January 9, 2023 – Happy New Year, everyone! I haven’t written any updates on my put-writing strategy in a while, so I thought this is an excellent opportunity to review the year 2022 performance and some of the changes I have made since my last write-up in late 2021.
July 5, 2022 – Over the last few decades, we’ve become accustomed to a negative correlation between stocks and U.S. Treasury bonds. Bonds used to serve as a great diversifier against macroeconomic risk. Specifically, the last four downturns in 1991, 2001, 2007-2009, and 2020 were all so-called “demand-side” recessions where the drop in GDP went hand-in-hand with lower inflation because a drop in demand also lowered price pressures. The Federal Reserve then lowered interest rates, which lifted bonds. This helped tremendously with hedging against the sharp declines in your stock portfolio. And in the last two recessions, central banks even deployed asset purchase programs to further bolster the returns of long-duration nominal government bonds. Sweet!
Well, just when people start treating a statistical artifact as the next Law of Thermodynamics, the whole correlation collapses. Bonds got hammered in 2022, right around the time when stocks dropped! At one point, intermediate (10Y) Treasury bonds had a worse drawdown than even the S&P 500 index. So much for diversification!
So, is the worst over now for bonds? Maybe not. The future for nominal bonds looks uncertain. We are supposed to believe that with relatively modest rate hikes, to 3.4% by the end of this year and 3.8% by the end of 2023, as predicted by the median FOMC member at the June 14/15, 2022 meeting, inflation will miraculously come under control. As I wrote in my last post, that doesn’t quite pass the smell test because it violates the Taylor Principle. The Wall Street Journal quipped, “The Cost of Wishful Thinking on Inflation Is Going Up Too”. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for inflation to subside easily, but at least we should be prepared for some significant upside risk on inflation and interest rates. Watch out for the July 13 CPI release, everybody!
So, trying to avoid nominal bonds, how do we accomplish derisking and diversification? Here are ten suggestions…
June 6, 2022 – In this year’s April Fool’s post, I marketed a made-up crypto coin that would completely hedge against Sequence Risk, the dreaded destroyer of retirement dreams. Once and for all! Most readers would have figured out this was a hoax because that complete hedge against Sequence Risk is still elusive after so many posts in my series. Sure, there are a few minor adjustments we can make, like an equity glidepath, either directly, see Part 19 and Part 20, or disguised as a “bucket strategy” (Part 48). We could very cautiously(!) use leverage – see Part 49 (static version) and Part 52 (dynamic/timing leverage), and maybe find a few additional small dials here and there to take the edge off the scary Sequence Risk. But a complete hedge is not so easy.
Well, maybe there is an easy solution. It’s the one I vaguely hinted at when I first wrote about the ins and outs of Sequence Risk back in 2017. You see, there is one type of investor who’s insulated from Sequence Risk: a buy-and-hold investor. If you invest $1 today and make neither contributions nor withdrawal withdrawals, then the final net worth after, say, 30 years is entirely determined by the compounded average growth rate. Not the sequence, because when multiplying the (1+r1) through (1+r30), the order of multiplication is irrelevant. If a retiree could be matched with a saver who contributes the exact same amount as the retiree’s cash flow needs, then the two combined, as a team, are a buy and hold investor – shielded from Sequence Risk. It’s because savers and retirees will always be on “opposite sides” of sequence risk. For example, low returns early on and high returns later will hurt the retiree and benefit the saver. And vice versa. If a retiree and a retirement saver could team up and find a way to compensate each other for their potential good or bad luck we could eliminate Sequence Risk.
I will go through a few scenarios and simulations to showcase the power of this team effort. But there are also a few headaches arising when trying to implement such a scheme. Let’s take a closer look…
December 9, 2021, major revisions on October 2025, 2023 – Last month, I published Part 49 of my Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, dealing with leverage in retirement. In that post, I surmised that the cheapest form of leverage likely comes in the form of a margin loan in an Interactive Brokers (IB) account. If you have the IB Pro account, you can access loan rates tied to the Federal Funds Rate plus a tiered spread ranging from 0.3% to 1.5%. Though, the really low rates don’t start until your loan reaches at least $3,000,000. For more manageable loan amounts that the average retail investor would use, we’re looking at a higher spread: 1.50% spread for the first $100,000 and 1.00% over the Fed Funds Rate for the next $900k. That’s a very competitive rate. Certainly better than a Home Equity Line Of Credit (HELOC), which is usually at around Fed Funds Rate plus 3%.
In the comments section, though, a reader brought up an idea for an even lower-cost method for borrowing against your assets: an exotic options trade called a “box spread”. Since writing this post in 2021, I’ve utilized the box spread loan. So, in today’s post, I would like to go through the basics of the Box Spread, how to implement it, and how this trade could in fact give us a cheaper form of leverage than even the rock-bottom rates from IB. Let’s take a look at the details…
November 10, 2021 – Welcome to a new post in the Put Option Writing Series. My blogging buddy Spintwig volunteered to perform another backtest simulation. If you remember from Part 5, he simulated selling 5-delta and 10-delta put options going back to 2018. He now added 18 more months of returns to go back to September 2016. In the end, I will also compare my live results with the simulated returns and point out why my live trading achieved even slightly better results.
