Big potential payoff for very little premium—that is the inherent attraction of a risk reversal strategy. While risk reversal strategies are widely used in the forex and commodities options markets, when it comes to equity options, they tend to be used primarily by institutional traders and seldom by retail investors. Risk reversal strategies may seem a little daunting to the option neophyte, but they can be a very useful “option” for experienced investors who are familiar with basic puts and calls.
What Is Risk Reversal?
The most basic risk reversal strategy consists of selling (or writing) an out-of-the-money (OTM) put option and simultaneously buying an OTM call. This is a combination of a short put position and a long call position. Since writing the put will result in the option trader receiving a certain amount of premium, this premium income can be used to buy the call. If the cost of buying the call is greater than the premium received for writing the put, the strategy would involve a net debit.
Conversely, if the premium received from writing the put is greater than the cost of the call, the strategy generates a net credit. In the event that the put premium received equals the outlay for the call, this would be a costless or zero-cost trade. Of course, commissions have to be considered as well, but in the examples that follow, we ignore them to keep things simple.
The reason why a risk reversal is so called is that it reverses the “volatility skew” risk that usually confronts the options trader. In very simplistic terms, here’s what it means. OTM puts typically have higher implied volatilities (and are therefore more expensive) than OTM calls, because of the greater demand for protective puts to hedge long stock positions. Since a risk reversal strategy generally entails selling options with the higher implied volatility and buying options with the lower implied volatility, this skew risk is reversed.
Risk Reversal Applications
Risk reversals can be used either for speculation or for hedging. When used for speculation, a risk reversal strategy can be used to simulate a synthetic long or short position. When used for hedging, a risk reversal strategy is used to hedge the risk of an existing long or short position.
The two basic variations of a risk reversal strategy used for speculation are:
- Write OTM Put + Buy OTM Call: This is equivalent to a synthetic long position, since the risk-reward profile is similar to that of a long stock position. Known as a bullish risk reversal, the strategy is profitable if the stock rises appreciably, and is unprofitable if it declines sharply.
- Write OTM Call + Buy OTM Put: This is equivalent to a synthetic short position, as the risk-reward profile is similar to that of a short stock position. This bearish risk reversal strategy is profitable if the stock declines sharply, and is unprofitable if it appreciates significantly.
The two basic variations of a risk reversal strategy used for hedging are:
- Write OTM Call + Buy OTM Put: This is used to hedge an existing long position, and is also known as a “collar.” A specific application of this strategy is the “costless collar,” which enables an investor to hedge a long position without incurring any upfront premium cost.
- Write OTM Put + Buy OTM Call: This is used to hedge an existing short position, and as in the previous instance, can be designed at zero cost.
Risk Reversal Examples
Let’s use Microsoft Corp to illustrate the design of a risk reversal strategy for speculation, as well as for hedging a long position.
Microsoft closed at $41.11 on June 10, 2014. At that point, the MSFT October $42 calls were last quoted at $1.27 / $1.32, with an implied volatility of 18.5%. The MSFT October $40 puts were quoted at $1.41 / $1.46, with an implied volatility of 18.8%.
Speculative trade (synthetic long position or bullish risk reversal)
Write the MSFT October $40 puts at $1.41, and buy the MSFT October $42 calls at $1.32.
Net credit (excluding commissions) = $0.09
Assume 5 put contracts are written and 5 call option contracts are purchased.
Note these points:
- With MSFT last traded at $41.11, the $42 calls are 89 cents out-of-the-money, while the $40 puts are $1.11 OTM.
- The bid-ask spread has to be considered in all instances. When writing an option (put or call), the option writer will receive the bid price, but when buying an option, the buyer has to shell out the ask price.
- Different option expirations and strike prices can also be used. For instance, the trader can go with the June puts and calls rather than the October options, if they think that a big move in the stock is likely in the one and a half weeks left for option expiry. But while the June $42 calls are much cheaper than the October $42 calls ($0.11 vs. $1.32), the premium received for writing the June $40 puts is also much lower than the premium for the October $40 puts ($0.10 vs. $1.41).
