After AT&T Inc. (T) reported that it had beaten estimates for its fiscal second quarter earnings results, option traders are taking actions that imply they think the share price will drift higher in the future. This may come as a surprise considering that the AT&T share price gained less than 1% the day after the report came out.

AT&T reported an earnings per share (EPS) of $0.89 and revenues of $44 billion, exceeding analysts' predictions calling for $0.80 in EPS and $42.7 billion in revenue. Notably, AT&T also overwhelmingly exceeded analysts expectations of additional postpaid phone subscribers by 300%. Before the announcement, investors had kept the share price of AT&T range bound, with a large number of out-of-the-money call options in the open interest.

Option trading volumes indicated that traders had been buying calls and selling puts; however, option activity after earnings suggests that traders' confidence in AT&T's share price going forward is rising. That's because the share price has found a support level yet still is well below the 20-day moving average, while option activity implies that traders are both buying calls and selling puts.

Comparing the price action between stock prices and option trading activity on the days after earnings show some evidence to suggest that option traders may be optimistic. AT&T's share price rose less than 1% the day of earnings, closing well below its 20-day moving average. Additionally, call option activity has increased while put option activity decreased. This could happen because option traders believe that AT&T's guidance regarding postpaid phone subscriber growth could spur a rise higher in the near term.

Key Takeaways

  • Traders and investors bought shares in AT&T following the earnings report, as the stock gained less than 1%. 
  • The share price rose an additional half percent the day after earnings, closing closer to, but still well below, its 20-day moving average.
  • Put and call option activity appears to be positioned for the price to rise from current levels.
  • The volatility-based support and resistance levels allow for a stronger move upward than downward.
  • This setup creates an opportunity for traders to profit from a reversal in the earnings-based share price increase.

Option trading represents the activities of investors who want to hedge their long positions or speculators who want to profit from correctly predicting unexpected movement in an underlying stock or index. The choices of these investors imply a forecast for the weeks ahead. That is because option trading is literally a bet on the probabilities of the market – a bet made by traders that are, on average, better informed than most investors. The key to maximizing this insight is to understand the context in which the price behavior took place. The chart below shows the price action for AT&T's share price on Tuesday, July 28, depicting the setup after the earnings report.

Price action after earnings for AT&T Inc. (T)

Current Trend

The one-month trend of the stock saw shares closing below the 20-day moving average before rising less than 1% on the day of the announcement and continuing to rise incrementally the day after that. The price closed in the lower region depicted by the technical studies on this chart.

The studies are formed by 20-day Keltner Channel indicators. These depict price levels that represent a multiple of the Average True Range (ATR) for the stock. This array helps to highlight the way the price has remained in the lower range. This price move from AT&T shares implies that investors may be ambivalent in AT&T moving forward.

Tip

The Average True Range (ATR) has become a standard tool for depicting historical volatility over time. The typical average length of time used in its calculation is 10-20 time periods, which includes two to four weeks of trading on a daily chart.

Chart watchers can recognize that traders were expressing concern going into earnings, based on the price trend for AT&T falling below the 20-day moving average in early July. Chart watchers can also form an opinion of investor expectations by paying attention to option trading details. Prior to the announcement, traders appeared to be expecting that AT&T would move upwards after earnings.

Tip

The Keltner Channel indicator displays a set of semi-parallel lines calculated from the base of a 20-day simple moving average. Because the upper lines are drawn by adding a multiple of ATR to the average, and the lower lines are drawn by subtracting a multiple of ATR from the average price, then this channel indicator makes for an excellent visualization tool when charting historical volatility.

Trading Activity

The recent activity of option traders implies that they consider AT&T shares undervalued at the current level and have purchased call options as a bet that the stock will close within the box depicted in the chart between today and Aug. 20, the next monthly expiration date for options. The green-framed box represents the pricing that the call option sellers are offering. It implies a 70% chance that AT&T shares will close inside this range or higher by Aug. 20. So sellers are only mildly bullish. However, buyers are snapping up this pricing, suggesting that buyers consider these options underpriced. Since the pricing implies only a 30% chance that prices could close above this green box, it appears that buyers are willing to take those long odds.

It is important to note that open interest on Wednesday featured nearly 1.8 million call options compared to just over 1 million put options, demonstrating the bias that option buyers had, as traders favored calls over puts nearly 2-to-1. This normally implies that option traders expect upwards price movement.

After earnings, the volatility has decreased dramatically, but the number of put options in the open interest decreased, and the number of call options increased. This signals that call options are being bought, rather than sold, creating a bullish sentiment. For the strikes at the money and one step either direction, the call volume far outweighs the put volume. Out-of-the-money put option volume declines at a much faster rate than out-of-the-money-call volume, signifying that more traders believe that AT&T share prices will rise than those who believe share prices will decline.

Option pricing for AT&T (T)

The purple lines on the chart are generated by a 10-day Keltner Channel study set at four times the ATR. This measure tends to create highly correlated regions of strong support and resistance in the price action. These regions show up when the channel lines make a noticeable turn within the previous three months.

The levels that the turns mark are annotated in the chart below. What is notable in this chart is that the call and put pricing are in such a close range with plenty of space to run in either direction. This suggests that option buyers don't have a strong conviction about how the company will move in the weeks following the report. Although investors and option traders expected positive movement from the report, the share price moved less distance than it did after the last earnings report.

Volatility pattern for AT&T Inc. (T)

These support and resistance levels show a large range of support and resistance for prices. As a result, it is possible that there could be a large move in either direction in the near future. After the previous earnings announcement, AT&T shares rose 4.1% that day and gradually fell the following week. Investors may be expecting the opposite kind of move in price in the week after this announcement. With lots of room in the volatility range, share prices could rise or fall more than expected in the near term; however, there is more room in the volatility range to support a move to the upside.

Wrapping Up

AT&T beat analysts' predictions for EPS and revenue. The company's absolute blowout of analysts' expectations of additional postpaid subscribers wasn't immediately reflected in AT&T's share price; however, option traders have been buying calls and selling puts, reflecting a bullish sentiment. This activity, however, does provide more room in the volatility range for an upward move in the share price going forward.