Welcome back to another post centered around Put Option Writing. Today we got a real treat because my blogging buddy, fellow option trader and frequent commenter “Spintwig” offered to do a guest post to perform an independent review of my trading strategy. If you don’t know Spintwig, he also retired in 2018 (at age 30!!!) from a career in IT and now writes about FIRE and options strategies at his blog. He does a lot of interesting and important work, including careful and comprehensive back-tests of different option trading strategies, i.e., different underlying assets, different Deltas, different horizons (days to expiration), etc. I highly recommend you check out his work if you’re interested in option writing!
Oh, and following the guest post, I’ll also give a quick update on how my portfolio did during the crazy, scary volatility last week! Stay tuned!
Over to you Mr. Spintwig…
Thank you BigERN for the opportunity to peer review your options strategy and publically share the results with you and your readers. I’ve relied on your research in my own journey to and through FIRE and I’m happy to be able to add to the discussion and body of research.
A few years ago I stumbled upon BigERN’s blog as I was researching safe-withdrawal-rate topics. Among the material was a novel idea: selling put options on the S&P 500 index could mitigate sequence-of-return risk.
Welcome back to another post dealing with an investing strategy that’s central to our own retirement strategy here in the ERN household. Just a bit of background, about 35% of our financial net worth is currently invested in this strategy. But it accounts for more than 50% of our taxable assets, so for our early retirement cash flow planning, this is really serious business. This puts food on the table in the ERN household!
If you’re not familiar with this strategy, I’ve written about the topic of option writing to generate (retirement) income in general and my personal approach here:
The first three links are more about the general philosophy and the last link, Part 3, is about how I’ve been running the strategy most recently. The strategy involves writing (=selling/shorting) put options on the S&P 500 index with a little bit of leverage. And one can also keep the majority of the account in income-producing assets (bond funds, preferred stocks) to generate additional cash flow. Sweet!
In light of the recent market volatility, of course, it would be a good time to do an update on my strategy because I’ve gotten a lot of questions on how that strategy has been holding up during the bear market. Did it blow up? You are all a bunch of rubbernecks, aren’t you? 🙂
Long story short, my strategy did pretty well so far this year. Not just despite but even because of the volatility spike. Let’s take a look…
Well, it is a Bear Market as of this week! We dipped well below the -20% line on March 12 due to the awful 10% meltdown that day. But we also recovered very nicely on Friday the 13th, of all days!!! I’m putting together some notes about my thoughts. To be published on Wednesday, March 18. Stay tuned! Good luck everybody! Stay invested! 🙂
Original Post (3/4/2020)
Volatility is back! Did it feel a little bit like a bear market last week? Actually, that wasn’t even a bear market, only a correction so far. Hence the title picture with the Koala “Bear,” which is not a bear at all but a marsupial. But it still felt like a mini-bear-market, didn’t it?
So, I thought it’s a good time to write a response to some of the questions I’ve been getting over the last few days:
How bad is this event compared to other corrections? How long will this last?
Should I sell my stocks now?
Is this a good buying opportunity?
How did some of the “exotic” investment styles fare during this volatile time (Yield Shield, Merriman’s Small-Cap Value)?
What does this all mean for my retirement plans?
Did your leveraged option writing strategy blow up already?
My little blog here may be mostly known for the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. But I’m surprised how many people share my other passion: options trading. Both here on the blog and at FinCon last weekend lots of fans of the blog asked me when I’m going to write something about derivatives again. Wait no more! I have been thinking about this one for a while; it’s another cautionary tale about markets going haywire and unsuspecting and unsophisticated investors are caught in between. And then they realize the “safe” and “conservative” strategy marketed by their financial adviser can blow up in their face!
The Wall Street Journal came out with a pretty detailed article (subscribers only) a few weeks ago, but the story has been around for a while. See, for example, on WealthManagement.com or SeekingAlpha.com. And this time it’s not some obscure small shop in Florida that got into trouble. No, it’s one of the big fish: UBS! Their so-called “Yield Enhancement Strategy (YES),” marketed as a conservative and low-risk strategy to risk-averse investors with mostly bonds in their portfolio, racked up heavy losses late last year. Well, at least people weren’t completely wiped out like the poor sobs in the OptionSellers mess. But a purported 20% loss (about $1b) is still a hard pill to swallow for investors that were told that this is completely safe. Sure, if you were 100% invested in the S&P500 last year and lost 20%, then yeah at least you knew what you’re getting into. But for the average mom-and-pop muni bond investor, a 20% loss is pretty epic. And not in a good way!
