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Options strategy: How to sell covered calls

Income potential, while theoretically reducing the risk of simply owning a stock.

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If you’re looking for an options strategy that provides the ability to produce income but may be less risky than simply buying stocks, you might want to consider selling covered calls. As long as you’re aware of the potential risks — including transaction costs and tax and wash sale implications — this basic strategy is designed to help generate income from stocks you already own, even within an IRA.

Understanding covered calls

As you may know, there are only two types of options: calls and puts.

Calls: The buyer of a call has the right to buy the underlying stock at a set price until the option contract expires.
Puts: The buyer of a put has the right to sell the underlying stock at a set price until the contract expires.

Although many option strategies have exotic-sounding names, every strategy is based on the buying and selling of calls and puts.

When you sell a covered call, also known as writing a call, it means that you already own shares of the underlying stock and you are selling someone the right, but not the obligation, to buy that stock at a set price until the option expires—the price won’t change no matter which way the market goes. If you didn’t own the stock, it would be known as a naked call—a much riskier proposition.

Why would you want to sell the rights to your stock? Because you receive cash, also known as the premium.

For some people, receiving extra income on stocks they already own sounds too good to be true, but like any options strategy, there are risks as well as benefits.

How this strategy works

Before you make your first trade, it’s essential that you understand how it works. For example, let’s say in February you already own 100 shares of XYZ, which is currently at $30 a share. You decide to sell (or write) one call, which covers 100 shares of stock. (If you owned 200 shares of XYZ, you could sell two calls.)

The strike price

You agreed to sell those 100 shares at an agreed-upon price, known as the strike price. When you look up the options quotes on your screen, you’ll see an assortment of strike prices. The strike price you choose determines how much premium you receive for selling the option. With covered calls, for a given stock, the higher the strike price is from the stock price, the less valuable the premium.

Therefore, a $32 strike price is more valuable than a $35 strike price. Why? Because it is more likely for XYZ to reach $32 than it is for it to reach $35, and therefore more likely that the buyer of the call will make money. Because of that, the premium is higher.

The expiration date

In addition to deciding on the most appropriate strike price, you also have a choice of an expiration date, which is the third Saturday of the expiration month. For example, let’s say in February you choose a March expiration date. On the third Friday in March, trading on the option ends and the following day it expires. Either your option is assigned and the stock is sold at the strike price or you keep the stock. Because some people don’t want to tie up their stock for too long, they may choose expiration dates that are only a month or two away. Hint: The further away the expiration date, the more valuable the premium because a longer time span gives the underlying stock more opportunity to reach the option's strike price.

Note: It takes experience to find strike prices and expiration dates that work for you. As a new options investor, you may want to experiment with one options contract and different strike prices and expiration dates. Eventually you’ll find a combination that works for you.

Your first covered call trade

Now that you have a general idea of how this strategy works, let’s look at more specific examples.

Note: Before placing a trade, you must be approved for an options account. Contact your Fidelity representative if you have questions.

  1. In February, you own 100 shares of XYZ, which is currently at $30 a share.
  2. You sell one covered call with a strike price of $33 and an expiration date of March. The bid price (the premium) for this option is $1.25. 
  3. If you were willing to pay the additional commissions and initiated this trade over the phone, you’d say, “I’d like to sell one covered call for XYZ March 33 for a limit price of $1.25 good for the day only.” Hint: It’s suggested you place a limit order, not a market order, so that you can specify the price.
  4. If the call is sold at $1.25, the premium you receive is $125 (100 shares x $1.25) less commission.
  5. Now that you sold your first covered call, you simply monitor the underlying stock until the March expiration date.

Let’s take a look at what could go right, or wrong, with this transaction.

Example one: The underlying stock, XYZ, is above the $33 strike price on the expiration date.

If the underlying stock rises above the strike price at expiration, even by a penny, the stock will most likely be “called away” from you. In options terminology, this means you are assigned an exercise notice. You are obligated to sell the stock at the strike price (at $33 in this example) at expiration. If you sell covered calls, you must expect and plan to have your stock sold. Fortunately, after it’s sold, you can always buy the stock back and sell covered calls on it the following month.

One of the criticisms of selling covered calls is there is limited gain. In other words, if XYZ suddenly zoomed to $37 a share at expiration, the stock would still be sold at $33 (the strike price). You would not participate in the gains past the strike price. If you are looking to make a big score, then selling covered calls may not be an ideal strategy.

Benefit: You keep the premium, stock gains, and dividends, but the stock will be sold at the strike price.
Risk: You lose out on potential gains past the strike price. In addition, your stock is tied up until the expiration date. 
Hint: Choose from your existing underlying stocks that are slightly bullish and not too volatile.

Example two: The underlying stock is below the strike price on the expiration date.

If the underlying stock is below $33 a share (the strike price) at expiration, the option has a greater likelihood to expire unexercised and you keep the stock and the premium. You could also sell another covered call for a later month. Although some people hope their stock goes down so they can keep the stock and collect the premium, be careful what you wish for.

For example, if XYZ drops a lot, for example, from $30 to $25 a share, although the $125 premium you receive will reduce the pain, you still lost $500 on the underlying stock.

Benefit: The premium will reduce, but not eliminate, stock losses.
Risk: You lose money on the underlying stock when it falls.

Advanced note: If you are worried that the underlying stock might fall, you can always initiate a collar, that is, you can buy a protective put on the covered call, allowing you to sell the stock at a set price, no matter how far the markets drop.

Example three: The underlying stock is near the strike price on the expiration date.

Some might say this is the most satisfactory result for a covered call. If the underlying stock is slightly below the strike price at expiration, you keep the premium and the stock. You can then sell a covered call for the following month, bringing in extra income. If, however, the stock rises above the strike price at expiration by even a penny, the option will most likely be called away.

Benefit: You keep the stock and premium, and can continue to sell calls on the same stock.
Risk: The stock falls, costing you money.

Advanced covered call strategies

  1. Some people use the covered call strategy to sell stocks they no longer want. If successful, the stock is called away at the strike price and sold. You also keep the premium for selling the covered calls.
  2. If you want to avoid having the stock assigned and losing your underlying stock position, you can usually buy back the option in a closing purchase transaction, perhaps at a loss, and take back control of your stock.

Next steps

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Options trading entails significant risk and is not appropriate for all investors. Certain complex options strategies carry additional risk. Prior to trading options, you must receive from Fidelity Investments a copy of "Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options" by clicking on the hyperlink text, and call 1-800-FIDELITY to be approved for options trading. Supporting documentation for any claims, if appropriate, will be furnished upon request.
Views and opinions may not reflect those of Fidelity Investments. These comments should not be viewed as a recommendation for or against any particular security or trading strategy. Views and opinions are subject to change at any time based on market and other conditions.
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