap equity and only requires that companies get 50% of their revenue from uranium sector.
URA has been in existence since 2010 and focuses on large and medium cap uranium producers. URNM started trading in Dec 2019 and seems to have been constructed to only allow strict uranium producers. However to achieve this allocation URNM has to hold significantly smaller cap uranium producers and penny stocks that might not make it into other ETFs. For example the 4th highest URNM holding Yellow Cake PLC only has a market cap of $400 million, and with a 8.9% allocation. This makes URNM a more pure play on uranium but will definitely make it more volatile. Some holdings that have less than 5% allocations are penny stocks and will trade accordingly (high peaks, low troughs etc). The URNM ETF allocation is ideal for Uranium producer exposure in one place, but need to understand what it contains and don’t be surprised if it moves very quickly up or down.
This is direct comparison of URA and URNM top ten holdings. 47% of URA is in the top 2 main sector heavyweight stocks, but for URNM this is only around 32%. The URNM holdings are less concentrated in the larger cap firms. URA and URNM also trades LEAP options but they seem to have wide bid/ask spreads, so it appears more efficient to trade the ETF directly.
Cameco (CCJ) is the major North American uranium producer. CCJ is widely covered in research in US and Canada and and is often used as a proxy for the uranium sector. In late 2020 and through out 2021 the sector has broken out above previous multi year resistance. The following chart compares 5 years of historical price performance for ETFs URNM, URA & NLR with Cameco (CCJ) stock. During the last 5 years URNM was listed in Dec 2019 but all others were already trading at least 5 years ago. The relative outperformance of URNM is due to it’s mix of pure uranium producers including penny stocks.
Completely separately there are actually CME traded Uranium futures but they appear very illiquid and don’t have any option liquidity. Logically futures would seem to be a good way to access the physical uranium market, but they seem to be not be actively traded in any time frame (from near month to one year out). Have not researched why this should be, because many other commodities actively trade on CME futures. Whatever the reason, uranium futures are not useful as a trading vehicle. Anyway if the commodity price increases then uranium producers equity should provide more upside leverage than physical uranium.
Uranium production takes place in many countries around the world, but has significant concentration in only a few countries. More than half of all identified uranium resources are from only 3 countries. Recoverable “identified resources” means reasonably assured Uranium resources in the ground, plus inferred resources from mine surveys. The following pie chart breakdowns the worldwide percentage of identified uranium resources by country:
Traditionally a commodity producing countries Australia have more than a quarter (28%) of world identified uranium resources. However less expected countries like Kazakhstan have major mines and account for 15% of uranium resources. Canada makes up rest of the top 3 countries with 9%. Many other countries make up the remaining half of uranium resources but always in decreasing percentages. The USA only accounts for 1% of world identified uranium resources.
Quoting mining-journal.com (with our italics) : “Industry commentators have suggested that Sprott’s market participation has the potential to transform uranium from a sleepy commodity whose consumers dip into an opaque spot market to supplement their long-term contracts, to a more liquid, transparent and easily investable sector for investors who want exposure to a commodity expected to face increasing demand.”
Sprott has already brought gold (PHYS) and silver (PSLV) to market, so has a good track record in the resource space. The current listing date for new Sprott uranium trust is July 19th 2021.
Uranium doesn’t traditionally have speculative investor demand in the same way as commodities like oil and gold. The spot uranium was historically hard to buy as an institutional or retail investor – either with futures or via a physical trust. Having US listed spot uranium trust could provide organic investment demand as an alternative asset diversifier. There is a large pool of investor funds sloshing around the world looking for returns, so it could land on uranium in the next few years.
The other important item with uranium companies is the relatively small market capitalization of the entire sector. The uranium sector’s current market capitalization is about $30 billion. Any significant in flows into uranium equities could result in this rising significantly. The combination of a new physical trust and equity in flows could translate into wider investor interest in the uranium sector.
The original URNM trade entry was in April 2020 on the rebound from the post covid crash, after the market had decided the world wasn’t ending. The URNM position trade strategy was simply long ETF with no options involved. The ETF spread was relatively wide, so trade entry required working some limit orders to get a decent price – but often URNM would still only fill very close to the ask. e.g. if the bid/ask from $27.65 / $28.00 would only fill at $27.95 even by walking up Buy limit orders in $0.01 increments. URNM is too illiquid to trade regularly.
In Jan 2021 the position was doing well (up about 57%), but did not believe that our position size was big enough for the trade conviction. One thing that we had noticed when analyzing trades from last 2 years (including 2019 and 2020 trades) is that generally not getting paid enough for being right – usually because the position sizing was too small for the portfolio. There were also around 20 to 30 distinct ideas and strategies that were not contributing enough to the bottom line. Decision was made to focus on only 10 to 15 ideas at a time for the trading account, which allows idea quality to improve. This also reduced the time monitoring active positions with the constraints of the day job. When getting significant macro calls correct we are attempting to increase size in 2021 to maximize returns. For example with “long oil in 2021” sometimes the “normal” position sizing was increased from 10 contracts up to 30 contracts. It’s a bit out of the comfort zone because the position sizes are 1 or 2 times bigger. However since we always maintain good risk management – the good calls are still beating the losers so far.
