Are Options, Futures, and Derivatives Useful?

Some of my friends and family like to give me a hard time about the evils of Wall Street, banks, and the financial industry.  They like to argue they produce nothing physical and simply keep coming up with gimmicks and schemes.

When I point out that the stock market allows the raising of capital to launch and expand real business.  Banks serve a similar purpose, especially in supporting small business.  Usually after this they concede these points, but argue that derivatives are pointless, useless, and wasteful.  That they are primarily tools for spectators.

The classic comeback is what about farmers, airlines, and insurance?  Farmers benefit from futures contracts (and crop insurance).  Airlines use futures and options to avoid getting pinched by rapidly rising fuel prices.

The classic retort is “Okay, maybe, but only consumers and producers should be able to participate; speculators should be excluded.”

My thought is who would take the other side of the trades?  Who would take the other side of corn or oil futures contracts?  Sure there would be a bit of action from oil producers and oil consumers, a bit of action from corn consumers (e.g. Kellogg’s).  But the action would be thin, the spreads wide, and the trades few.  Can you spell “illiquid”?

At which point my generic conversation partner tends to say something like “Don’t give me none of the financial gibber-jabber!”

But is it?  I think not.  I believe that commodities futures and options are potentially useful to producers (like farmers) and consumers (like Nestlé) and that “speculators” provide liquidity.  I put “speculators” in quotes, to include not only speculators, but hedgers, investors, arbitrageurs, and market makers.

I’ve only begun to delve into this topic.  To be continued…

The Thrill is Gone, but the Love (of Finance) Remains

When I was born, my birthday gifts included US savings bonds ($50 dollar face value, I believe).  I’ve had a savings account since about age 7, and started reading brokerage account statements at around age 9.  My brokerage college fund started with $1000 and nicely grew to about $4000 by the time I started college at the tender age of 17.

Before the age of 10, I was enthralled by the concept of compound interest.   I was curious about the difference between monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, and by-the-second, even instantaneous compounding.  Little did I know at the time that this concept lead to the mathematical concepts of limits, calculus, and the number e, Euler’s  number.

Needless to say, I love math and finance.  But I first experienced a truly heart-pounding thrill when I started online trading sometime in the late 90’s.  I could see the bid and ask constantly moving, and tried limit orders.  The asks kept rising, and I kept inching up my bid.  Eventually my bid got hit and I was an owner of my first online stock.  This was different than buying mutual funds on the phone from Vanguard, and getting quarterly paper statements.  This was in real time and it was exciting.

I’ve read a lot about Peter Lynch, including his books, and I’ve learned some lessons good and bad.  The bad lesson, as I read his words, was “Don’t buy bonds unless they paying at least 8 or 10 percent.”  The good lessons were “Don’t buy what you don’t understand.” and “boring investments are good… boring names, unsexy, but solid investments are good.”

My next financial thrill revolved around options sales and purchases.  I even recall making a 20-option spread trade that was scary, but ended up netting me about $3000 in a very short time.

I have also has some thrill involving real-estate offers, counter-offers, counter-counter offers, and purchases.   Mostly, tension and anxiety are better descriptors than excitement.  Mild disappointment mostly describes failed attempted real-estate purchases.  Moderate to exuberant happiness describes my successful real-estate bids.

In the last year or two, my trades have not elicited an significant cardiac or endocrine event.   While almost always cerebral and well-considered, my trades have occasionally made my heart go pitter-patter and my endocrine system give me a pleasant rush.  But lately the trill is gone.  My pulse is steady and the motions are vaguely methodical and systematic.

My love of research, introspection, and contemplation remains.  Trading, for me, is just a means to an end.   Increasingly dispassionate.   In the end I hope and believe this makes me a better trader.  As always, time will tell.

Options Investing

Some readers have expressed interest in options investing blog topics.  So I’ll pontificate a bit about options investing.

I view options as generally “zero-sum” hedging tools.   When I buy and sell (mostly sell) options my first thought is not making money on the options trades.  My main goal is transforming and reshaping my portfolio.

In my IRA portfolio option trades cost me about $8.00 each.  Since IRA accounts generally cannot be margin accounts, I have only 4 basic ways to play options: 1) write covered calls, 2) write cash-covered puts, 3) buy calls, 4) buy puts.

The tactic I’ve applied in my IRA is a basic covered-call approach applied primarily to SPY.  In a nutshell, I started by buying 100 shares of SPY and selling a single at-the-money call 2 or 3 months out.  That call option either expires worthless or I buy it back just before it gets exercised.  I then repeat every couple months; selling 4-5 option contracts a year.

The primary advantage of this approach is that it provides extra return during sideways markets and softens market dips.  The trade off is missing out much of the upside return during bull markets.  Setting the option strike price near the stock price eats into portfolio upside, but gives larger option premiums.  Choosing a higher strike price, more out-of-the-money, allows you to retain a larger share of market upside but provide you a smaller premium.

