By Mark D. Bern, CPA CFA
Let me begin by pointing to a detailed explanation of the strategy that can be found in my previous article. As you will see in the conclusion of this article, you may be able to collect in excess of nine percent annually in cash while holding AT&T (NYSE:T). If you find the returns mentioned in this article intriguing, I suggest that you take the time to understand the full strategy by reading my prior article.
First, we need to answer a question: I could apply this strategy to numerous other companies’ stocks, so why did I choose AT&T to write about today? AT&T is the largest provider of local, long distance, and data communications in the United States and the second largest wireless provider. The company was formed out of the breakup of the original AT&T which had its roots dating back to the 1800s.
This is really a stability and high, consistent dividend play. I don’t expect a lot of growth, but with the high and consistently rising dividend, AT&T is a good anchor for an income-oriented portfolio. It will also tend to reduce the overall volatility in a portfolio. I expect revenue growth to come from wireless, prepaid, and new services such as television. I also expect margins to increase gradually as most of the up-front cost of providing television services should decline. Within the telecom and cable sector I also like Vodafone (NASDAQ:VOD) and Comcast (see my earlier article on CMCSA).
AT&T pays a dividend of 6.0 percent currently and has raised its dividend every year for 26 consecutive years. Dividend increases over the past five years have averaged five percent. The last raise was for two percent on February 11, 2011 and I expect the company to continue its trend of rising dividends well into the future with a strong likelihood of increases averaging at least two percent each year. I also expect its earnings to continue to rise by about double that rate.
AT&T derives none of its revenues from outside the U. S. The company is focused on the domestic market and developing new services to increase revenue per subscriber. The company also has a healthy balance sheet with a debt to equity ratio of 58 percent, well below the industry average. Its capital structure provides ample flexibility for future investment and acquisitions when and where prudent.
The company has a profit margin of 16 percent and its return on equity is a reasonable 18 percent. Both are above the industry averages. When you add the expect growth in earnings of 4 percent to the current dividend of 6.0 percent you end up with an expected return of 10 percent compounded annually. Not bad, but I think we can do better.
If you could increase your cash flow closer to ten percent per year instead of 6.0 percent, would it make waiting for the eventual appreciate worthwhile? Let me show you how.
The closing prices on AT&T stock and selected options on October 7, 2011 (the last business day prior to my submission of this article; I always use closing prices to be fair) were as follows:
- Stock price: $28.44
- January Put; $26 strike: $0.80
- January Call; $31 strike: $0.35
The assumption in these articles is that we want to own the stock of the subject company (AT&T) but would prefer to buy it at a lower price and collect some income on our cash while we wait for our target price to materialize. If the stock offers a good value at its current price of $28.44, then it should offer an even better value at a price that is eight to ten percent lower. So, we sell one January $26 Put for $0.80 and collect the premium of $80 or $71 net after a $9 commission (assumes that we use a discount broker).
Thus far we have 2.5 percent return on our cash for three months. This equates to an annualized rate of return of ten percent. However, since we cannot assume that the opportunity to sell an option will be available every month, or 12 times per year, I propose that we make an adjustment to the methodology used to calculate the annualized rate of return. Instead of assuming that we can lock in that return for all 12 months, let’s assume that we can only find reasonably priced options that cover ten months out of each year when dealing with shorter term options (less than three months to expiration).
The reason is quite simple. Even though most of the stocks we’ll discuss in my articles will have options available nearly every calendar month, some months do not have adequate trade volume to assure good trades. Also, every stock used in my articles will have options trading at least quarterly with adequate volume.
Therefore, we can assume that if we sell options with expirations of three months or greater that we can do so consistently throughout the full twelve calendar months, while shorter durations will require an “adjustment.” Simply put, if we sell an option that expires in one month, we will assume the rate is available for ten months or simply times the premium by ten to annualize our rate of return.
Similarly, if we sell an option that expires in two months, we will make the same assumption and times the premium by five to annualize our rate of return. This way, if we have errors, they should be on the conservative side, meaning that we may actually do better in the real world rather than worse.
Applying this method to the $71 net premium collected, the annualized rate of return would be ten percent. I don’t think I will get much argument about that sort of return on cash sitting in an account while we wait for a bargain. Where else can you get a ten percent annual rate on cash for a three-month holding period?
But, of course, we want to own the stock so if it drops down below our strike price of $26 we could end up being put the stock at that price. At that point our cost basis would be $25.20. I like AT&T better at this price than at $28.44. That’s a discount from the current price of nearly 11.4 percent. I like buying stuff on sale, especially investments.
Now, let’s assume that we already own 100 shares of AT&T stock and would like to increase the yield. We do this by selling cover call options. Since we own the stock in our account, generally brokers will require that we must sell the calls in the same account to be “covered.”
