Several years ago (time flies!), I wrote an in-depth article about selling covered calls for a group of clients who wanted to know more about the strategy. Since then, I’ve had a number of conversations about it with investors looking to generate income from their portfolios or possibly unwind large positions.
It’s time to revisit the topic in writing. Covered calls can be a powerful component to a larger investment strategy – but it’s important to understand them first. Read on for a brief primer on the strategy and how to know if it might be right for you.
Let’s jump right in.
What are covered calls and how do they work?
When you own a call option, you have the right to buy shares of a particular security at a pre-determined price, the strike price. By extension, when you sell a call option, you’ve given someone else that right – so you’re agreeing to sell your shares of a security at the stated strike price.
The “Covered” part just means that you already own the shares: you wouldn’t need to go out into the market to get them if your option-holder exercises their right to buy.
Here’s an example of how this might look:
Say you own shares of the (fictional) Bradford Pine Wealth Group Corp (BPWG), which is trading at $30 per share. You decide that you want to write, or sell, a call option that gives the holder the right to buy 1,000 shares from you at $33 per share.
The option is sold through the Options Clearing Corporation, the official clearinghouse for these trades. The market price of your BPWG option will usually be a fraction of how much it would cost to buy the 1,000 shares. Option prices vary and depend on how close the strike price is to the current share price, the option’s expiration date, and a number of related factors.
After selling your BPWG option, you receive a payment (so-called income), and the option-holder will start monitoring the stock price to see what happens next.
If the option doesn’t go “in the money,” meaning the share price doesn’t rise above the strike price, you’ll keep your income from the sale and the option itself will expire on the specified date you chose when you purchase the option.
If the stock price rises to $33 or higher, it might make sense for the option-holder to exercise their right to buy the shares. At that point, the Options Clearing Corporation will match the order with an appropriate seller (you or someone else) and initiate the transaction. (There are many other scenarios here however, for the purpose in keeping this simplistic, I will leave it at that).
Why was I careful to say that it might make sense for the option-holder to buy?
It’s important to keep in mind that option-holders don’t always exercise their rights, even if the share price is above the agreed-upon sales price.
That’s because there are a few other factors involved. In addition to the stock’s share price, the option-holder needs to consider how much they paid for the option and any additional transaction costs they’ll face in buying and reselling the shares.
How can covered calls be used?
Covered call writing is not for everyone. But for certain investors it can make sense.
Generally speaking, there are three main benefits to writing covered calls:
Immediate income from selling the option
The potential to lock in a certain gain when the option is exercised
The ability to manage share sales by limiting the quantity sold and specifying the sale price
For example, say you have a large position in a publicly-traded stock that you want to slowly wind down. Writing covered calls can be a good way to divest your position over time at prices you’re comfortable with,while generating some income in the meantime. Some investors find that using covered calls can make the sales process a little more orderly and less emotional than trying to time the market or manage sales decisions in the moment.
Similarly, covered calls can be a good option for those who are seeking income on a larger portfolio of stocks. Selling options provides income and can help you maintain exposure to equity growth potential while offering some downside protection against price volatility. These portfolio-level strategies require a careful balancing act between generating income, keeping growth potential in place, and softening the impact of potential drops in share price.
What are the risks?
If you decide to write covered calls, you must be willing to:
Sell your shares at the agreed-upon price
Accept the possibility that you could lose out on upside potential
Maintain exposure to the typical risks involved in equity investing (i.e., a loss of share value)
The key risk to keep in mind is that you’re capping upside potential. If the option-holder exercises their right to buy your shares, it’s usually because the share price rose higher than the agreed-upon price – and you won’t get the benefit of that extra growth.
It’s also important to remember that covered calls do not eliminate the risks involved in owning shares. You’ll still be exposed to the risk that the value of your shares might fall. While the impact of price volatility can be reduced through the income gained by selling shares, it is never completely eliminated.
Finally, keep in mind that there are tax implications to writing covered calls. These transactions can generate significant taxable income, which is why they are often better-suited to tax-advantaged accounts.
Using covered calls wisely
Covered call writing can be powerful. It can help investors unwind large positions in an orderly manner or generate income on a relatively stable and balanced portfolio of equities. In other words, it can offer both practical and financial benefits.
But it’s important to be prudent, careful, and certain that it’s a good strategy for your particular situation.
That’s why I almost always recommend working with an experienced and specialized professional. Options are complicated, even if you’re dealing with a single stock that you’re very familiar with. A professional can help manage the analytics, balance the risk-reward profile, and make pricing decisions that maximize your potential gains while helping to protect you from greater losses.
Want to learn more? Please take a look at my more detailed article on covered calls, get in touch, or visit the Chicago Board Options Exchange for more information.
Written by Bradford Pine with Anna B. Wroblewska
To learn about retirement savings, download my free eBook, “10 Tips You Need to Know About Your IRA Rollover.” This short book is packed with critical information that will help you make the right decisions about your retirement savings.
Written by Bradford Pine
Bradford Pine Wealth Group – New York City Financial Advisors
The views and opinions expressed in an article or column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Cantella & Co., Inc. It was prepared for informational purposes only. It is not an official confirmation of terms. It is based on information generally available to the public from sources believed to be reliable but there is no guarantee that the facts cited in the foregoing material are accurate or complete.
Comments may not be representative of the experience of other investors. Investor comments and experiences are not indicative of future performance or results. Views and opinions expressed in the comments section are the author’s own and not those of Cantella & Co., Inc. No one posting a comment has been compensated for their opinions.