AAPL: Weekly Premium Seller

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The first day of October was relatively quiet in the options markets, with an early rally fading and the broad market ending up a fraction while the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) lifted a point from early lows to close at 16.32.

While overall volume was light, one trade caught my eye in Apple (AAPL) options that is worth a closer look. While AAPL has been the busiest option class among single stocks for quite some time, the name is more 'retail' than institutional, and with such a high dollar price for shares the trades tend to be small. In fact, over the past few years, as AAPL has lifted from about $100 to nearly $700, the option volume has exploded, and the average size of each trade has been cut in half.

Recently, the very short-dated weekly options have been a major part of AAPL volume, making up well over half the volume on many days. The largest trade our systems picked up on Monday was a very large spread in weeklys:

This complex four legged spread is a condor, simply a vertical 625-635 put spread combined with a vertical 705-715 call spread. In this case we can see that the initiator sold both spreads more than 3700x, collecting a total of $0.42, which works out to nearly $160,000 in the seller's pocket. Condors have become an increasingly popular strategy for traders, especially retail, to collect time decay with a limited risk profile. In this case if AAPL stays between the $635 and $705 for Friday's weekly expiration, all legs will expire worthless and the seller keeps all the premium, which would buy a pretty nice slightly used Lamborghini.

But as we all know, there is no free lunch here, and the trader takes on considerable risk in this trade because there is the chance that AAPL shares could make a large move and put one of those spreads in the money. Max loss is $3.55million, and things can get even more complicated if the stock were to cross one of the short strikes (a move of about 5.5% to the downside or 8% to the upside) and the trader is exposed to early exercise. Not only would he or she have to come up with the cash to buy (or short) shares from an assignment, exercise can throw the overall position into a very unbalanced state since the offsetting positions at a 1:1 ratio are no longer intact.

Experienced traders love to sell options. There are very strong arguments in favor of some level of structural overpricing in many options. But selling far out of the money options for small amounts of premium (in this case the call spread only netted the seller $0.05 for $9.95 of risk!) can be very dangerous and is often compared to "picking up nickels in front of a steam roller." For this trade I'll track it very closely. AAPL sold off a bit into the afternoon, pumping up the put spread in this trade to about $0.85 in value, a paper loss near the entire premium balance collected. They'll be sweating a few bullets and hoping the decay (about $0.12 per day) will kick and suck some value out of their shorts.

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At the time of publication, Henry Schwartz held no positions in the stocks or issues mentioned.