In the spirit of getting out the comfort zone on major trade ideas we decided to pyramid up with 2 extra purchases around $44 each in Jan 2021 to bring up with average price to $39. There was fairly clearly some institutional buying in the last couple of months of 2020. So although adding in Jan 2021 was late after the 30% run up, it appeared we were in good company. Having the initial position from April 2020 allowed us to enter a very bullish trend at full position risk, but still have a 10% downside cushion down to the new average price. The following chart shows where the greater risk was added and how the average purchase price moved up.
This URNM position trade also shows the importance of having some position in trade ideas you care about. Then you will care enough to monitor the position and not miss opportunities to add size. It can be hard to take a brand new position trade in a strongly bullish trending market – even if the trade conviction is high. This trade will be held long term in an IRA and potentially be a multi year hold.
This outlines the investment thesis for starting and maintaining our long energy position in 2021. This is then followed by implementation of the short selling put strategy on XLE energy sector ETF. Selling XLE puts has been an effective strategy in the first half of 2021, however the year started with quite a bit of uncertainty in energy sector. Fortunately the uncertainty provided “fear” in the option premiums, so running a strategy that benefits from high volatility makes sense. Also covered is why some potential XLE trading strategies were rejected due to the higher volatility.
Pricing note: Unless otherwise stated XLE prices are weekly closing prices, not daily close or extreme high/lows intraday.
In the previous year 2020 there had already been one huge XLE sell off into the Covid crisis low, which was ultimately hit at $25.86 on 20th March 2020. Then followed by a 5th June peak around $44.84 within 2.5 months. This was then followed with a steady fall back to $28.72 on 30th Oct 2020. The year 2020 ended with a very steep 32% rally in the last two months, ultimately ending at $37.90 on 31st Dec 2020. XLE was trending bullish or bearish in either direction for a few months, but then would reverse direction and trend in the opposite way for a few months. This meant that the energy outlook was somewhat uncertain – specifically investors were taken by surprise with Oct 2020 nearly revisiting the March covid low. This 5 year chart shows the context:
On a multi decade chart XLE is also at the bottom of the trading range. The main bearish case for oil producers in the energy sector is that fossil fuels are a dying industry that is destined to be replaced by alternative energy such as wind or solar. This maybe true on a 10 to 20 year time horizon looking towards 2030 and 2040. However energy is cheaper enough on an absolute basis to take a tradable medium term 2 to 5 years position. XLE is trading at the same price as 15 years ago – obviously XLE has paid significant dividends since 2005 so that isn’t a zero percent return – but it is clearly “cheap” based on historical pricing.
Obviously looking at price only does not necessarily make a sector relative good value, so looking at historical price to earnings ratio is another well used metric. One such price to earnings ratio is the Cyclically Adjusted Price-to-Earnings or CAPE for short. CAPE is defined as a valuation measure that uses real earnings per share (EPS) over a 10-year period to smooth out fluctuations in corporate profits that occur over different periods of a business cycle. Looking at the energy sector CAPE shows relatively cheap valuation in 2020 with two annual reading of around 11 (18.42), rebounding to 18.42 as of first half of 2021. This is significantly cheaper than all other S&P sectors in the table below.
Also the percentage of energy sector in the S&P 500 is 2.53% as of July 2020. This will have increased in 2021 due to energy sector rally, but the percentage size compared to other sectors is still historically low. This reflects the energy sector issues, but is small enough allocation that if only some investor capital flows back into energy the sector could grow quickly. This is not an argument for it returning to 20% of the S & P 500 – only that an investor sentiment could see it rally quickly because it’s absolute base is relatively low.
All of this historical bearish price action did generate some good option premiums to sell into 2021. Even though XLE has been rallying in 2021, volatility has been high due to the constant threat of a significant sell off.
For other trading positions we’d often use deep in the money LEAP calls and selling shorter term calls to start a new position. That trading strategy often works best on growth stocks or commodities with zero dividends. However XLE isn’t currently a great candidate for that because of the dividend yield, and higher volatility on the long term LEAP calls. Other option trading considerations come into play with higher dividend stocks like XLE – stocks that don’t pay dividends have less chance of having ITM short calls being exercised on you as the contract owner takes the stock to capture dividends. Also overpaying for longer term LEAP calls in high volatility can be a problem if they were purchased with a lot of time value. Generally it is better to start the deep in the money LEAP and overwriting when volatility is lower. XLE isn’t currently a great candidate for that because of the dividend yield, and higher volatility on the long term LEAP calls.