We sell one January $31 Call at a premium of $0.35 per share, or $35. Again, we have to subtract the commission on the transaction of $9 (we have to use a discount broker to make this work well) and end up with a net of $26. Using the annualizing method I explain in an earlier paragraph, this equates to an annual return of 3.7 percent. Now don’t forget that if you own the stock you are also receiving the dividend and AT&T’s dividend yield is currently 6.0 percent.
Add the two yields together and we now receive 9.7 percent yield on the stock. And this is if we bought it at the current price of $28.44. Just imagine what the return will be when we buy the stock on sale using the put option strategy! Or follow along over the next two years (or at least a few months) to see what the real-time results would be.
Watch for the update on AT&T during January 2012. The title will be something like “Enhanced Income Strategy: AT&T Update #1”.
If this hasn’t made sense and you need a better explanation of the details of my strategy, please refer to the original article I published on September 21, 2011.
I have chosen to keep all the subsequent articles shorter by referring back to this article for details and explanation.
One last item that I would like to add to this article that is different from my previous articles. Some of the comments to my previous articles have been extremely enthusiastic. I am pleased. Yet, I also believe that I must include a warning in all my subsequent articles to make sure that everyone understands that there are risks to every strategy, including this one.
First, as has been pointed out in the comment threads, there is always the possibility that the selling puts strategy may not result in the purchase of the desired stock in a rapidly rising market. An investor could miss most, if not all, of a run up. It is doubtful that the full run will be missed, however, since the market (including most stocks) correct by 10 percent or more usually once or more per year. For that reason it is likely that the investor will purchase the stock at some point during a bull market, but he still may miss some portion of it (perhaps a large portion, especially in a bounce off a major bottom).
On the positive side of this equation is the fact that as most major bottoms occur there is usually a day of capitulation. Capitulation days are generally heavy down days on which, if one has sold puts outstanding, the investor stands a good chance of being put the stock (purchasing at the bottom). There are no promises of that happening, but the odds are better under this strategy than following ones gut emotions.
One other thing that helps offset the possible regret of missing a stock at a good price is that the seller of the puts will continue to earn a decent return on cash (generally 8-10 percent on average) annually while waiting. Granted, that is not as good as hitting a 30 percent gain in a good year, but it sure beats sitting in a money market and earning zip.
Second, as has also been pointed out in the comment threads, it is possible to end up buying a stock when the stock market tumbles and having to ride it out to the bottom. If the investor is buying a stock in a company that he wants to hold for the long term, at least with this strategy he will never buy at the very top. After all, we’re selling puts at a price of about ten percent below the price when the put option is sold.
In addition, the investor has the opportunity to sell calls and, including dividends, receive an average of 8-10 percent in cash payments per year while he waits for the stock to rebound. If we have done our homework in picking a good company at a price that represents a good value, then the likelihood of a rebound is very strong. The only way to end up losing money is by selling the stock. If you hold, you’re getting paid well to do so and eventually you’ll be back in the money. If the investor had purchased the stock outright at the top of the market and the market fell 50 percent, he would be down 50 percent at the bottom and need the stock to double just to get even. If he is just selling calls all the way down, assuming the average length on most bear markets is about 17-19 months, the investor should have collected somewhere in the vicinity of 15 percent along the way, putting him down 25 percent at the bottom.
Remember, you bought at ten percent below the top, using puts, so you couldn’t lose the full 50 percent in any event. Now you only need half as much of a rebound to get even.
The third scenario is the worst case. If an investor sells a put near the top and ends up with the stock at a 10 percent discount from the high and rides in all the way down to the bottom, collecting dividends and call premiums along the way. Now you are down 25 percent and you end up selling a call that gets exercised near the bottom and the stock is called away. But remember, you are selling calls that will net you about ten percent above the stock price at the time the option is sold, therefore you should be selling at no less than ten percent off the bottom. That would result in a total of a 15 percent loss on the total of your transactions. Now compare that to most alternatives other than picking the tops and bottoms, which no can do consistently.
An alternative to riding a stock down is to use stop loss limit orders. I recommend that investors consider using this strategy to save himself the pain of riding a stock down during an overall market crash. Some long-term investors with low cost basis may not want to use this strategy due to the tax consequences.
The point is, while this isn’t the most lucrative strategy, it does bear less risk of loss than most alternatives. By taking most of the emotions out of the decision process, an investor improves his chances of producing consistently higher returns. And that is the whole point. I hope this explanation helps cure some of the over-enthusiasm. This is no get rich quick scheme. It is simply a systematic strategy that can help investors achieve market-beating returns over the long term.
Thanks for reading and I wish you all a successful investing future!