The other factor to keep an eye on is implied volatility.  The most common way to track implied volatility is via the VIX.  When the VIX is higher, you can expect to get more money for the calls you “write” (create and sell a call option).  I prefer to sell call options when the VIX is 18 or higher.

So if you are interested in dabbling with options I recommend starting with selling covered calls on a highly-liquid ETF like SPY.  Real time bid/offer quotes are almost essential and allow you to make limit order trades.  I recommend starting near the option midprice when selling a covered call.  For example if the Jan 2011 SPY 125 call has an ask/offer of 2.16/2.20, you can started by offering your call at 2.18. [Depending on the exchange, your brokerage account, and the price you may only be able to bid in $0.05 increments; in other cases you can price options in penny increments.]

To make things a little more confusing, most options are quoted with a 100x multiplier.  So that means that an option quote of $2.18 actually sells for $218.00.  Each option contract transacts 100 shares of the underlying security (the “underlying”).  So exercising one SPY 125 call contract requires paying $12,500 in order to buy 100 shares of SPY at $125 per share.

Portfolio Construction ETFs

Just a quick chart, globally-exposed ETF building blocks with VTI, JNK, IGOV, and  EFA.

GRAPH:  Possible portfolio construction pieces

And on the short-side, ETFs: BIL, BWX, IEI, IEF, ISHG, ITE, and TLO.

GRAPH: Possible short-side (deconstruction) pieces

These ETFs are building blocks I’m considering for a long-short portfolio.  As you can see it would be a US-equity-long,  global-equity long, high-yield (junk bond) long, USD (United States Dollar) short portfolio.

I’m also very interested in call option writing to blunt some of the equity exposure, whilst still remaining equity-long.

More Hypothetical Proprietary Fund Ideas

While the Σ1 Fund is currently a real 100% privately-held investment vehicle, all language and speculative plans about its future are currently (9/28/2010) STRICTLY THEORETICAL.  There is currently no SOLICITATION or even OPPORTUNITY for anyone other than Balhiser LLC shareholder(s) to invest in the fund.  Further, there is currently no SOLICITATION nor OPPORTUNITY to invest in Balhiser LLC at present. Thus the HYPOTHETICAL and SPECULATIVE language is merely just words at this point and time.  It is entirely possible that outside investors NEVER be given the opportunity to invest.

I’m wondering… should I revise my $10K minimum investment.  Perhaps $5K-$9K with a ~2% up-front load ($5000 yields $4900 of principal, $5000 yields $5100).  Increments above $5K are $1K with an up/down choice.  Increments are also $1K for investments over $10K.  Additional subsequent investments for current investors are $2K minimum with $1K increments.  Withdrawals minimums are $5K or %100 plus optional $1K increments.  Additional fund investments are subject to the same early withdrawal penalties as initial investments.  ALL requested redemptions are FIFO by default.

Distributions (realized capital gains, dividends, etc) are annual.  How they are distributed is TDB.  My initial inclination is that there is an ex-dividend date on the last trading day of each month, and dividend income is distributed in proportion to #months held * #shares.  Distributions are re-invested by default. Non-reinvested distributions are held in a non-interest-bearing manner until $500 is reached, upon which the total distribution will be paid in full by ACH or check.  Non-reinvested dividends may be paid, upon request, before the $500 minimum is reached, but a distribution-collection fee of $50 will be assessed.  For shareholders with >= $100K NAV none of these distribution restrictions or fees apply.

75% of redemption fees will be paid to Balhiser LLC, the remaining 25% will be paid to the Fund.

Requirements for potential investors:

  • Minimum of 5 years experience investing in stocks, bonds, ETFs, and/or mutual funds.
  • Acknowledgment that this is an investment of at-risk capital that may be subject to forced liquidation without notice during volatile and illiquid market conditions. This could result in severe or even total loss of investment.
  • Acknowledgment that options WILL be part of the Fund’s holdings/obligations.  While the primary target use of options is “covered-call” writing the notion of “covered” is not strict.  The fund may consider an RNM (Russel 2000 mini call option contract) to be “covered” by ownership of “an appropriate amount” of SPY (S&P500 ETF) shares.
  • Acknowledgment that ETF futures contracts may part of the Fund’s holdings/obligations.
  • Signed (and notarized) legal waiver that specifies that in exchange for participating in this fund, fund participant, fund participant beneficiaries and/or heirs, agree to hold legally blameless the fund manager and Balhiser LLC  for losses sustained by the Fund.
  • Solid familiarity with E-mail and the Internet and Internet-based “paperless” documents and communication.