Due the significant sell off XLE had a dividend in 2020 that moved around in the 4% to 5% range depending on price extremes – so buying the stock outright or selling puts to capture the dividend looked like a good approach. Since the energy sector was in play so much, put option premiums generate some significant put premium volatility. Given the combination of high volatility and excellent dividends, selling put options seemed like the best choice. See this historical volatility chart for the trailing 12 months from July 2020 to July 2021, showing the significant volatility spikes in first half of 2021:
It’s hard to time perfectly, but selling puts should generate monthly premium, and worse case secure a stock position in high dividend stock. The risk of selling puts at lower prices (on stock that you want to own long term) is that XLE runs away to the upside too fast, and the opportunity to own stock at a good yield is gone. Ideally would like avoid XLE running away to the upside and having to chase the market to “avoid missing out”. The ideal market for selling puts is one with a bullish or flat bias, with high option premium. Over a number of months, this is a balancing act to sell without the probability of being assigned. Part of the art is to sell options at higher and higher strikes every month, but not so high that when the market reverses at the top all profit is given back on one “bad” put. Selling put with XLE in the range of $40 to $48 out 45 to 60 days to expiration was done in early months of 2021 – but as the market went over $50 the strategy reverted to longer dated 90 day options at strikes in the $45 to $48 range. No put option was ever sold over $48 even though the market went as high as $55.
The red lines on the chart below show where the puts were sold. The start of a line is an opening position (sell to open), the end of a line is a closing position (buy to close) and the price level of the line gives the $ strike. Shorter lines indicate holding periods of 30 to 45 days, and longer lines indicate 60 to 90 days.
Each red line is trade of 10 contracts. Sometimes the risk was tripled up, with a maximum risk of 3 x 10 contracts = 30 contracts. During April 2021 there was theoretically a risk of ($45 x 10 contracts) + ($46 x 10 contracts) ($48 x 10 contracts) of about $139k (minus put premiums sold).However this was only done in rising markets when the older puts were nearly worthless. There was a theoretical risk of 30 contracts, but looking at probabilities the $45 and $46 strikes only had a delta of less than 10 (so had a greater than 90% of expiring out of the money). Also if the market suddenly turned very quickly they could simply be bought back to reduce risk. If there was a flash crash (e.g. a daily move from $50 to $40) then all 30 contracts would have gone in the money – but that volatility was unlikely according to the options pricing. A flash crash “could” have happened but it seemed worth the risk, as it was a very low probability event and the trade was working.
Although at the end of April the final put did get closer to assignment and the market was now trending down. Therefore made the trading decision to go back to 10 contracts only (1 red line) and keep further out of the money. There were still some decent premiums to be had into May because of the increased volatility. As XLE moved higher into May and June moved some of the strikes up because the market was trending upwards, and was ok to double up contract exposure (have 2 red lines or 20 open contracts).
Ended up taking on more risk in a bullish market while the XLE trend was up, but pulling back contract size when XLE was moving down (due to rapid sell off risk). Importantly “risk” here is a relative concept compared to buying XLE outright. Most puts were sold with a 35 delta or lower – which means that on trade entry they have about a 2 in 3 chance (65% or higher) of expiring worthless (making money) at expiration. So they mathematically have an edge of winning each trade, and can typically tolerate at least a $2 to $3 XLE pullback without losing. There is risk here, but XLE has to surprise rapidly on the downside and there are adjustments that could be made should that happen. Worse case end up with a dividend paying stock at a reduce price.
The selling puts trading strategy does have issues if XLE is chased higher and puts are just sold mechanically without regard for price in low volatility. Option volatility tends to decrease in rising markets, so selling near month options at the top of multi month uptrend is not ideal. For example, selling shorter term 45 day to expiration put options at $55 on a market that has just gone from $45 to $55 in a month can be asking for trouble. If that option is sold in lower volatility for $1 but has to be bought back at $4 in the higher volatility of a declining market – then that is $3 of lost premiums. That could be giving back 3 months of premium profits in a few days. It’s not “free” money, it’s money for taking risk and always need to respect the market’s ability to reverse. Market tend to reverse faster than they increase (“stock take the stairs up, but the elevator down”) – which is why the short put premium exists in the first place. Or those who prefer a more dramatic interpretation from the 1800s can always quote “He who sells what isn’t his’n, Must buy it back or go to prison”. Technically short puts are cash secured, but the short selling warning still stands – selling more put contracts than you can cover can be painful.
