Cheap (or Free!) Protection for Your Stocks

Recently, I wrote about a way to insure your portfolio against decline by buying put options -- in effect, insurance policies -- for your largest or most important holdings. Options typically get a bad rap as being risky or speculative. But when used correctly to complement a long-term stock portfolio, they're simply tools to help you manage your risk and returns.

So if you want to protect a stock you own, you can buy a put option. But in today's volatile market, it will cost you even more than usual. That protection may be worth it if your stock falls sharply, but it's a lot of money to forfeit if your stock holds steady or increases in price.

There is a way, however, to insure a stock against decline without needing to spend much or any capital yourself. Now that's worth knowing about!

 Buying protective puts with call option income (What!? We'll explain)
Let's use Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) as a general example. Suppose you own 100 shares of the $58 stock, and you want to protect it against further big declines. As of this writing, Research In Motion's June 2010 put options with a $50 strike price (the price at which you could sell your stock, guaranteed) cost $4.50 per share.

So it will cost you $450 to insure your $5,800 Research In Motion position from now through June 2010, when these options expire. It's expensive, but the insurance would be great to have if the stock falls below $40, as it did in March. No matter what happens, you'll be able to sell your shares at $50 -- but it's a net sell price of $44.50, after factoring in what you paid for the put options.

"But wait," you're saying, "I have to pony up $450 just to insure what is supposed to be an investment? I know times are risky right now, with a lot of uncertainty, but that's a lot to pay for something that very well might not happen!"

It is. Luckily, there's an alternative.

Cash in pocket, insurance in hand
Instead, you could pay for much of your insurance by using the proceeds from writing call options on the stock. When you write options, you're the seller of the contract, rather than the buyer, so you're paid up front when you execute the trade. In this case, as the owner of 100 shares of Research In Motion, you could write -- meaning sell -- a call option (each option contract represents 100 shares) on your stock for an immediate payment.

Research In Motion's $70 June 2010 call options are paying $4.35 per share. You could sell call option contracts on your 100 shares, be paid $435, and then use the money to buy your $50 put contracts for $450. So your net cost would be $15 (plus commission). In some cases, you can actually end up with cash in your pocket from the call options, while buying puts for insurance.

The catch, however, is that your upside is now limited. If Research In Motion increases above $70 per share and you keep your call options open to expiration, your stock would be called away from you -- in other words, it would be sold for you, at $70 per share. So, even if Research In Motion soars beyond $100, as long as you have these open call options, you'd be forced to sell at $70.

With this strategy, you're insured against a disaster, but you also have limited upside. Therefore, you use this strategy when you're on the defensive, concerned about protecting yourself from potential losses, and don't see tremendous upside in the near term.

When to insure positions with call option income
This option strategy of buying a put and selling a call (or vice versa) is called a "collar" strategy. You're limiting the potential pricing outcome for the position that you're "collaring" -- in this case, Research In Motion. You'll be able to sell it at $50, no matter what.

A collar is a useful tool in bear markets, or when you are uncertain about a business. Earlier this year, that would have applied to just about any company related to financials, from Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) to Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) to JPMorgan (NYSE: JPM  ) .

But the strategy can also come in handy with stocks that are volatile at the best of times, especially after making big runs, like to protect a position in PotashCorp (NYSE: POT  ) , VMware (NYSE: VMW  ) , or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Nasdaq: GMCR  ) .

The strategy may be used when you don't want to sell a stock quite yet, but you also want to limit your potential losses. With a collar, you limit your upside, but you're also in effect saying, "I don't believe there's much upside in the near term anyway. Meanwhile, I'm concerned about the risk. So, I'll insure my stock without any or only a little out-of-pocket expense." The strategy is called a "costless collar."

Options as tools
Options are tools best used in tandem with in-depth business knowledge and a long-term stock perspective. They can be used to protect positions, generate income, short, or hedge, and to get better buy or sell prices on your stocks.

Want to learn more? We're offering a free handbook designed to get you up to speed on options basics. Just enter your email in the box below for access -- it's completely free.

This article was originally published Oct. 6, 2008 under the headline "Free Protection for Your Stocks." It has been updated.

Jeff Fischer doesn't own shares any companies mentioned in this article. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and VMware are Rule Breakers picks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (8)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2009, at 9:07 AM, mdtopper wrote:

    I think the net sell price s/b $45.50 not $44.50 as quoted above.

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2009, at 9:13 AM, sept2749 wrote:

    In the first example if Rimm put was sold for 50.00 (strike price) and the cost was 450.- then wouldn't the net sell price per share be 100 shs.@ 50 = 5000.- less the put of 450. = 45.50 per share? How did you get the 44.50 net? What did I miss?

  • Report this Comment On December 07, 2009, at 10:59 AM, goldenthroat wrote:

    And don't forget the $800 you lose when you exercise the right to sell your stock at $50

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Jeff Fischer (TMFFischer) is advisor at Motley Fool Pro and co-advisor at Motley Fool Options.

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