Options Expire Worthless

Misinterpreting Data

A clock in front of a stock ticker
••• Westend61 / Getty Images

One promoter who likes the idea of writing covered calls says, "Over 75% of all options held until expiration expire worthlessly...that's why you should do what the pros do and sell options to other people. After all, if most of them will expire worthlessly, why not collect some money for them today while they still have value?"

Another advisor goes even further, saying, "Selling covered call options and cash-secured puts is a smarter strategy than buying options because 90% of options expire worthlessly.“

The truth is that neither of these beliefs is exactly accurate. The first person's statements suggest that selling naked options—as an alternative to selling covered options—is a wise strategy. However, this too is fraught with risk. The second person's statement is also flawed, but it contains a nugget of truth. More traders believe that it is "smarter" to sell, rather than buy, options. However, attention must be paid to limiting risk. Overall, writing covered calls is a sound strategy for most investors, though not as valuable for short-term traders.

The Numbers

According to Options Clearing Corporation (OCC) statistics for the year 2015 (for activity in customer and firm accounts), options break down like this: 

  • Position closed by selling the option: 71.3%
  • Exercised: 7.0%
  • Held and allowed to expire worthless: 21.7%

This data from the OCC is accurate. So why do so many people believe that 90% of options expire worthlessly? It is a mistake in logic.

It's worth noting that open interest is measured only once each day. As an example, assume that a specific option has an open interest (OI) of 100 and 70 of those options are closed before expiration. That leaves an OI of 30. If 7 are exercised and 23 expire worthless, then 77% of the open interest (as of the morning of expiration day) expires worthless. However, when all 100 OI are taken into account, not just those held until expiration, the percentage drops to just 23%. Those who do not understand this subtlety claim that high percentages of open interests expire worthless.

The truth is that a high percentage of the open interest that remains until expiration day expires worthless. That is a very different number than the total open interest.

Covered Call Writing and Expiring Options

Most option novices love writing covered calls when the option expires worthless. The truth is that this is often a satisfying result. Traders still own the stock, the option premium is in the bank, and it is time to write a new option and collect another premium. 

However, that mindset is a bit shortsighted. Sure, when traders buy a stock at $49, write calls with a $50 strike price, and the options expire with the stock price at $49, the strategy has worked about as well as can be expected and the traders are patting themselves on the back.

There are two situations in which the traders who achieved this desired result (options expire worthless) probably made a serious mistake while waiting for the options to expire—a mistake that cost them cash. Let's look at these seldom-discussed situations.

Situation #1: The stock price has plummeted.

It may feel good to write an option for $200 and see it expire worthless. However, if that happens as the price of your underlying stock declines from your purchase price (for example, dropping from $49 to $41), that can't feel very good. Sure, your losses are reduced because you sold the option, but depending on how much the stock tanked, the option premium may not take a sizable dent out of your loss.

What are you going to do now? If you refuse to accept the reality of a $41 stock price and want to sell options with the same $50 strike, there are two potential problems. First, the $50 call might not even be available anymore. Second, if it is available, the premium is going to be quite low.

This scenario presents a new question: Will you write a new kind of option? Are you willing to write options struck at $45, knowing that if you are lucky enough to see the stock price recover that much, the result would be a locked-in loss?

The point is that the future becomes murky and knowing how to continue requires some investing experience. The proper technique would have been to manage position risk once the stock price moved below a previously chosen limit.

Situation #2: Implied volatility (IV) was recently quite high, but it has declined by the time expiration day arrives.

Option writers love it when implied volatility is well above its historical levels because they can collect a higher-than-normal premium when writing their covered call options. Option premiums can be so attractive to sell that some traders ignore risk and trade an inappropriately high number of option contracts (creating issues related to position size). The option premium can vary as IV changes.

Consider this scenario. You own a covered call position, having sold the $50 call on a stock currently priced at $49 when the stock market suddenly gets the jitters. That could be the result of a big political event, such as a presidential election or Brexit developments.

Under customary market conditions, you are quite pleased to collect $150 to $170 when writing a one-month covered call. But in this hypothetical, high IV scenario—with only 3 days before your option expires—the option that you sold is priced at $1.00. That price is so absurdly high (typically it is priced around $0.15), that you simply refuse to pay that much and decide to hold until the options expire.

The experienced trader, however, doesn't care about the price of that option in a vacuum. Instead, that more sophisticated trader also looks at the price of the option that expires one month later. In this enriched IV environment, they notice that the later-dated option is trading at $3.25. So what does our smart trader do? They enter a spread order to sell the call spread, collecting the difference, or $2.25 per share.

The trade involves buying the near-term option (at an unattractive premium of $1.00) and selling the next month option (at an attractive premium of $3.25). The net cash credit for the trade is $225. That cash is the credit that you hope to keep when the new option expires worthless. Note that this is substantially higher than the normal income of $150 to $170 per month. Sure you may have to pay a "terrible" price to cover the option sold earlier, but the only number that counts is the net cash collected when moving the position to the following month—that is your new potential profit for the coming month.