The short put strategy can require keeping the entire cash amount available to cover the short put liability (should the stock be “put” on a price decline). In accounts such as an IRA that require a cash secured put the full amount of cash needs to be available. In a margin account you are still liable to buy the stock back – for example consider 10 short put contracts on XLE at $40 strike that expires in 45 days. If XLE went to $0 (zero) in 45 days you would be required to buy $40k stock. However a broker typically only requires about $8k to $10k margin for a 10 contract short put option in the price ranges of $40 to $50 – even though the theoretical value of the stock position is in the $40k to $50k. The exact margin calculation requirements will move daily with strike price and stock volatility. The return on margin is a fantastic investment return if run successfully each month e.g. For 10 short puts assume $10k margin to sell a $1 option held for 45 days. Assuming $1 option profit every time, and run it about 8 times a year (365 calendar days / 45 calendar day option holding period) and then dividing by the same $10k margin used every time = about 81% annual return on margin. Note that % annual return is theoretical maximum return assuming all puts expired worthless – achieving half of that would be an excellent trading year.
In summary, selling XLE puts has worked well for last 7 months and using margin can help juice returns. The strategy worked well because XLE went up or sideways and energy markets still had high volatility. However it is important to manage the risk and respect the power of the market by not fighting significant down moves. Recognizing down trends and adjusting position size to reduce risk are important for selling puts. The current plan is to maintain this working trade for the rest of 2021, but could re-evaluate anytime.
Credits: Oilfield Pump (Texas) image used at the top of this page was created by Jcutrer photos. All other credits are referenced inline.
Despite threatening to breakout to new highs in August 2020, the gold price in July 2021 is actually about the same as one year previous in July 2020.
While the Gold price has moved around in a range for the last year, the volatility in the Gold market has been steadily declining this year. This steady decline in volatility is arguably surprising given all the macro economic fallout from the Covid stimulus and other economic measures. However the Gold market appears to be predicting less pronounced moves, at least in the short to medium term.
Since there is low gold volatility we can take more time premium risk than usual and keep the call strike relatively close to the money. Using deep in the money call options is a favorite strategy to get leverage to an underlyingwithout taking the same principal risk as long stock. Buying in the money call options typically means that the majority of the option premium is intrinsic value (“real” value not time value). However the time value of an ITM call option can still be much cheaper when the underlying volatility is low. The spread will also benefit if Gold volatility increases during trade, which is a possibility given volatility tends to be mean reverting.
Gold LEAP diagonal spread
Therefore we can take advantage some of the lowest gold volatility this year, and buy a very long dated LEAP call for Jan 2023 (with a 66 delta). Buying 10 GLD options is approximately the same size as a single call option on a /GC futures contract (obviously assuming similar strikes and expiration dates).
To try and pay for some commissions on the larger trade and get a small amount of income, the shorted dated Sept 2021 $190 call option will be sold (7 delta). This option has a 93% chance of expiring worthless at Sept expiration (100 delta minus 7 delta). But also a 14% chance of being touched between now and expiration (“double the delta”). Using the shorter dated short call does chip away at the cost basis every month. However it does mean that would likely have to roll and re-evaluate position if GLD price shoots up more than 10% in a couple of months – from todays close price $171 to $190 in September.
As of close on July 14th this gives the spread a long delta of approximately 58 delta. The long dollar amount for 10 contracts gives about $99,180 equivalent gold exposure (specifically $171.04 GLD price x 1000 shares x 0.58 spread delta). The long call Jan 2023 call is $19.85 and the short Sept 2021 call was $0.42, giving a maximum risk is $19,430 until Jan 2023 in approximately 18 months time. The maximum risk amount is calculated by (long 10 contracts x 100 x $19.85) + (short -10 contracts x 100 x $0.42) = $19,850 – $420 = $19,430. However there is plenty of time to adjust between now and Jan 2023, so the likelihood of realizing the full loss is low.
Sell to Open Short Call
Call GLD 190.00 EXP 17-Sept-2021
Buy to Open Long Call
Call GLD 160.00 EXP 20-Jan-2023
Importantly if GLD goes over $180 the Jan 2023 $160 will over its breakeven price, and will begin to trade more like an underlying stock position as the option delta moves towards 100. The call option leverage allows paying less than $20k to control a $100k gold position. The long dated call also reduces the risk in a protracted gold sell off. Giving time to adjust and roll as conditions warrant (e.g. higher volatility) or gold price opinion changes (e.g. gold price declines and would like to exit to maintain some option value for other trades).
In summary this is a leveraged gold long position as a portfolio "hedge" to avoid "missing out" on a run away gold price. It gives plenty of time for the idea to play out. Additionally the capital efficiency of LEAP calls manages the downside risk, but gives a significant upside potential if Gold moves up in next 18 months.
This trade has been a multi year Bitcoin long, trading two Bitcoin tracker fund products GBTC and SE:BITCOIN.XBT. Both funds aim to track the Bitcoin price (BTC), and own a claim on underlying Bitcoin. For brevity the underlying Bitcoin owned by either fund will be referred to as the Net Asset Value (“NAV”). As a quick review GBTC is Grayscale’s well known investment trust whose price is tied to Bitcoin. The initial GBTC position was originally purchased in March 2017 with BTC at $1,250 – see initial trade entry for more background.
