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Dispelling the 'Bin Laden' Options Trades

Updated from 7:07 a.m.

As if the mortgage-market meltdown wasn't enough to spook investors, some market players expressed concerns about unusual options bets that some observers have dubbed "Bin Laden Trades."

The blogosphere and options trading desks have been rife with speculation about these trades, which are unusually large bets that the market will make a huge move in the next month. Some entity, or entities, has taken a large position on extremely deep in the money S&P 500 options, both puts and calls , that won't pay off unless the market undergoes an extremely large price move between now and the options' expiration on Sept. 21.

However, Dan Perper, a Partner at Peak 6, one of the largest option market makers and proprietary trading firms, has confirmed that the trades are part of a "box-spread trade."

"This was done as a package in which the box spread was used as a means of alternative financing at more attractive interest rates" explained Perper.

Simply put, two parties agree to trade the box at a price that essentially splits the difference between current rates.

For example, the rough numbers would be that given the September 700/1700 box must settle at a value of 1,000 -- it is currently trading around 997 -- that translates into a 5% interest rate.

For the seller it is a way to borrow money at a slight discount to the prevailing rate, and for the buyer, it is a way to lend money at a low rate of return, but it's better than nothing at a time when others are scared and have painted themselves into a box (ha ha) because they have run out available funds.

Currently there are about 63,000 700/1700 boxes open. Perper expects that once the September options expire, you will see similar boxes established in the December series. As to why the September 700 put has over 116,000 contracts open, Perper thinks a good portion of that was created from the prior rollover when April options expired.

The positions in question had option industry experts perplexed to come up with a rational explanation, which are far from the best or most efficient way to profit from what would be outlier events.

Those concerned about the worst-case scenario recalled that large put contracts were placed on airline stocks, notably American, a unit of AMR and United Airlines, in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The first area of focus was that open interest September 700 S&P puts had such an unusually high number for such a low-probability trade. A put is a defensive bet that gives the holder the right to sell a security at a specified price, in this case more than 50% below the S&P 500's current level of 1463 as of Wednesday's close.

For comparison's sake, according to the Option Clearing Corp., the open interest in the July 700 strike some three weeks prior to expiration on July 20 was 790 calls and 7,300 puts, and the August 700 strike showed 1,250 calls and 14,800 puts prior to Aug. 17 expiration.

And the volume completely outstrips anything seen last September, when the S&P was around 1300, some 20% below current levels. In September 2006, the 700 strike had 600 calls and 7,500 puts, and no strike below 1000 had open interest surpassing 42,000 contracts, and that was the 900 puts.

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