By Chris Ebert

Option Index Summary

The S&P 500 has declined quite a bit over the past week, likely scaring off some of the bulls. Any time prices fall, there is a chance that it is the beginning of the end; every bear market begins with a sell-off. However, not every sell-off is the beginning of a bear market. An analysis of the performance of option trades shows that the recent sell-off was not enough to cause a significant change in the current bullish sentiment.

To illustrate why current sentiment can still be considered to be strongly bullish, take two hypothetical option traders that trade an ETF that tracks the S&P, such as SPY:

The first trader bought 100 shares of SPY and sold one at-the-money SPY call option (a covered call), which was purchased by the second trader. Had they opened these trades 112 days ago using options that expired today, both of them would have made a nice profit. That can only happen in a strong bull market.

If instead the seller of the covered call had made a profit while the buyer of that option incurred a loss, the seller would likely still feel bullish, while the buyer might or might not. That would be an indication of weakness in bullish emotions. If they both lost, they would each probably start to feel bearish.

Option Index Definitions

The intent of each option index is to provide a snapshot of the emotions of traders. It is these emotions that drive the markets over the long term, not the news; the news is merely a catalyst that feeds into market emotions that were already present.

  • The performance of Covered Calls and Naked Puts reveals whether traders feel bullish or bearish.
  • The performance of Long Calls and Married Puts reveals whether traders feel a bull market is strong or weak.
  • The performance of Long Straddles and Strangles reveals whether traders feel the market is normal, has come too far and needs to correct, or has not moved far enough and needs to break out of its current range.

Covered Call/Naked Put Index (CCNPI) – Continued BULLISH

Because sellers of at-the-money covered calls or naked puts receive a premium from the buyer, either of those trades will result in a profit as long as the underlying price does not fall by a greater amount than the premium received. Generally, when covered calls or naked puts are profitable trades, it is an indication of a bull market. Likewise, when there is a bull market, it is often profitable to sell covered calls or naked puts.

 An analysis of the performance of covered calls or naked puts opened a moderately long time prior to expiration (such as 112 days) can be useful:

  • In a downtrend – Implied volatility is usually higher than usual and the premiums received on these trades are also higher. It is therefore possible for covered calls or naked puts to become profitable when prices are still falling, but no longer falling quickly enough to outpace the faster time decay of the unusually high premiums. Thus a positive 112-day CCNPI in a downtrend is often a bullish signal that marks the end of a downtrend, while a negative CCNPI generally signals that the downtrend will continue.
  • In an uptrend – Implied volatility is generally low and the premiums received are lower as well. Covered calls and naked puts become much more sensitive to corrections in an uptrend, because there is a smaller premium to offset any decline in the underlying stock price. Thus a negative 112-day CCNPI often indicates the market has experienced more of a correction than would be expected in a healthy bull market. A negative 112-day CCNPI in an uptrend is a bearish signal that may mark the end of an uptrend, while a positive CCNPI generally signals that the uptrend will continue.

The 112-day CCNPI has been positive since mid-July and remained positive this week, and therefore is an indication of bullish emotions among traders.  Determining the strength of these bullish emotions requires a study of the Long Call/Married Put Index (LCMPI).

Long Call/Married Put Index (LCMPI) – Continued STRENGTH

Because buyers of at-the-money long calls or married puts must pay a premium, these trades will only result in profits when the uptrend occurs quickly enough to offset the loss of value due to time decay. When long calls or married puts are profitable trades, it is an indication of a strong bull market. Likewise, only when there is a strong bull market is it profitable to buy calls or married puts.

 An analysis of the performance of long calls or married puts opened a moderately long time prior to expiration (such as 112 days) can be useful:

  • At the beginning of an uptrend – Implied volatility usually remains elevated for some time after the previous downtrend has ended, causing the premiums paid to open long calls or married puts to be higher than usual. Long calls and married puts only become profitable when the market has gained sufficient strength to overcome the inflated premiums. Thus, when a previously negative 112-day LCMPI turns positive, it often signals that a bull market has gained strength.
  • When an uptrend is well underway – Implied volatility is generally low, and the premiums paid are much lower. Long calls and married puts only become unprofitable when the market has weakened so much that it cannot overcome the relatively low premiums. Thus, a when a previously positive 112-day LCMPI turns negative in an uptrend, it often signals that a bull market is weakening.