GBTC was sold in Feb 2018 due to this huge premium to NAV – see the original trade exit for a detailed discussion. The final sale value contained NAV (the equivalent amount of Bitcoin held by the fund) and the premium (that the market assigned over fair market value for the Bitcoin held in the fund). The NAV amount was then reinvested into crypto with approximately two thirds in Bitcoin (SE:BITCOIN.XBT) and one third in Ethereum (SE:ETHEREUM.XBT). That maintained exactly the same amount of crypto holdings, but with some crypto diversification and greatly reduced exposure to fund premium. The premium part of the sale was “taking money off the table” and was invested into other portfolio assets. This crypto rebalancing trade was done at approximately BTC $10,025. All these trades were IRA eligible so rebalancing was not a taxable event. Rebalancing these XBT funds frequently would not be advised because of the wide trading spreads and international transaction fees.
Fast forward 3 years to Jan 2021. Crypto prices have gone through a huge decline (a “crypto winter”) from about Dec 2017 to Dec 2018 – with BTC ultimately reaching a low of $3,300 around Dec 2018. Then came the recovery rally from Dec 2018 to Sept 2020 with BTC reclaiming $10,000. Following that Bitcoin has been on a rocket ship launch starting in Oct 2020 at approximately $10,600 about to a high in early Jan 2021 of $40,405. The latest boom is claimed to be institutional money buying in large tranches, chasing exposure for themselves or their clients.
In Feb 2018 felt like we hung around at the party too long, with BTC moving from a peak around $20,000 in Dec 2017 down to our rebalancing trade at $10,025. Were actually saved somewhat by being able to the capture the GBTC premium. So this time we decided to see if we can improve by selling near the top of a huge peak, not waiting for post peak decline (speculation of course). Therefore during decline from high in early Jan 2021, exited two thirds of Bitcoin SE:BITCOIN.XBT position on 20th Jan when BTC was approximately $35,105 (about 13% from peak a few days earlier).
Ethereum (SE:ETHEREUM.XBT) position was maintained with no reallocation. Even after allocation the speculative IRA portfolio still has 25% crypto exposure, of which approximately 60% is Bitcoin and 40% Ethereum.
Provider Risk and Fees
Any crypto exchange traded product (such as GBTC or SE:BITCOIN.XBT) has some significant counterparty risk if held for several years. Fund could get hacked, the provider may lose private keys or have some other internal company disaster that impacts the underlying crypto holdings. There is also significant provider discretion about how to handle hard forks and how (or whether) they accrue that value back to fund holders. Bluntly there is a constant tail risk that one day investors lose some or all of their investment in a crypto fund (potentially overnight with no warning). Ironically holding these crypto funds puts a single point of failure back on to the provider – that the underlying crypto “trustless” philosophy was supposed to resolve.
Both crypto funds have very high management fees that mimic hedge fund style management fees. GBTC has 2.0% management fee (but higher NAV premium) and SE:BITCOIN.XBT management fee 2.5% (0.5% higher, but less NAV premium). Although crypto funds may be able to justify high fees due to the very specialized product, this has to be a long term holding concern – especially given industry trend towards much lower fees. As any crypto fund position size grows, the management fee becomes much more expensive annually in absolute real $ amounts. Investor alternatives to paying crypto funds management fees are managing their own crypto keys in cold storage. Cold storage approach has no management fee, but requires investor have a detailed crypto knowledge of potential multiple cryptos. An investor needs to balance no management fee in cold storage, with the possibility losing their investment due to their own mismanagement. Therefore the fund management fee is an expensive convenience fee to trade crypto on exchange, manage crypto in cold storage and implement security protocols.
Investors can currently ignore high fees because crypto is currently trading on Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) momentum – who cares about 2.5% fees when you make 300% plus per year? However through down markets over years or months, the fees begins chip away at long term value. The Nerdwallet Mutual Fund calculator can be used to compares product fees for an initial $10,000 investment in the (clearly hypothetical!) scenario where BTC price is static. Example shows that with no BTC price appreciation simply holding SE:BITCOIN.XBT with its 2.5% management fees loses nearly 12% in fees over 5 years – just for holding.
This clearly shows the impact of high management fees on long term holdings – these funds can only be held if high confidence crypto will rise. However as a medium term trading vehicle for crypto exposure with no taxable gains in an IRA, it is well worth these risks. Just remember to periodically take some off the table to mitigate the provider and management fee risks.
GBTC and SE:BITCOIN.XBT products are a good trading proxies for crypto, but are still third party representations of a “promise to pay”. If you don’t have your own private keys, you don’t truly own your crypto. Crypto funds should not be relied on for multiple year long term buy and hold crypto exposure. Only crypto in cold storage does that.