Of course, looking at the low-yield environment right now – in some places we even have a negative-yield environment – I don’t blame investors for shopping around for higher yields. But be aware of the charlatans. If they tell you that higher yields come with no side effects run away! There is always a catch with a higher yield! Even if it’s your trusted personal wealth advisor at a shop as famous as UBS!!! This yield enhancement strategy involved a risky options trading strategy. With 5x leverage! And most of the investors didn’t even know what they were getting into unless they had read the pages with the fine print! So, let’s do a post-mortem for this strategy. What were they doing and how and why did this go so horribly wrong?
I’m still running that same strategy but it definitely evolved quite a bit over time. This might be a good time to write a quick update on what I’m doing and what I’ve changed since then. And for everyone who’s wondering what’s the use of this: I’m planning a future post on how selling options may help with Sequence Risk, so this is all very, very relevant even for folks in the FIRE crowd!
Right around the time when I wrote my options selling update a few weeks ago was when everyone in the option seller circles talked about the blowup of OptionSellers.com. Option Sellers, LLC was a Tampa, Florida based Registered Investment Adviser and CTA (Commodity Trading Adviser). They managed money for 290 clients. Considering the minimum investment was $250,000 and most investors likely had more money with them, I’d surmise that they were managing around $150m. On November 15, 2018, they informed their investors that not only was all their money lost but that clients would likely owe more money. Wow, let that sink in: they had a loss of more than 100% and clients are left with debts they have to cover now! Bad news for the clients who invested all their money with OptionSellers!
A failure of a small obscure adviser probably would have stayed under the radar but the co-founder published a tearful apology video, confessing that all customer accounts were wiped out “by a rogue wave.” The movie was since taken down – probably the lawyers didn’t like the idea of this kind of mea culpa so much – but it’s still available on YouTube. The story went viral (or at least as viral as something as obscure as options trading can go) and was then picked up even by the national news media, including the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and many others.
Quite intriguingly, their strategy imploded over the span of just a few trading days. And just to be sure, this wasn’t fraud a la Bernie Madoff but investors actually lost their money “fair and square” if there is such a thing. Is this something all option sellers should worry about? Yes, if you are as reckless as Option Sellers. If you had bothered to check what these clowns were doing it was clear that this debacle was all but unavoidable. Let’s take a look at what they did and the five obvious mistakes that lead to the meltdown…
October was a scary month for stocks: the worst monthly S&P 500 return in seven years! And November is off to a volatile start as well! We haven’t even seen a real correction yet but apparently, the drop was bad enough for me to got inquiries from friends and former colleagues asking how I’m doing with our portfolio and if (and when?) I’m going to come back to the office again! Sorry, not anytime soon! As I detailed in the post two weeks ago, we are not too concerned about one month of bad returns early in retirement.
Some friends and readers of this blog were specifically concerned that my options trading strategy might have been hit badly by the wild swings. After all, I’m doing this with a little bit more than 2x leverage and with the market down about 7% does that mean we lost more than 14%? Of course not! To all the rubbernecks out there who suspect we had a bad car wreck in our portfolio last month, I’m happy to report that we actually made a small profit with this strategy in October! And continued to do so in November! How awesome is that!? Well, there were a few close calls but I was able to escape any major damage. It took some HoudiniSkills (or luck???), hence the title image of escape artist Harry Houdini (Picture Credit: Lomography).
Last week we made the case for generating passive income through option writing. A quick recap of last week: buying puts to secure the downside of your equity investment is a bit like casino gambling: pay a wager (put option premium) for the prospect of winning a big prize (unlimited equity upside potential). Unfortunately, the average expected returns are also quite poor, just like when you gamble in the casino or buy lottery tickets.
Since we can’t beat the casino, let’s be the casino!
On the path to early retirement (and most likely in early retirement as well), the ERN family will be writing options to generate passive income (in addition to equity and real estate investments, of course). This may be something that people either haven’t heard before or even if they did, they might be turned off by the involvement of derivatives. After we got over our initial aversion against trading exotic instruments like options we found that it’s actually a reliable and profitable strategy to generate passive income. We mentioned this strategy already in a previous post on trading derivatives on the path to FIRE and thought that others might find this interesting too.
Since 2000, the SPY ETF (S&P500 index fund from iShares) returned about 101% (Dec 1999 to August 2016, dividends reinvested), or about 4.3% p.a. What would the return have been if we had participated only when the market went up, i.e., if we had avoided every single down month and received a 0% return during that time?