How dividends can increase options assignment risk

Most experienced investors are familiar with the adage that "if an investment opportunity sound too good to be true, it probably is." While this sentiment may often be associated with overly optimistic assumptions, it also applies to investors who sell options contracts without first considering the ex-dividend date for a stock or ETF.

How dividends work

A quick review of how dividends work: A dividend represents a payment of a company's revenues to shareholders, most often in the form of cash. Cash dividends are paid out on a per-share basis. For example, if you own 100 shares of a stock that pays a $0.50 quarterly dividend, you will receive $50.

Not all companies pay dividends, but if you're investing in options contracts for companies that do pay them, you need to keep several important dates in mind:

  • Declaration date: Date on which a company announces the per-share amount of its next dividend.
  • Record date: The cut-off date established by the company to determine which shareholders of its stock are eligible to receive a distribution. This is usually, but not always, 1 day after the ex-dividend date.
  • Ex-Dividend date: Date on which a stock's price adjusts downward to reflect its next dividend payment. For example, if a stock pays a $0.50 dividend, the stock price will drop by a half point prior to trading on the ex-dividend date. If you buy a stock on or after the ex-dividend date, you are not entitled to the next dividend.
  • Dividend (payment) date: Date shareholders receive cash in their account from a dividend.

See Locating dividend information for stocks for additional details.

Dividends offer an effective way to earn income from your equity investments. However, call option holders are not entitled to regular quarterly dividends, regardless of when they purchase their options. And, unlike stock or ETF prices, options contract prices are not adjusted downward on ex-dividend dates.

This can cause a problem for anyone who has sold an options contract without first considering the impact of dividends. Why? Because the risk of being assigned on an option contract is higher when the underlying security of an in-the-money option starts trading ex-dividend. To understand the risks and how dividends impact options contracts, let's explore some potential scenarios.

Avoiding or managing early assignment on covered calls

As noted above, the ex-dividend date is particularly important to anyone who writes a covered or uncovered call option. If a covered call option you have sold is in the money and the dividend exceeds the remaining time value of the option, there is a good chance an owner of those calls will exercise his options early.

If you are assigned, you must deliver your shares of the underlying security, as well as the dividend income, to the owner of the call. Let's examine a hypothetical example to illustrate how this works.

  • Bob owns 500 shares of ABC stock, which pays a quarterly $0.50 dividend.
  • The stock is trading around $25 a share on August 1 when Bob decides to sell 5 October 30 calls.
  • By early October, ABC stock has risen to $31 and, as a result, Bob's covered calls are in the money by $1. The calls will expire in 10 days and tomorrow the stock will start trading ex-dividend.
  • Because the remaining time value of the call option is less than the value of the dividends, the call owner will likely exercise his options on the day before the ex-dividend date.

See Locating option values in Active Trader Pro®.

If Bob does not take any action to close his covered call position, there is a good chance he will be assigned on the ex-dividend date. This means he will no longer own 500 shares of the stock and he will not receive the dividend income.

To avoid this scenario, Bob has a couple of choices:

  • He could buy back the calls he sold to retain the stock and the dividend. However, he would have to do this prior to the ex-dividend date. If he waits until the ex-dividend date or later, he will not be entitled to the dividend income. Keep in mind that it's possible to get assigned prior to the day before the ex-dividend date, so this strategy is not foolproof.
  • The other option is to close out his short position and write a new covered call with a later expiration date or a higher strike price. This strategy is known as "rolling" your options contract forward.
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Avoiding or managing early assignment on calls not covered by shares

Now let's consider what could happen if Bob had sold uncovered calls on ABC stock:

  • As in the example above, ABC stock pays a quarterly $0.50 dividend and is trading around $25 a share
  • Bob has a negative view on the stock and decides to sell 5 uncovered October 30 calls
  • By early October, ABC stock has risen to $31 and, as a result, his uncovered calls are in the money by $1

To make matters worse, Bob learns that tomorrow the stock will start trading ex-dividend. Because the remaining time value of the options is less than the value of the dividends, owners of these calls will likely exercise their options 1 day prior to the ex-dividend date.

To limit his exposure, Bob has several choices. He can buy back his uncovered calls at a loss, buy the stock to capture the dividend, or sit tight and hope to not be assigned. If his calls are assigned, however, he will have to pay the $250 in dividend income, in addition to covering the cost of delivering 500 shares of ABC stock. If Bob had initiated an option spread (buying and selling an equal number of options of the same class on the same underlying security but with different strike prices or expiration dates), he could also consider exercising his long option position to capture the dividend.

Other considerations and risks

If you are implementing a spread strategy that includes long contracts and short contracts, you need to remain particularly vigilant in regard to assignment risk. If both contracts are in the money and you are assigned on the short contracts, you will not be notified until the following business day. While you can exercise your long position on the ex-dividend date to eliminate the short stock position that was created, you will still owe the dividend because you were short the stock prior to the ex-dividend date.

Ways to avoid the risk of early assignment

If you are selling options (covered or uncovered), there is always the risk of being assigned if your trade moves against you. This risk is higher if the underlying security involved pays a dividend. However, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of being assigned early. These include:

  • Do your homework: Know if the stock or ETF pays a dividend and when it will start trading ex-dividend
  • Avoid selling options on dividend-paying stocks or ETFs when your trade includes ex-dividend
  • Invest in European-style options: American-style options can be assigned at any time before the option expires, European-style options can only be exercised at expiration

See Locating dividend information for ETFs for details.

If you are a Fidelity customer and you have questions about your exposure to assignment risk, you can always contact a Fidelity representative for help.

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A covered call writer forgoes participation in any increase in the stock price above the call exercise price, and continues to bear the downside risk of stock ownership if the stock price decreases more than the premium received.

There are additional costs associated with option strategies that call for multiple purchases and sales of options, such as spreads, straddles, and collars, as compared with a single option trade.

Options trading entails significant risk and is not appropriate for all investors. Certain complex options strategies carry additional risk. Before trading options, please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options. Supporting documentation for any claims, if applicable, will be furnished upon request.