By Chris Ebert
Option Index Summary
A few weeks ago, the Long Call/Married Put Index (LCMPI) began indicating weakness in the current bull market. With that weakness came a renewed lack of predictability. Strongly bullish traders are relatively predictable; they buy on dips, they buy at new highs, they test support and ignore resistance. Bearish traders are also somewhat predictable in that they are just looking for a reason to sell.
But weakly bullish traders, like the ones that are likely to dominate the current market, act more like they are sitting on the fence. They react to catalysts in ways that sometimes seem to defy logic. Earnings reports, employment numbers and other economic news are not likely to produce the same results as they would have done a few weeks back when traders were strongly bullish. The following quote from the late October Option Index Summary still applies:
"Weakly bullish traders are slightly less rational… They are less confident… While strongly bullish traders seemingly were recently able to ignore such upcoming uncertainties as the U.S. presidential election, the Fiscal Cliff, and European debt concerns, less confident traders will likely begin to ponder the possible outcomes with more scrutiny."
A new development this week is that the Long Straddle/Strangle Index (LSSI) is dangerously close to moving to a point where it would indicate that the market is "ready for a breakout". That does not mean that a breakout is certain to occur, just that conditions are favorable.
In much the same way that weather conditions can be favorable for tornadoes, without any tornadoes actually forming, a market that is due for a breakout still needs a catalyst. There are several likely candidates for possible catalysts - a deal or a failure of a deal regarding the US budget and debt, surprises in employment or unemployment numbers, PPI, CPI, FOMC minutes, manufacturing indexes, and of course the continuing crisis in Europe. The market is poised to react in a big way, either by turning decidedly bearish, or soaring to new highs, given a jolt in either direction by the news.
Option Index Definitions
The intent of each option index is to provide a snapshot of the emotions of traders. It is these emotions that drive the markets over the long term, not the news; the news is merely a catalyst that feeds into market emotions that were already present.
- The performance of Covered Calls and Naked Puts reveals whether traders feel bullish or bearish.
- The performance of Long Calls and Married Puts reveals whether traders feel a bull market is strong or weak.
- The performance of Long Straddles and Strangles reveals whether traders feel the market is normal, has come too far and needs to correct, or has not moved far enough and needs to break out of its current range.
Covered Call/Naked Put Index (CCNPI) - Continued BULLISH
Because sellers of at-the-money covered calls or naked puts receive a premium from the buyer, either of those trades will result in a profit as long as the underlying price does not fall by a greater amount than the premium received. Generally, when covered calls or naked puts are profitable trades, it is an indication of a bull market. Likewise, when there is a bull market, it is often profitable to sell covered calls or naked puts.
An analysis of the performance of covered calls or naked puts opened a moderately long time prior to expiration (such as 112 days) can be useful:
- In a downtrend - Implied volatility is usually higher than usual and the premiums received on these trades are also higher. It is therefore possible for covered calls or naked puts to become profitable when prices are still falling, but no longer falling quickly enough to outpace the faster time decay of the unusually high premiums. Thus a positive 112-day CCNPI in a downtrend is often a bullish signal that marks the end of a downtrend, while a negative CCNPI generally signals that the downtrend will continue.
- In an uptrend - Implied volatility is generally low and the premiums received are lower as well. Covered calls and naked puts become much more sensitive to corrections in an uptrend, because there is a smaller premium to offset any decline in the underlying stock price. Thus a negative 112-day CCNPI often indicates the market has experienced more of a correction than would be expected in a healthy bull market. A negative 112-day CCNPI in an uptrend is a bearish signal that may mark the end of an uptrend, while a positive CCNPI generally signals that the uptrend will continue.
The 112-day CCNPI has been positive since mid-July and remained positive this week, and therefore is an indication of bullish emotions among traders. Traders "want" to be bullish now, but they need strength to actually act bullish. Determining the strength of these bullish emotions requires a study of the Long Call/Married Put Index (LCMPI).