The crypto asset class is incredibly hard to hold without taking at least some money off the table on the highs. The peak to trough declines were about 85% for BTC and 94% for ETH from Dec 2017 peak to Dec 2018 trough. Unless some house money was already taken off the table in Feb 2018, it is doubtful that would have held all the way through “crypto winter” without finding the need to “do something”.
There is a reasonable chance that BTC goes significantly higher – however there are better asset classes that are less frothy starting from a lower base. BTC can potentially move from $35,000 to $100,000 from high (e.g. 200% return) but there are better opportunities to redeploy some of that crypto capital. Selling some for portfolio allocation is not the same as being bearish on crypto. This speculative IRA portfolio still has 25% crypto exposure, because it is the gift that keeps on giving. However if/when the crypto music stops, we will have made enough to construct an entire new portfolio from one single original Bitcoin position – whatever happens to BTC in future.
This is another bread and butter trade with an emerging markets iron condor, going out a bit further in time to October with 78 days to expiration (DTE). Emerging Markets ETF EEM has sold off rapidly due to market tariff and rate cut talk this week, which has provided inflated volatiliy. This is a limited risk range bound trade for EEM with the expectation that the market maintains its position over the next two months and that volatility contracts.
Contracts Expiry Date Strike Price Amount Trade
+5 Oct 18 2019 45.00 C $0.05 $ 52.69 Buy to Open
-5 Oct 18 2019 42.00 C $0.74 -$372.25 Sell to Open
-5 Oct 18 2019 38.50 P $0.76 -$317.20 Sell to Open
+5 Oct 18 2019 35.50 P $0.35 $122.79 Buy to Open
Total -$513.97 (credit)
On trade entry on 2nd August there were 78 Days to expirationDTE through to option expiration on 18th Oct. According to the 30 day rule this means that can consider exiting the trade on or after 2nd Sept. On 2nd Sept this would still leave approximately 48 calendar DTE, so there is plenty of time to adjust or exit. The following table sounds the future trade lifecycle dates when trade exit or trade adjustments could be optionally applied:
The option deltas sold on each side are approximately 35% on the call and 25% on the put, so there is approximately a 70% chance that the call will be touched, and a 50% chance that the put will be touched anytime between now and Oct expiration. Therefore it is likely that the short options at $42 and $38.5 will be tested at some point on this trade, but it can be held due to the limited risk. The breakeven points of $43 and $37.5 are at the high and low ends respectively of the trading range price action for the last year, so we can be reasonably confident that at some point in the next couple of months EEM could return to the the middle of this range – even if there is likely to be some short term volatility, possibly with the short options being touched.
The aim will be to close the trade for a $100 to $250 profit after 30 calendar days have elapsed, but this could require being patient and waiting for volatility to come in a bit and the trade to move back into the middle of the range around the $40 mark.
A trading update on July 30, 2019 shows that the ETF has brought the speaking been in a range for the majority of the month around the $42 mark. However with the federal reserve rate cut announcement there was a drop off on the afternoon of 30 July that has caused for the ETF to move down beneath the $42 strike in August. This means that the August short put is now ITM and needs to be managed accordingly however this is being fully offset by the $43 port in the September cycle. The aim here would be to maintain the position slightly closer to expiration to allow any time premium to drain out of the August cycle, and then either close the position or do a short put roll into September.
The rolling options are to either roll the $40 put into either a $41 or lower put to maintain the bearish position into Sept 2019. Alternatively the put could be rolled to create a September butterfly by selling twice as many puts and adding a down side put for protection. This would create a butterfly that can be held into September expiration. Ideally this would be done into a higher volatility environment to get as much juice as possible into the September options.
The position has approximately $120 profit and long as the etf stays under the $42 level this profit is not at risk. The 30 day calendar period has elapsed so the position can be closed or adjusted anytime. Therefore position can be maintained for a few extra trading days and monitored for a good Time to roll into September once even more time value has drained out of the August short put. Currently there is still approximately $0.50 time value (or about $300) left in the August short put, so this is a potential time profit that can still be extracted from the position.
Ultimately no adjustment was done today.
Trade Update for 1 August 2019
On 1st August 2019 in afternoon trading the Trump administration announced more tariffs against China. This somewhat spooked the markets triggering a fairly swift sell off in markets especially those effected by tariffs. This meant that the August short put at $42 has gone significantly ITM. With Mexican ETF EWW trading at approximately $40.75 the put had only about $0.20 extrinsic value, so it was a good candidate for rolling.
The sell off generated increased volatility in a short amount of time and ATM put premium in September looks quite attractive to roll into. This was an opportunistic trade due to the swift selloff, so the decision was taken to convert the position to buy September butterfly.
