About six months ago, I came across an excellent book by Jeff Augen, “The Volatility Edge in Options Trading”. One of the strategies described in the book is called “Exploiting Earnings - Associated Rising Volatility”. Here is how it works:
- Find a stock with a history of big post-earnings moves.
- Buy a strangle for this stock about 7-14 days before earnings.
- Sell just before the earnings are announced.
For those not familiar with the strangle strategy, it involves buying calls and puts on the same stock with different strikes. If you want the trade to be neutral and not directional, you structure the trade in a way that calls and puts are the same distance from the underlying price. For example, with Amazon (AMZN) trading at $190, you could buy $200 calls and $180 puts.
IV (Implied Volatility) usually increases sharply a few days before earnings, and the increase should compensate for the negative theta. If the stock moves before earnings, the position can be sold for a profit or rolled to new strikes.
Like every strategy, the devil is in details. The following questions need to be answered:
- Which stocks should be used? I tend to trade stocks with post-earnings moves of at least 5-7% in the last four earnings cycles; the larger the move the better.
- When to buy? IV starts to rise as early as three weeks before earnings for some stocks and just a few days before earnings for others. Buy too early and negative theta will kill the trade. Buy too late and you might miss the big portion of the IV increase. I found that 5-7 days usually works the best.
- Which strikes to buy? If you go far OTM (Out of The Money), you get big gains if the stock moves before earnings. But if the stock doesn’t move, closer to the money strikes might be a better choice. Since I don’t know in advance if the stock will move, I found deltas in the 20-30 range to be a good compromise.
The selection of the stocks is very important to the success of the strategy. The following simple steps will help with the selection:
- Go to here.
- Filter stocks with movement greater than 5% in the last 3 earnings.
- For each stock in the list, check if the options are liquid enough.
Using those simple steps, I compiled a list of almost 100 stocks which fit the criteria. Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Netflix (NFLX), F5 Networks (FFIV), Priceline (PCLN), Amazon (AMZN), First Solar (FSLR), Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), Akamai Technologies (AKAM), Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), Saleforce (CRM), Wynn Resorts (WYNN), Baidu (BIDU) are among the best candidates for this strategy. Those stocks usually experience the largest pre-earnings IV spikes.
So I started using this strategy in July. The results so far are promising. Average gains have been around 10-12% per trade, with an average holding period of 5-7 days. That might not sound like much, but consider this: you can make about 20 such trades per month. If you allocate just 5% per trade, you earn 20*10%*0.05=10% return per month on the whole account while risking only 25-30% (5-6 trades open at any given time). Does it look better now?
Under normal conditions, a strangle trade requires a big and quick move in the underlying. If the move doesn’t happen, the negative theta will kill the trade. In case of the pre-earnings strangle, the negative theta is neutralized, at least partially, by increasing IV. In some cases, the theta is larger than the IV increase and the trade is a loser. However, the losses in most cases are relatively small. Typical loss is around 10-15%, in some rare cases it might reach 25-30%. But the winners far outpace the losers and the strategy is overall profitable.
Market environment also plays a role in the strategy performance. The strategy performs the best in a volatile environment when stocks move a lot. If none of the stocks move, most of the trades would be around breakeven or small losers. Fortunately, over time, stocks do move. In fact, big chunk of the gains come from stock movement and not IV increases. The IV increase just helps the trade not to lose in case the stock doesn’t move.
In the next article I will explain why, in my opinion, it usually doesn’t pay to hold through earnings.