The 112-day LCMPI turned positive at the start of September and remained positive again this week. Although it has weakened quite noticeably compared to levels in September, it is still indicating that bullish emotions are likely to be strong now. Determining whether the bullish emotions, as shown by the CCNPI, and strength of those emotions, as shown by the LCMPI, are justified requires a study of the Long Straddle/Strangle Index (LSSI).

Long Straddle/Strangle Index (LSSI) – Continued NORMAL

Because buyers of straddles or strangles must pay two premiums, one for the call option and another for the put option, these trades will only result in a profit when the market moves up or down very strongly, so that the gains exceed the combined premiums. When a long straddle or strangle returns a substantial profit it is an indication that traders were taken by surprise – they were complacent and those emotions were later proven to be unjustified when the market moved much more than they had expected.  Likewise, when the market is complacent, it can be profitable to buy a straddle or strangle.

When a long straddle or strangle results in a substantial loss, it is also an indication that traders were taken by surprise – they were overly-fearful and those fears were subsequently proven to be unjustified by the market’s failure to move.

 An analysis of the performance of long straddles or strangles opened a moderately long time prior to expiration (such as 112 days) can be useful:

  • In any trend, up or down – The relatively high premium on these trades tend to make them rarely return a profit greater than 4%.  Thus, a 112-day LSSI that exceeds 4% often signals that the market has come too far, too fast and may need a correction to satisfy those traders who were previously complacent and subsequently surprised by the move.
  • In a range-bound market – The relatively high premium on these trades tends to result in losses, but those losses seldom exceed 6%. A 112-day LSSI that is negative by a greater magnitude than 6% is an indication not only that many traders were previously fearing a selloff, causing an increase in option premiums, but that such a selloff did not materialize. Thus a 112-day LSSI lower than -6% often precedes a breakout, either to a lower price range that confirms trader’s prior fears, or to a higher price range that completely puts those fears to rest.

The 112-day LSSI returned to normal three weeks ago and remained normal again this week. This is generally a good indication that prices are likely to continue the current moderate-term trend without any major correction or major breakout unless there is some truly surprising economic news. As was seen this past week, some of the economic news was surprising, but traders did not run for the hills. They remained rational, and pushed prices lower, but no lower than would otherwise be expected with such news acting as a catalyst.

Conclusion

Over the upcoming week ending Oct. 20, a level of the S&P of about 1388 would mark the point where a trader who bought an at-the-money Oct. 20 expiring call option, 112 days ago, would begin to see losses. So 1388 marks the point where the Long Call Married Put Index (LCMPI) would indicate significant weakening of bullish emotions. A level below 1272 would result in losses not only for the buyer of the call option, but also for the seller of the covered call. So 1272 marks the point where the Covered Call/Naked Put Index (CCNPI) would indicate an all-out shift to bearish emotions, if it occurs in the next seven days.

It may seem obvious that traders would become bearish if the S&P were to fall to 1272 next week, seeing as how that is more than a 10% decline from today’s price and would represent a probable loss of at least 1300 points on the Dow. No options analysis is necessary. However, the 1388 level might not be so obvious. A drop to 1388 on the S&P would likely be accompanied by a drop to about 12925 on the Dow and 2955 on the Nasdaq, and all of those levels would mark significant weakness in the current bull market. Above those levels, there is currently no reason to believe that this bull market will not continue.

Option position returns are extrapolated from historical data that, while reliable, cannot be guaranteed accurate. It is not possible to match the exact performances shown, because the strike prices and expiration dates used in the calculations will not always be available in actual trading. All data is relative
to the S&P 500 index.

The preceding is a post by Christopher Ebert, who uses his engineering background to mix and match options as a means of preserving portfolio wealth while outpacing inflation. He studies options daily, trades options almost exclusively, and enjoys sharing his experiences. He recently co-published the book Show Me Your Options!

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