Investors typically write covered calls when they have a neutral to slightly bullish sentiment on the underlying stock. In many cases, the best time to sell covered calls is either at the same time you establish a long equity position (known as a “buy/write”), or once the equity position has already begun to move in your favor.
When establishing a covered call position, most investors sell options with a strike price that is at-the-money (or ATM, meaning the option’s strike price is the same as the stock’s current market price) or slightly out-of-the-money (or OTM, meaning the strike price is above the stock’s current market price). If you write an OTM or ATM covered call and the stock remains flat or declines in value, you’re hoping the option eventually expire worthless, and you get to keep the premium you received without further obligation.
If the stock price rises above the option’s strike price, it’s likely your stock will be called away (assigned) at the strike price, either prior to or at expiration. This is usually a good thing. If you sold ATM or OTM calls, the trade will generally be profitable. In fact, your profit will usually exceed what you would have earned if you had simply bought the stock and then sold it at the appreciated price, as you would receive both the proceeds from the sale of the stock at the strike price and the option premium.
That said, if the stock rises significantly, leaving the options deep in-the-money (or ITM, meaning the stock’s market price is above the option’s strike price), the stock investment on its own would have been better.
Here’s a hypothetical example of a covered call trade. Let’s assume you:
- Buy 1,000 shares of XYZ stock @ $72 per share
- Sell 10 XYZ Apr 75 calls @ $2.00 (Note that each standard call or put generally represents 100 shares of the underlying stock, thus, the 1,000 shares “cover” the 10 calls sold).
The two points provided by the covered call create some immediate downside protection because you wouldn’t experience a loss on the position unless the stock you bought for $72 a share dropped below $70. Another way to think of it is that even if the stock price dropped to zero, you would still have $2,000 from the 10 covered calls you sold (that is: $2 x 10 covered calls x the option multiplier of 100).
The trade-off is that you would effectively cap your potential profit if the share price rose significantly above the strike price. For this trade, that would mean a maximum profit of $5,000, representing the sum of your capital gain from the stock appreciating up to the $75 strike price and your premium from the covered call (that is: $3 x 1,000 shares of stock + $2 x 10 options contracts x 100 options multiplier). In that sense, this trade would make sense only if you thought it unlikely the price of XYZ would exceed $77 by the April expiration (representing the sum of your $72 purchase price and your max profit of $5,000). If XYZ did increase above $77, it would have been more profitable not to have written the covered call.
As you can see in the profit and loss chart below:
- The breakeven price is $70.
- The profit is capped at $5,000 for all prices above $75.
- Losses will be incurred below $70; down to zero.