Long Call/Married Put Index (LCMPI) -Returned to WEAKNESS
Because buyers of at-the-money long calls or married puts must pay a premium, these trades will only result in profits when the uptrend occurs quickly enough to offset the loss of value due to time decay.When long calls or married puts are profitable trades, it is an indication of a strong bull market.Likewise, only when there is a strong bull market is it profitable to buy calls or married puts.
An analysis of the performance of long calls or married puts opened a moderately long time prior to expiration (such as 112 days) can be useful:
- At the beginning of an uptrend - Implied volatility usually remains elevated for some time after the previous downtrend has ended, causing the premiums paid to open long calls or married puts to be higher than usual. Long calls and married puts only become profitable when the market has gained sufficient strength to overcome the inflated premiums. Thus, when a previously negative 112-day LCMPI turns positive, it often signals that a bull market has gained strength.
- When an uptrend is well underway - Implied volatility is generally low, and the premiums paid are much lower. Long calls and married puts only become unprofitable when the market has weakened so much that it cannot overcome the relatively low premiums. Thus, a when a previously positive 112-day LCMPI turns negative in an uptrend, it often signals that a bull market is weakening.
The 112-day LCMPI turned positive at the start of September but has been much more negative over the past several weeks, indicating that bullish emotions are likely to be weak now. Weakness is sometimes temporary, however weakness that lasts for more than a few weeks often leads to a bear market. Determining whether the bullish emotions, as shown by the CCNPI, and weakness of those emotions, as shown by the LCMPI, are justified requires a study of the Long Straddle/Strangle Index (LSSI).
Long Straddle/Strangle Index (LSSI) - Nearly DUE FOR A BREAKOUT
Because buyers of straddles or strangles must pay two premiums, one for the call option and another for the put option, these trades will only result in a profit when the market moves up or down very strongly, so that the gains exceed the combined premiums. When a long straddle or strangle returns a substantial profit it is an indication that traders were taken by surprise - they were complacent and those emotions were later proven to be unjustified when the market moved much more than they had expected. Likewise, when the market is complacent, it can be profitable to buy a straddle or strangle.
When a long straddle or strangle results in a substantial loss, it is also an indication that traders were taken by surprise - they were overly-fearful and those fears were subsequently proven to be unjustified by the market's failure to move.
An analysis of the performance of long straddles or strangles opened a moderately long time prior to expiration (such as 112 days) can be useful:
- In any trend, up or down - The relatively high premium on these trades tend to make them rarely return a profit greater than 4%. Thus, a 112-day LSSI that exceeds 4% often signals that the market has come too far, too fast and may need a correction to satisfy those traders who were previously complacent and subsequently surprised by the move.
- In a range-bound market - The relatively high premium on these trades tends to result in losses, but those losses seldom exceed 6%. A 112-day LSSI that is negative by a greater magnitude than 6% is an indication not only that many traders were previously fearing a sell-off, causing an increase in option premiums, but that such a sell-off did not materialize. Thus a 112-day LSSI lower than -6% often precedes a breakout, either to a lower price range that confirms trader's prior fears, or to a higher price range that completely puts those fears to rest.
The 112-day LSSI last exceeded its normal range this past August, just prior to the breakout to higher prices that occurred in early September. This week, the LSSI is at -5.7%, which is very close to the maximum range of -6% that is considered normal. Often when the LSSI reaches these levels, the market makes some big moves in the following weeks. The direction of the move can be up or down depending on the news that triggers it, but the magnitude of the move tends to be amplified when the LSSI is at its current level.
Option position returns are extrapolated from historical data that, while reliable, cannot be guaranteed accurate. It is not possible to match the exact performances shown, because the strike prices and expiration dates used in the calculations will not always be available in actual trading. All data is relative to the S&P 500 index.
The preceding is a post by Christopher Ebert, who uses his engineering background to mix and match options as a means of preserving portfolio wealth while outpacing inflation. He studies options daily, trades options almost exclusively, and enjoys sharing his experiences. He recently co-published the book "Show Me Your Options!"
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