NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- First-quarter results will start crossing the wires in the next few weeks and Goldman Sachs analysts are out with a few options plays ahead of the coming wave of reports. After screening 20 companies with liquid options that are reporting their numbers ahead of April expiration, the firm came up with Bank of America ( BAC), General Electric ( GE), Google ( GOOG) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) as early earnings season opportunities, and is recommending traders consider purchasing options on these stocks instead of the actual equity. "Fundamental investors positioning for earnings reports in these stocks should buy options to express those views rather than taking a stock position," Goldman said in a research note to clients. The firm said it favors buying April options on Bank of America and JPMorgan, as it views pricing for options further out as "somewhat elevated" and believes the upcoming reports (Bank of America on April 16, and JPMorgan on April 14) should be positive catalysts for the shares. "Both have diversified businesses with exposure to healing consumer credit," Goldman told clients. "M&A deal flow has been strong recently, particularly in Asia and the United States. FICC (fixed income, currency and commodities) is also expected to bounce back and the steep yield curve should continue to support activity into the second quarter." Goldman added that it expects commentary from management of both Bank of America and JPMorgan on the backlog in equity offerings to be important on their respective conference calls. The firm said the costs to set up a straddle play, which involves buying both a call and a put on a particular issue in order to benefit from a dramatic move in the shares in one direction or the other, was running around 5.5% and 5.2% on Bank of America (with a strike price of $18) and JPMorgan (with a strike price of $45) of the spot prices for the respective shares. Straddles are more for investors looking to capitalize on volatility, and Goldman said traders going this route for any of the stocks mentioned should buy the options now, and reassess ahead of the actual reports. Of General Electric, the firm said its analysts anticipate consensus earnings estimates could rise in the wake of the first-quarter report (due on April 16) but it believes the strong recent performance of the stock, which has risen more than 15% in March, is an indication that market expectations may have grown a bit too lofty. The stock could also react dramatically, Goldman said, if management discusses any plans for a dividend increase or further asset sales. To date, GE has said only that it plans to deploy its cash in an "investor-friendly" way and CFO Keith Sherin told a conference audidence in mid-March that the company plans to resume growing the dividend in 2011. Goldman thinks the April $18 options on GE shares look ripe for a straddle play.
Google could end up being the most volatile of the companies highlighted by Goldman. The search engine giant reports on April 15, and its shares have underperformed the S&P 500 by 15% in 2010 (down almost 9% versus a 6% rise for the index.) The firm's analysts are bullish about the earnings report, and see potential for a "mid single digit to low-double digit percentage move" in the stock in the wake of the report. "They (Goldman's equity analysts) note that GOOG has historically outperformed sell-side consensus in 1Q due to less seasonality in
its international business," said the firm, which prefers buying options in Google ahead of its report in order to also "capture volatility around Apple's iPad launch," slated for this coming Saturday. A straddle on Google $570 options was priced at about 5.5%, Goldman said, adding that it sees little downside at that level ahead of the earnings report. -- Written by Michael Baron in New York.