Options Trading With the Iron Condor

Traders make most investments with the expectation that the price will go up. They make some with the hope that the price will move down. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the price doesn't do a whole lot of moving at all. Wouldn't it be nice if you could make money when the markets didn't move? Well, you can. This is the beauty of options and, more specifically, of the strategy known as the Iron Condor.

Key Takeaways

  • An Iron Condor options strategy allows traders to profit in a sideways market that exhibits low volatility.
  • The Iron Condor consists of two option pairs: first, a bought put out-of-the-money and a sold put closer to the money, and second, a bought call out-of-the-money and a sold call closer to the money.
  • Combined with prudent money management, the Iron Condor puts probability, option time premium selling, and implied volatility on the trader's side.

How to Take Off

Iron Condors sound complicated and take some time to learn, but they provide a good way to make consistent profits. Some very profitable traders exclusively use Iron Condors. So, what is an Iron Condor?

There are two ways of looking at it. The first is as a pair of strangles, one short and one long, at outer strikes. The other way of looking at it is as two credit spreads: a call credit spread above the market and a put credit spread below the market. It is these two "wings" that give the Iron Condor its name.

A strangle is a strategy where you hold call and put options at different strike prices with the same expiry and underlying asset.

A credit spread is essentially an option-selling strategy. Selling options allows investors to take advantage of the time premium and implied volatility inherent in options. The credit spread is created by purchasing a far out-of-the-money (OTM) option and selling a nearer, more expensive option.

This creates the credit, with the hope that both options expire worthless, allowing you to keep that credit. As long as the underlying does not cross over the strike price of the closer option, you get to keep the full credit.

Tips for a Smooth Flight

There are several things to keep in mind when using this strategy. The first is to stick with index options. They provide enough implied volatility to make a nice profit, but they don't have the real volatility that can quickly wipe out your account.

But there is another thing you must watch out for—never take a full loss on an Iron Condor. Your potential loss is much higher than your potential gain. This is because the probability that you are correct is very high.

To avoid taking a full loss, if the market does what it typically does and trades in a range, you don't need to do anything, and you can let the whole position expire worthless. In this case, you get to keep your full credit. However, if the market moves strongly in one direction or another and approaches or breaks through one of your strikes, then you must exit that side of the position.

Avoiding a Bumpy Landing

There are many ways to get out of one side of an Iron Condor. One is to sell that particular credit spread and hold the other side. Another is to get out of the whole Iron Condor. This will depend on how long you have left until the expiration. You can also roll the losing side to a further out-of-the-money strike. There are many possibilities here, and the real art of the Iron Condor lies in risk management. If you can do well on this side, you have a strategy that puts probability, option time premium selling, and implied volatility on your side.

S&P 500 Iron Condor Spread Example

In the chart below, the horizontal line represents the share price or index value. The vertical line represents profits (above the share price line) and losses (below the share price line).

Options trading iron condor

Image by Julie Bang © Investopedia 2021

Imagine that the S&P 500 is at 4,330. To set up an Iron Condor spread, you might buy a 4,500 call option (orange dot below point four on the above chart) for $2.20 and sell a 4,450 call (orange dot above point three) for $4.20. This produces a credit of $2 in your account.

This transaction does require a maintenance margin. Your broker will only ask that you have cash or securities in your account equal to the difference between the strikes minus the credit you received. In our example, this would be $4,800 (1 x 50 x 100 – $200). If the market closes below 4,450, you keep the $200 credit.

You then add your credit put spread. So, you could select an expiry date and buy a 4,100 put (orange dot below point one) for $5.50. Then, you'd sell the 4,150 (orange dot above point two) for $6.50 for another $1 of credit.

Here, the maintenance requirement is $4,900, with the $100 credit (1 x 50 x 100 – $100). Now you have an Iron Condor. If the market stays between 3,150 and 3,450, you keep your full credit, which is now $300. The total maintenance requirement will be $9,700 ($4,800 + $4,900). If you use consecutive strikes, you will only have to hold margin on one side, but this clearly lowers the probability of success.

What Is the Best Iron Condor Option?

Most traders find an option that they prefer over others, so the best option is the one you are most familiar with that works for you. So, once you find an option you want to try, research and practice your technique on a trading simulator before attempting it with real money.

What Is the Success Rate of Iron Condor?

There is no available information about the strategy's success rate, but some traders have better results than others. How successful you are depends on how well you execute it.

When Should I Buy an Iron Condor?

You should use Iron Condors when you expect the underlying to stay within a specified range until the option expires.

The Bottom Line

The Iron Condor options strategy is one of the best ways for an option trader to profit from an insignificant move in the price of an underlying asset. Many traders believe that a significant move upward or downward is needed for them to make a profit.

However, as you've learned from the above strategy, traders can generate handsome returns when the price of the asset is non-directional. The structure of this strategy may seem confusing at first, which is why it is used primarily by experienced traders, but don't let the complicated structure intimidate you away from learning more about this powerful trading method.

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