Nathan: What Apple Options Say Ahead of the iPhone Event

(This was originally published as an alert to subscribers of Action Alerts OPTIONS.)

On Sept. 3, Apple (AAPL) options volume exploded to a total of 2.3 million contracts. The stock also declined 4.2%, closing a touch off of the morning lows.

The one-day decline is significant, not just in market-cap terms, (Apple lost more than $25 billion in value), but also from a momentum standpoint. The breakdown wipes out two weeks of very positive performance, placing the stock below the physiologically important $100 level, which represented a healthy breakout of the recent high, and the all-time high made back in September 2012.

The stock was up more than 27% in 2014, dramatically outperforming the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq, which were up 8.5% and 15%, respectively. This is important as AAPL is the single largest component of the S&P 500 at 3.5% and it makes up 13% of the Nasdaq! While the stock clearly bifurcated from the broad market in 2013 (it lost value while the index gained), I would suspect that a period of underperformance for AAPL from its own all-time highs and the broad market highs might have a different effect from here on out.

Last week's momentum break is sure to draw out the old "double toppers," those technicians who will suggest that AAPL's failure at the prior high could signify an important sentiment shift, at least from a technical perspective.

What is interesting about the price action was that despite the stock's decline, which resulted from little stock-specific news, call volume nearly doubled that of puts. For a stock such as AAPL that has overwhelmingly positive sentiment, and such huge year-to-date gains, one would think that investors would be looking to protect gains instead of buying the very first dip in months. Four of the five most active options were in the weekly calls that expired Friday, with between 70,000 and 85,000 of the September 5 $100, $101, $102 and $103 calls trading, with the most active put strike 75,000 of the September 5 $99 puts.

The chart below shows the massive ramp in implied volatility (the price of options) for near-dated options. This is obviously the direct result of what was overwhelming buy interest for those who were using the stock's volatility to play for a snapback.

The one-year chart of AAPL's 30-day at the money IV shows anticipation building into next week's Sept. 9 iPhone launch event. Options prices are reaching that of the normal pre-earnings levels.

One trade that stuck out (the largest trade of the day) was a bullish trade made shortly after the market opened when the stock was at $100.70. A buyer paid $0.22 for 15,000 by 30,000 of the September 12 weekly $104/$107 12 call spreads to open. Breaking this trade down, the trader bought 15,000 of the September 12 weekly $104 calls for $1.14, and sold twice the amount (30,000) of the September 12 $107 calls at $0.46 each, or a total of $0.92.

This trade breaks even at $104.22 with a potential maximum gain of $2.78 at $107 on Friday's close. It is important to note, that this trade is not a defined bet, as the trader only risks $0.22 between current levels and $104.22, but has the risk of being short the stock above $109.78. This trader was clearly looking to take advantage of the elevated options prices to help offset what should be very rapid decay in the September 12 $104 calls that will occur after this week's event.

Dan Nathan is Co-Manager of Action Alerts Options, a regular guest on CNBC's Options Action and Co-Founder and Editor of RiskReversal.com, a service dedicated to equity options education & risk management. At the time of publication, Nathan had no positions in any of the securities mentioned.

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