In exchange for these concessions, the fund manager agrees to the following “skin-in-the-game” and transparency conditions:

  • So long as fund assets (or total net unredeemed funds invested) exceed $50K, the fund manager and/or Balhiser LLC will maintain a minimum of $25K invested in the Fund.
  • So long as fund assets exceed $50K, the fund manager and/or Balhiser LLC will reinvest all fund net distributions and net fund management proceeds into the Fund.
  • So long as FE>$50K. Fund manager and/or Balhiser LLC will be subject to same fees, terms, and conditions as all other investors PLUS will have to provide an ADDITIONAL 60-day advance notice to all fund shareholders (via email or other means) prior to any sale of holdings in the Fund.
  • 100% of Balhiser LLC/fund manager redemption fees (fees incurred for “personal” withdrawals) will be paid to the Fund.
  • End-of-month NAV reports will be delivered by email to shareholders. (delivered within 5 business days)
  • Subject to NDA: Unaudited Annual Report detailing complete fund holdings (delivered within 20 business days). Disclosure to CPA is permitted.
  • Subject to NDA: Upon request unaudited inter-year report (delivered within 30 business days). A $250 fee applies.  Disclosure to CPA is permitted.  Fee is waived once per year for investors with >= $100,000 invested in the Fund.

Base Management Fee Rates (similar, but not identical, to an expense ratio)

  • 7.8 basis points per month (0.078%) of previous close-of-month fund NAV.
    [~0.95% in simple interest, or ~0.9772% compounded annually]
  • Base management fee reduced by:
    • 10% for investors with >=    $50,000 NAV (or $50K net unredeemed investments).
    • 25% for investors with >=   $100,000 NAV (or $100K net unredeemed investments).
    • 33% for investors with >=   $250,000 NAV (or $250K net unredeemed investments).
    • 50% for investors with >= $1,000,000 NAV (or $1M net unredeemed investments).

Small Investors: The Best of Times

The small investor has some truly excellent options these days.  Two in particular are just this side of awesome.  The first is index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).  The second is low-cost online trading.  ETFs and cheap online trading form a powerful combination for the small investor.

In addition, the wealth of online investment information is voluminous, and in many cases free.

So for the small investor (whom I define as someone with < $1,000,000 of net assets to invest), 2010 is a pretty great starting point to get serious about personal finance

I recommend that before you embark, that you have at least a 3-month emergency fund and little to no credit-card debt.  If this doesn’t describe your financial situation, this article doesn’t currently apply to you.  [Please consider paying down those credit cards and then saving up a modest rainy day fund!]

However, if you meet these basic criteria consider the following suggestions:

  • Open a Vanguard account with a minimum of $3000.  Put those first funds in either the Prime Money Mkt Portfolio or the Tax-Exempt Money Market
  • Keep putting spare money into Vanguard.  Once you hit $10,000 to $25,000, consider other Vanguard offerings.  If you are unsure of what to invest in, call a Vanguard adviser.
  • Consider maxing out your 401k contribution, if your income permits.  Keep that “rainy day” fund in mind.  A rainy-day fund is cash, money market, or diversified short-to-intermediate AA or better rated bonds or CDs.  Stocks, mutual funds, etc. don’t count for rainy day cash.
  • Keep that Vanguard account.  If your tax situation permits, consider making Roth IRA contributions.  Vanguard is a good place to hold these, Fidelity is another.
  • Once you’ve got your rainy-day fund to 9 months or more, and can maintain solid 401k and Roth IRA contributions, congratulations.  You may be read to become a “big-time small investor”.

Enough preamble.  Let’s assume you are ready.  Now what?

You can select any number of online brokerages and invest for less than $9 per trade.  That includes option trades.  Some even allow futures trades.  So, the world is your oyster.

However, prudence is crucial.  There are just so many opportunities, options, pitfalls.  May I make a few suggestions?

  1. Start by investing in ETFs.  Consider, SPY, VTI, BND, VEU,  and, now, VOO.  These are excellent diversified ETFs with very low expense ratios.
  2. Want to dabble in individual stocks?  Diversify.  If you buy some tech stocks, also buy some consumer goods, or basic materials, or utilities.
  3. Want to dabble in options?  Try starting with writing (selling) covered calls on your ETFs.
  4. Futures?  Think once, think twice.  Do some research and think a third time.  The just maybe you might given them a try.  But, please, please do so with caution. [Note futures contracts require a margin account… please tread carefully with margin (aka leveraged) investing.]

That is just a start.  Might I also point out that an investor today could construct an excellent life-long portfolio with just VTI, BND, and VEO… re-balancing annually as age and situation dictate?  As age 60 approaches, mixing in a few laddered CDs (bank certificates of deposit) is not an unreasonable option.  Owning and paying-off a home is also a reasonable retirement goal.

I, however, am now content to fully adopt a reasonable and prudent approach.  I also dabble with a small Crazy Ivan Account (CIA), and with (limited) option strategies.  I also incorporate rental real estate into my investing mix.

The point I want to emphasize is that there are so many opportunities for the modern small investor.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices.   But, by starting with the basics — Vanguard mutual funds, low-cost diversified ETFs, and online investing — it is possible to construct and manage very solid personal portfolios.

Best wishes.