Mr. Spintwig, please take over…
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Thank you BigERN (can I call you Dr. K?) for another opportunity to collaborate and add to the body of research that supports what is colloquially known as the “BigERN strategy.”
Part 8 of the options trading series is a 2021 update that discusses, among other things, premium capture, annualized return and the idea of lowering leverage while increasing delta.
Let’s throw some data at the idea of trading a higher delta at a lower leverage target and see how metrics like premium capture, CAGR, and max drawdown are impacted. As an added bonus, I’ve obtained SPX data that can facilitate a Sept 2016 start date for this strategy. This gives us an additional 18 months of history vs the SPY data that was used in Part 5.
For the benchmark, we’ll use total return (i.e. dividends reinvested) buy/hold SPY (S&P 500) and IEF (10Y US Treasuries), rebalanced annually, in the following configurations:
October 18, 2021 – After three posts in a row about safe withdrawal rates, parts 46, 47, and 48 of the series, let’s make sure we have the right level of diversity here. Welcome to a new installment of the option writing series! I wanted to give a brief update on several different fronts:
A quick YTD performance update.
How does the option selling strategy fit into my overall portfolio? Is this a 100% fixed income strategy because that’s where I hold the margin cash? Or a 100% equity strategy because I trade puts on margin on top of that? Or maybe even a 200+% equity strategy because I use somewhere around 2x to 2.5x leverage?
By popular demand: Big ERN’s “super-secret sauce” for accounting for the intra-day adjustments of the Options Greeks. This is a timely topic because the Interactive Brokers values for the SPX Put Options seem to be wildly off the mark, especially for options close to expiration. So, you have to get your hands dirty and calculate your own options Greeks, especially the Delta estimates.
There’s one slight change in the strategy I recently made: I trade fewer contracts but with a higher Delta thus reducing my leverage and the possibility of extreme tail-risk events.
May 3, 2021 – Welcome back to a new installment of the options series! In the discussion following the previous post (Part 6), a reader suggested the following: In recent history, the index has never lost more than 50% over the span of one year. Then why not simply write (=short) a put option, about one year out, with a strike 50+% below today’s index level? Make it extra safe and use a strike 60% below today’s index!
So, let’s take a look at the following scenario where we short a put option on the S&P 500 index slightly more than a year out and with a strike about 60% below the current index level:
Trading date: 4/30/2021
Index level at inception: 4,181.17
Strike: 1,700 (=59.2% below the index)
Option premium: $11.50
Multiplier: 100x (so, we receive $1,150 per short contract, minus about $1.50 in commission)
In other words, as a percentage of the initial margin, we can generate about 26% return over about 13.5 months. Annualized that’s still slightly above 23%! Even if we put down $15,000 instead of the bare minimum initial margin, we’re still looking at about 6.8% annualized return. If that’s a truly bulletproof and 100% safe return that’s nothing to sneeze at. A 6.8% safe return certainly beats the 0.1% safe return in a money market, right? Does that mean we have solved that pesky Sequence Risk problem?
Here are a few reasons to be skeptical about this strategy…
April 21, 2021 – Welcome to a new installment about trading options. Alongside my work on Safe Withdrawal Rates, this is my other passion. In fact, on a day-to-day basis, I probably think about shorting S&P 500 put option much more than about Safe Withdrawal Rates. In any case, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting related to my options trading strategy is, how do you even get started with this strategy when you have a smaller-size account? Trading CBOE SPX options, with a multiplier of 100x on the underlying S&P index, even one single contract will have a notional exposure of roughly $400,000. I don’t recommend trading that without at least about $100,000 or better $125,000 or more in margin cushion.
How would one implement this without committing such a large chunk of money?
My options trading buddy Mr. Spintwig who already published another guest post in this series offered to shed some light on this question. He ran some simulations for my strategy using some of the other “option options” (pardon the pun), i.e., implementing my strategy not with the SPX index options but with different vehicles with a smaller multiple than the currently pretty massive 100x SPX contract. For example, the options on S&P 500 E-mini futures are certainly a slightly smaller alternative with a multiplier of only 50. And there are some even smaller-size contract alternatives, but my concern has always been that the transaction costs will likely eat up a good chunk of the strategy’s returns.
In any case, I’ll stop babbling. Mr. Spintwig has the numbers, so please take over…
June 17, 2020 – 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 ITnd 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.
The concept was straightforward but I wanted to know if there was an optimal approach or if it could be applied to other indices and have similar results. Would it be advantageous to replace a traditional buy-and-hold portfolio with an options trading strategy? Unfortunately, there were no definitive or trustworthy answers to this question on the internet so I set out to do my own research and publish what I find.
June 10, 2020 – 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…