Key Points About Selling Credit Spreads

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A previous post covered debit spreads, when you pay a debit looking for a stock or ETF to move in a certain direction. Credit spreads are just the opposite, with traders collecting premium up front in hope that the stock won’t move a certain way.

What a Credit Spread Is

Credit spreads are the mirror image of debit spreads, with each part of the strategy reversed.

A trader would sell options closer to the money, which are worth more. He or she would also buy an equal number of cheaper contracts further from the money. This will result in an upfront credit.

For example, say stock XYZ is at $100 and a trader expects it to move sideways. There might be some chopping up and down, but they don’t see it going under $95.

He or she could:

  • Sell the $95 puts for $2.
  • Buy the $90 puts for $1.

This will generate a net credit of $1 in their account.

Being short the $95 puts, the trader will want them to expire worthless. That will happen as long as stock XYZ remains above the $95 strike price.

So why buy the 90 puts? Those are a hedge against being wrong. They may lower the profit potential but also reduce risk.

Create an Edge with Defined Risk

Remember that put buyers have the right to sell a stock. However put sellers have an obligation to buy shares if they’re under the strike price. This can turn into a potentially huge liability when a big selloff occurs.

For example in the case above, stock XYZ can hypothetically go to zero. That would create a staggering $95 loss per share in an account. While such declines might be rare, they can happen.

The credit spread mitigates this hazard by owning puts at the lower strike. In the case above, the 90 puts would limit potential losses to $5: Not great — but not fatal either.

Call credit spreads have a similar structure to the upside: Traders thinking that a stock won’t move higher might sell calls slightly above the current price. They would then buy cheaper calls at a higher strike to hedge against a big rally.

Option spreads consist of long and short option positions. Considering exercise and assignment risk is an important part of any option strategy.

Putting Time To Work

Time decay is the basic principle of credit spreads. We know that out-of-the-money options expire worthless. Credit spreads simply capitalize on this process while hedging to limit risk.

Still, there are some nuances. The pace of time decay accelerates closer to expiration, so it often makes sense to sell put spreads with no more than 2-3 weeks until expiration. This can capture the quickest premium destruction. (Which helps traders who are short.)

Second, events like earnings can distort time decay. Instead of premium disappearing at a smooth and predictable rate, it may occur all at once after the news passes. That’s why traders should know companies well before writing credit spreads. It’s important to understand the types of catalysts that can impact share prices.

Getting an Edge with Technical Analysis

Traders are always looking for an edge, or advantage to tilt the odds in their favor.

This is especially true when you’re selling credit spreads because the profits are limited to the income collected up front. You can’t count on a few huge winners to offset losses. Therefore it’s even more important to develop a system for consistently identifying range-bound stocks.

Technical analysis is one of the most common ways to achieve this. Support and resistance levels can influence where a stock moves, and where it stops moving.

Sellers of credit spreads can benefit from these chart patterns. They might sell put spreads when a stock holds a support level or sell a call spread when it hits resistance.

Alternately, indicators like oscillators can help identify when a move is extended and poised for a reversal. This might include using the Relative Strength Index (RSI) or Bollinger Bands. Traders thinking a stock is oversold could sell put spreads, or call spreads if it appears overbought.

Beware of Volatility

While credit spreads include a built-in hedge, it’s also important to realize that they often work better at times of calm. When volatility slams the entire market, certain patterns stop working. Support levels don’t hold and ranges widen. This can change expected likelihoods and expected ranges, reducing the effectiveness of a probability-based trading system.

That’s not an argument against credit spreads. It’s just something to bear in mind.

Remember that the goal is to capture time decay — not necessarily to short volatility. That requires predictability, which is easier when swings are less extreme.


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