This Day On The Street
Continue to site
This account is pending registration confirmation. Please click on the link within the confirmation email previously sent you to complete registration.
Need a new registration confirmation email? Click here

McDonnell: How to Measure Risk When Writing Options

TheStreet Premium Services

A complimentary preview
of Options-Profits Previews

Many novice traders think only in terms of potential profit. They fail to think about the risk inherent in every trade. In my opinion the risk is the most important factor to consider in trading.

There are many ways to measure risk when we are selling options. One is simply to look at the delta; another is to calculate the probability that the option will expire worthless. One of the metrics I always look at is the margin of safety. Let us talk about each of these risk metrics and understand the advantages and limitations of each.

Delta. The delta is the Greek measure of how an option will move with respect to the stock. For example if the delta of an at the money put is -0.50 then that put will move -0.50 for every point up that the stock moves. If you are bullish on the stock then the delta of -0.50 says the position is like being long 50 shares of the stock. If you sell a put with a delta of -0.10 it has about the risk profile of being long 10 shares of stock.

Delta is a good metric of option risk and should always be considered. However, it has some limitations which all option traders should understand. First the delta can change as the stock moves. As the stock moves toward the money the delta will increase. If the stock is at the money the delta should be about 0.50 (-0.50 for a put). When the stock is out of the money the option delta should be lower.

Another limitation of the delta is that if the option deltas on two stocks are both 0.50 they may not be equally volatile. Strictly speaking, the right way to look at delta is to multiply the delta times the beta for the stock. That will correctly adjust for the volatility of the underlying stock.

Probability. One of the measures that I like to look at is the probability that the option will expire worthless. This is the hoped for outcome if we are selling an option. We want the option to expire so we can keep the entire premium without having to give any back. As option sellers the probability of success is higher than if we simply bought or sold the stock. This is because we receive premium that puts us ahead of the game and earn theta erosion as time passes. In order to lose at all we would need to lose at least the amount of the premium at expiration.

The limitation of probability is that it does not tell the whole story. It does not take into account how much could be won or lost at various prices. Despite that limitation it is still a great measure to estimate our risk of losing.

Margin of Safety. This is a simple measure of how likely we are to lose. I call it the margin of safety. It is as simple as calculating the difference between the current stock price and the strike price for the option in question. If this difference is at least 10% of the strike price then the margin of safety is probably sufficient. Of course a 20% margin is even better, but as you get further out of the money the return on margin will drop and may be unacceptably low. As a general rule of thumb you want to have a large safety margin on a more volatile stock.

OptionsProfits can be followed on Twitter at

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: Jim Cramer's Protégé, Dave Peltier, only buys Stocks Under $10 that he thinks could potentially double. See what he's trading today with a 14-day FREE pass.

Check Out Our Best Services for Investors

Action Alerts PLUS

Portfolio Manager Jim Cramer and Director of Research Jack Mohr reveal their investment tactics while giving advanced notice before every trade.

Product Features:
  • $2.5+ million portfolio
  • Large-cap and dividend focus
  • Intraday trade alerts from Cramer
Quant Ratings

Access the tool that DOMINATES the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500.

Product Features:
  • Buy, hold, or sell recommendations for over 4,300 stocks
  • Unlimited research reports on your favorite stocks
  • A custom stock screener
Stocks Under $10

David Peltier uncovers low dollar stocks with serious upside potential that are flying under Wall Street's radar.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Stocks trading below $10
  • Intraday trade alerts
14-Days Free
Only $9.95
14-Days Free
Dividend Stock Advisor

David Peltier identifies the best of breed dividend stocks that will pay a reliable AND significant income stream.

Product Features:
  • Diversified model portfolio of dividend stocks
  • Updates with exact steps to take - BUY, HOLD, SELL
Trifecta Stocks

Every recommendation goes through 3 layers of intense scrutiny—quantitative, fundamental and technical analysis—to maximize profit potential and minimize risk.

Product Features:
  • Model Portfolio
  • Intra Day Trade alerts
  • Access to Quant Ratings
Real Money

More than 30 investing pros with skin in the game give you actionable insight and investment ideas.

Product Features:
  • Access to Jim Cramer's daily blog
  • Intraday commentary and news
  • Real-time trading forums
Only $49.95
14-Days Free
14-Days Free
Top Rated Stocks Top Rated Funds Top Rated ETFs