The August $42 put was brought back (buy to close) for a $450.71 loss, and was replaced with 12 contracts of $41 puts sold to open in September, followed by 6 contracts of $39 puts bought to open. The existing $43 put in September was maintained and not changed as part of the position. This converted the entire position into a $43/$41/$39 September butterfly. The entire new position result in a $288.67 credit, so the most that can be lost on the trade is now -$450.71 (from the losing $42 august option roll) plus the $288.67 credit received for Sept butterfly – so max position risk is now only $162.04. This roll was all completed in one trade ticket with one set of commissions.
This table gives the new position below. The top two options rows are option roll described above. The last option row is not a new position, but simply maintaining the original long $43 put from the original trade entry.
Buy to Open Long Put
Put EWW 39.00 EXP 20-Sept-2019
Sell to Open Short Put
Put EWW 41.00 EXP 20-Sep-2019
Buy to Open Long Put
Put EWW 43.00 EXP 20-Sep-2019
This roll exchanged approximately $0.20 of time value in the August cycle for approximately $2.00 time value remaining in the September cycle. If there is a large move either way over for example $43 or $39 then the maximum amount will likely be lost. The optimum trade scenario would be to close around $41 at September expiration. Because the trade is a butterfly trade it will benefit from a decrease in volatility and from the waiting until expiration. Given the low risk in this trade it would be fine to wait until very close to September expiration. Even if Mexican ETF EWW moves around a lot there will likely not a significant profit/loss changes until closer to expiration.
Summary of Mexican bearish put diagonal spread (converted to butterfly)
The Mexican ETF EWW will likely be volatile over the next week or two and may well move outside the ideally trading range of $39 to $43. But the approximate $41 target for September is on the low-end of the historical trading range for the last six months (a historical support line) so it is possible that becomes resistance with a move down in August and subsequent rally back up in September. However the trade will be held and re-evaluated in 30 calendar days - basically a low risk trade waiting for lower volatility and getting closer to September expiration.
This trade idea shows how to approach trading gold with long term diagonal spreads. The trade example shows how a bullish multi month GLD long call diagonal spread was entered and managed. This trade was IRA eligible so using multiple option legs does not generate lots of complex tax reporting, and there was no issue of paying extra capital gains if the trade is ultimately successful.
In March 2019 Gold volatility was approximately 9%, which was in the lower quartile (lowest 25%) for the last six months – having had a range of approximately 12% in Dec 2018, down to 8.5% in Feb 2019. Low volatility generally makes a better trade entry for long term calendar diagonal spreads. Importantly saying that “the volatility is cheap” only means relative to its own recent history in the last few months for this particular ETF or commodity. This does not mean that the underlying will not move around, because trading gold is historical volatile. This only means that the debit on trade entry is cheaper, simply as you don’t pay as much option time premium for the longer dated call (because the market is currently pricing less of an expected move by Sept 2019).
The chart below shows the GLD volatility chart for several months before and after trade entry on 22nd March 2019.
GLD July 2019 1 year volatility chart
Trade Entry in March 2019
Having made a decision to long gold for 2019, the next step is to structure a suitable risk/reward trade within the 30 day rule. Here is the original trade entry when GLD closed at $123.97 on 22nd March 2019:
Sell to Open Short Call
Call GLD 128.00 EXP 17-May-2019
Buy to Open Long Call
Call GLD 128.00 EXP 20-Sep-2019
This trade was OTM so had approximately a 30% of being ITM at expiration - it was therefore a lower probability trade, but high conviction portfolio position ("long gold for next 6 months"). Losing the entire trade premium (defined at trade entry) was acceptable risk for the overall portfolio - but the payoff was potentially large for the relatively small initial risk, so it created the right risk profile to express the trade idea. Initially selling the shorter dated call help finance the longer dated call, and reduce the overall risk in the position. The intent is to avoid this shorter call being assigned and roll it multiple times over the summer to gradually chip away at the premium paid for the longer dated call.
Here are the main high level scenarios for the trade outcome - GLD stays in a range, goes up a lot or goes down a lot (just about covered all scenarios in finance there!):
If gold stays the same or rallies slightly towards but not through the short call, it can likely be bought back for less than it was sold for - this helps to reduce the basis on the original longer dated option. If this can be done over a few months rolling option calls can nicely reduce the basis on the original longer dated option. Usually selling the 30 delta OTM call is a decent starting strategy initially, but once the position basis is reduced then selling calls that are more than 30 delta OTM is ok.
If gold rallies strongly in the next month, it maybe difficult to roll the short call at a profit. This is a risk of the calendar spread strategy - the market call is "right" but gold rallies too fast, and the position makes little money. This happens because the negative delta of the short call becomes similar to the positive delta of the longer dated call - so the overall position can become delta neutral or even negative delta (short underlying) in a strong rally. On average though the short call can be managed with month to month adjustments.
