This week, I want to talk about options.

More specifically, how a good stock screener is the best tool you can have for picking the right options.

Regardless of whether you’re buying options or writing them, calls or puts, ‘nakeds’ or ‘covereds’, you not only have to be right on the stock’s direction, but also the timing.

Even the most sophisticated of options strategies, requires you to at least have an idea as to what you believe the stock will or won’t do within a certain period of time.

Often times, people who buy options with more time, (to be safe), are forced to buy options further out-of-the-money because of the cost, which ultimately reduces their chances of profitability.

But by backtesting a stock picking strategy, to see if your stocks typically go up as soon as they're identified (let's say within the first one week or four weeks), you can buy less time and closer-to-the-money (better) options. Simply put, you can make better decisions as to which options to get into.

For example, let’s assume we’re buying calls; if you know your stock picking strategy has a high probability of picking stocks that go up within the first few weeks they come across your screen, you won't have to waste your money on purchasing options with excessive time. (As you know, ‘time’ does indeed cost money when it comes to options, i.e. time value or extrinsic value.) And the less ‘needless’ time you buy, the more money you’ll have to spend on buying an option that’s closer to the money or even in-the-money (my favorite).

I won’t get into an options lesson in this article, but too many people treat option buying as a lottery ticket. They’ll buy the cheapest options (usually meaning several strikes out-of-the-money) and hope for an explosive move (which they’ll need if they’re too far out-of-the-money). Unfortunately, these moves often never come. And even when they do, often times by expiration, their time value has eroded with no intrinsic value at all.

Let’s say stock XYZ is trading at $50. And the options are expiring in 5 weeks. There’s a $45 in-the-money call at $5.60 (which means it costs $560). A $50 at-the-money call going for $2.20 ($220). A $55 out-of-the money call going for $1.50 ($150) and a $60 call going for $.75 cents ($75).

The 45 call has $500 of intrinsic value (the difference between the underlying stock’s price and the strike price) and $60 of time value or extrinsic value (amount of the option’s price that’s greater than the intrinsic value).

The 50 call has $0 (zero) intrinsic value and is fully comprised of extrinsic value ($220 worth).

The 55 and 60 calls also have zero intrinsic value and only time value too ($150 and $75 respectively).

The interesting dynamic is that, time value or extrinsic value declines as the expiration date draws near. In other words, as time goes by, your option is losing its time value.

To complete this example, let me go over a few scenarios.

Scenario 1)

Let’s say at expiration, XYZ stock closes at $50. The 45 call is worth $500 for a loss of -$60 or -11%. Why? Because at expiration, there’s $500 of intrinsic value left. But the $60 worth of time value has ticked away, for a loss of -$60. So out of your $560 investment, you get $500 of it back.

The 50 call is worth $0 for a loss of $220 or -100%. That $220 was all time value and it has all been used up.

The 55 and 60 calls will also expire worthless, each one for a -100% loss. Same story.

While it’s true, if you spent less on an option, your absolute risk is less since you can only lose what you put in. But the ‘worse’ option you buy, the less likelihood there is that the stock will reach and surpass your strike price at expiration. (Less potential monetary loss per option, but less likelihood of making anything either.)

Scenario 2)

Let’s say XYZ makes only a mediocre move of $2 to close at $52. At expiration, the 45 call would be worth $700, which means it’d have a gain of $140 or 25%. So you get your $560 back, plus an extra $140.

The 50 call, in spite of XYZ’s $2 move, would have actually lost money. The 50 call would now be worth only $200. But remember, you paid $220 for it. The move gave you $200 of new intrinsic value, but all of the time value you purchased ($220 worth) would have ticked away. The net result would have been a loss of -$20 for a -9% decrease. So out of your $220 investment, you’ll get back $200 of it.

The 55 and 60 calls both expire worthless for a -100% loss on each.

Scenario 3)

This time let’s say XYZ goes to $55. The 45 call is now worth $1,000 at expiration. That’s a $440 gain or a 79% increase. ($1,000 - $560 investment = $440 gain.) So you get your $560 back, plus an extra $440. Good trade.

The 50 call will be worth $500. That’s a $280 gain or a 127% increase. Excellent. You get your $220 back, plus an extra $280. But on a $5 stock move, your option captured only about half of that.

The 55 and 60 calls, in spite of XYZ’s $5 run-up, both expire worthless. Yes, even the 55 call. It has no intrinsic value and no time value left –- so it’s worth nothing.