What is the risk-reward payoff for this strategy? Very shortly before option expiration on October 18, 2014, there are three potential scenarios with respect to the strike prices:
- MSFT is trading above $42: This is the best possible scenario, since this trade is equivalent to a synthetic long position. In this case, the $42 puts will expire worthless, while the $42 calls will have a positive value (equal to the current stock price less $42). Thus if MSFT has surged to $45 by October 18, the $42 calls will be worth at least $3. So the total profit would be $1,500 ($3 x 100 x 5 call contracts).
- MSFT is trading between $40 and $42: In this case, the $40 put and $42 call will both be on track to expire worthless. This will hardly make a dent in the trader’s pocketbook, since a marginal credit of 9 cents was received at trade initiation.
- MSFT is trading below $40: In this case, the $42 call will expire worthless, but since the trader has a short position in the $40 put, the strategy will incur a loss equal to the difference between $40 and the current stock price. So if MSFT has declined to $35 by October 18, the loss on the trade will be equal to $5 per share, or a total loss of $2,500 ($5 x 100 x 5 put contracts).
Assume the investor already owns 500 MSFT shares and wants to hedge downside risk at a minimal cost.
Write the MSFT October $42 calls at $1.27, and buy the MSFT October $40 puts at $1.46.
This is a combination of a covered call + protective put.
Net debit (excluding commissions) = $0.19
Assume 5 put contracts are written and 5 call option contracts are purchased.
What is the risk-reward payoff for this strategy? Very shortly before option expiration on October 18, 2014, there are three potential scenarios with respect to the strike prices –
- MSFT is trading above $42: In this case, the stock will be called away at the call strike price of $42.
- MSFT is trading between $40 and $42: In this scenario, the $40 put and $42 call will both be on track to expire worthless. The only loss the investor incurs is the cost of $95 on the hedge transaction ($0.19 x 100 x 5 contracts).
- MSFT is trading below $40: Here, the $42 call will expire worthless, but the $40 put position would be profitable, offsetting the loss on the long stock position.
Why would an investor use such a strategy? Because of its effectiveness in hedging a long position that the investor wants to retain, at minimal or zero cost. In this specific example, the investor may have the view that MSFT has little upside potential but significant downside risk in the near term. As a result, they may be willing to sacrifice any upside beyond $42, in return for obtaining downside protection below a stock price of $40.
When Should You Use a Risk Reversal Strategy?
There are some specific instances when risk reversal strategies can be optimally used:
- When you really, really like a stock but require some leverage: If you really like a stock, writing an OTM put on it is a no-brainer strategy if (a) you do not have the funds to buy it outright, or (b) the stock looks a little pricey and is beyond your buying range. In such a case, writing an OTM put will earn you some premium income, but you can “double down” on your bullish view by buying an OTM call with part of the put-write proceeds.
- In the early stages of a bull market: Good quality stocks can surge in the early stages of a bull market. There is a diminished risk of being assigned on the short put leg of bullish risk reversal strategies during such times, while the OTM calls can have dramatic price gains if the underlying stocks surge.
- Prior to spinoffs and other events like an imminent stock split: Investor enthusiasm in the days before a spinoff or a stock split typically provides solid downside support and results in appreciable price gains, the ideal environment for a risk reversal strategy.
- When a blue-chip abruptly plunges (especially during strong bull markets): During strong bull markets, a blue-chip that has temporarily fallen out of favor because of an earnings miss or some other unfavorable event is unlikely to stay in the penalty box for very long. Implementing a risk reversal strategy with medium-term expiration (say six months) may pay off handsomely if the stock rebounds during this period.
Pros and Cons of Risk Reversals
The advantages of risk reversal strategies are as follows:
- Low cost: Risk reversal strategies can be implemented at little to no cost.
- Favorable risk-reward: While not without risks, these strategies can be designed to have unlimited potential profit and lower risk.
- Applicable in a wide range of situations: Risk reversals can be used in a variety of trading situations and scenarios.
So what are the drawbacks?
- Margin requirements can be onerous: Margin requirements for the short leg of a risk reversal can be quite substantial.
- Substantial risk on the short leg: The risks on the short put leg of a bullish risk reversal, and the short call leg of a bearish risk reversal, are substantial and may exceed the risk tolerance of the average investor.
- “Doubling down:” Speculative risk reversals amount to doubling down on a bullish or bearish position, which is risky if the rationale for the trade proves to be incorrect.
The Bottom Line
The highly favorable risk-reward payoff and low cost of risk reversal strategies enable them to be used effectively in a wide range of trading scenarios.