If gold tanks in the next month, it maybe difficult to roll the short call to get any reasonable premium in the same strike in the next month. However if any premium is available in the next month call, then it can be sold at the same strike. In the situation where gold goes down, one luxury of any calendar spread strategy is to simply sit on the trade and hope it comes back. This is "ok" as a strategy with calendar spreads because the limited risk was defined at order entry.
Trade Adjustment in May 2019
The trade adjustment that was chosen in the end, was to let short call expire worthless and simply hold the longer dated Sept 2019 call option. This has keeps the trade risk to approximately $1150 but there is still now no upside cap and still plenty of time for the trade thesis to play out. The trade is now $464 better off than if we had just bought the long dated call for $1622. Sometimes doing nothing can be the best option.
Option Skew in July 2019
As of 29th July, the Sept 2019 Option premiums are indicating that the market is pricing in significantly more upside than downside for gold in the next 7 weeks. Looking at the option chain below shows the distance of both 30 delta OTM put and call options from the underlying GLD price.
GLD is traded at $134.53 as of the NY close on 29th July 2019. Going 53 days to expiration on the Sept 2019 option chain, shows that the $139 call (with a delta of 0.2998) has approximately the same delta of the $132 put (with a delta of 0.2963). This means that market is assigning the 30% probability that GLD is $4.50 higher by Sept 20th 2019 expiration and a 30% probability that is $2.50 lower. That appears to be a huge bullish skew indicating that the market is still expecting higher prices in the medium term - despite the recent rally. If that bullish skew starts to disappear in the next few days, then would consider closing the long position, but for now content to hold until closer to expiration - especially because the option position only has a relatively small amount of remaining extrinsic value (time premium).
Specifically the extrinsic value (time premium) on our long dated call option is only approximately $0.65, with the majority being intrinsic value. Extrinsic value was calculated by adding the mean bid/ask for the option price ($7.175) to the option strike ($128), then subtracting the actual GLD market price ($134.53) = approximately $0.645.
Importantly this now means that the option delta is over 90%, so the position is trading like a stock position in the underlying. Since 6 calls $128 Sept 2019 are held, that representing a 6 x 100 x option delta = 600 shares x 0.9088 position = approximately equivalent to a 545 GLD share position. That represents a notional position of approximately 545 share equivalent x $134.53 = $73,318. There are some slippage in option bid/ask spreads and the option will move as GLD moves around - but that does give a good approximation of the current position size.
Trade Update in July 2019
This is the current GLD price as of 29th July 2019, and the position has made nice progress after the trade entry on 22nd March 2019:
The current unrealised gain loss on the Sept 2019 call position $2727, added to the $454 from May 2019 expired call, gives a total gain for the overall position of approximately $3181. This is approximately a 276% return on capital so far.
These are some possible exit strategies as the option call is getting closer to Sept 20th 2019 expiration date:
Exit long dated call at a profit - simplest technique, but does not maintain any portfolio gold exposure which will likely be a good idea in a rate lowering environment. This can be done by either just simply selling the call, or by selling dated Sept 2018 ATM calls and hoping to deliberately get called away.
Roll long dated call up and out to a higher strike - this will depend if volatility is still high (over 10%) then this would be an expensive trade. Specifically because if the long option is significantly ITM and getting closer to expiration date (Sept 2019) - it will not have a lot of time premium left in it. Rolling the call up to several months out further out will likely incur some higher than desired premium (due to the high volatility environment). However rolling out could remove all risk from the position (if done for a $1150 credit) and would maintain a multi month GLD position into 2020.
Sell long date call, and switch to using "high volatility" strategy to maintain a long gold position - e.g. bull put spread
Summary of trading gold with long term diagonal spreads
In summary on 29th July the call option position represents an equivalent $73,318 long GLD position, that was acquired with about $1150 of risk. With this strategy there was initially a 30% chance of GLD finishing in the money above $128 by expiration (based on the option delta). The probability of a touch is defined as double the initial option delta - so that also means that over the trade lifecycle there is a approximately a 60% probability of GLD touching $128. To word that in a different way it means that at some point between Mar and Sept 2019 in all likelihood there will be about a 60% possibility of taking at least some profit from the trade. Additionally because we thought GLD would go up in 2019, then we also are thinking that the stated probability was under priced. That meant that using our bullish opinion on trading gold from the macro fundamentals has given us the opportunity to put the odds on our side.
Importantly this wasn't just like a lottery ticket style infomercial that says "I make 500% a week buying options" - where the stated returns are often from buying lottery ticket way OTM options that only make that "big" money occasionally, but on average is a losing option strategy. In summary the GLD strategy had:
a defined theoretical probability in advance
time for the investment idea to play out
This trade shows the power of option leverage, and why it is always a good idea to structure your portfolio to respect it - even if we just happen to be on the right side of it this time. This trade is still ongoing so no decision has been made yet, however it shows how to get to good risk adjusted returns using a relatively small amount of capital.