Scenario 4)

This time, let’s say XYZ shoots up $10 to close at $60 by expiration. The 45 call will be worth $1,500. ($1,500 - $560 investment = $940 gain or a 168% increase.) You get your $560 back, plus an additional $940. Awesome.

The 50 call also fared well. It’s now worth $1,000. ($1,000 - $220 investment = $780 gain or a 355% increase). You get your $220 back, plus an additional $780.

The 55 call is finally profitable as it’s now worth $500. So your gain is $350. ($500 - $150 investment = $350.) That’s a 233% increase. But a bit disappointing, considering you got only about $3.50 worth of a $10 move.

The real disappointment though is for the 60 call. Once again, it’ll expire worthless as all of it’s time value has ticked away leaving its value at $0 –- zero.

Of course, the out-of-the money call strategy will score big if there’s a huge move and you have lots of options. But short of that, the ‘cheap’, out-of-the money calls will often expire with a -100% loss. Ouch. And how much money are you really willing to commit to an out-of-the money play, knowing the odds are so stacked against you.

Unfortunately, that’s how too many people do it. And because they rationalize that they can get more cheaper options for the price of 1 really good one, they’ll often spend just as much and lose it ALL.

And if you buy more time (more time until expiration) the options will cost even more, for a potentially even bigger loss. In fact, every one of the above scenarios would have done commensurately worse.

So getting back to my point; once you have an idea as to how good your screening strategy is at picking winners and how quickly they move once they’ve been identified, you can then go about picking the best option to give you the highest probability of success.

For instance, what if you knew your screening strategy picked stocks that had a high probability of going up within the next few weeks. You wouldn't need to buy two months or three months or six months of time. And you could then spend your money on getting a closer out-of-the money or better yet, an at-the-money or an in-the-money option.

I personally like to look at options as simply a cheaper way to invest in stocks. Because if I bought 100 shares of a $90 stock, that’d cost $9,000. But if I bought an $85 call option with 4-6 weeks left while the stock was at $90, I’d have the right to buy 100 shares of that stock at $90. And I’d probably only have to pay about $5.50 to $7.00 ($550 to $700) to do so. (There of course are other considerations to the pricing of options that are beyond the scope of this article, but you get the idea.) The benefits of my in-the-money preferences are; if the stock went sideways, I’d retain the majority of my investment since my option is comprised of mostly intrinsic value. If it went up a little, my option would still have a great chance of gain. If it moved up nicely (as I’d expected), I’d get the lion’s share of the move. And if it collapsed, my maximum exposure would be limited to my purchase price. (And even less if I sold prior to expiration.)

So what does all this mean?

Make sure you screen for good stocks!!!

And make sure you know what the probability is for those stocks to move, say within the next week or month, etc. And the only way to really know, is to backtest your screening strategies.

This way, even a crummy option strategy will then have a better chance of profit. But with better knowledge of your stocks’ movement potential, you can employ a better option strategy for even bigger gains.

Here’s an easy way to get started. In the Research Wizard, some of our best and winningest strategies come loaded with the program. Simply add the filter; ‘optionable’ (meaning these stocks have options). Add the optionable filter to these strategies and then go find the best options.

Here’s 3 optionable stocks, from some of my favorite stock screening strategies in the Research Wizard (for 4/10/07).

Company

Ticker

Price

Avg Daily Vol.
(20 day avg.)

Zacks
Rank

% Change
F(1) Est. Rev.
over 12 Wks.

P/E -- using F(1) Est.

Proj. EPS Growth Rate F(1)/F(0)


COMPUTER AND TECHNOLOGY

ValueClick, Inc.

VCLK

28.00$

1,604,451

1

6.63%

34.82

29.70%


FINANCE

Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc.

LEH

$72.29

6,718,610

3

1.31%

9.85

9.08%


BUSINESS SERVICES

Corrections Corp. of America

CXW

$53.10

341,715

1

5.01%

25.97

18.90%

Get the rest of the stocks from each one of these screens and start making better stock and option decisions today.

And remember, the key to successful stock picking is in discovering those screens that have produced profitable results in the past. And the key to better option selections, is in knowing what to expect from your stocks (and when). And how will you know? By backtesting! Click here to find out more about our free trial to the Research Wizard stock picking and backtesting program.
http://www.zacks.com/researchwizard/index.php?site=regrep

Disclosure: Officers, directors and/or employees of Zacks Investment Research may own or have sold short securities and/or hold long and/or short positions in options that are mentioned in this material. An affiliated investment advisory firm may own or have sold short securities and/or hold long and/or short positions in options that are mentioned in this material.