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Adam Hamilton

Mr. Hamilton, a private investor and contrarian analyst, publishes Zeal Intelligence, an in-depth monthly strategic and tactical analysis of markets, geopolitics, economics, finance, and investing…

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QQQ Options Trading 101

At Zeal we are constantly deluged with questions on investing and speculation from around the world.

As usual, the spectacular NASDAQ bear-market rally since its October bounce has spawned an explosion of popular interest in pure speculation. Folks are curious about how to ride the enormous market volatility these days in the hopes of realizing large profits. The art of speculation is one of the most alluring and seductive financial concepts!

Webster's massive 4"-thick dictionary defines speculation as the "engagement in business transactions involving considerable risk but offering the chance of large gains, especially trading in commodities, stocks, etc., in the hope of profit from changes in the market price."

Speculators make very risky bets on short-term market direction in the hopes of reaping legendary profits if the markets cooperate. They live by the sword and die by the sword, making money faster than Alan Greenspan when they are right and losing money faster than Enron when they are wrong.

Speculation is certainly not for everyone.

But if you have the risk capital you can afford to lose if the markets move against you and you possess the right temperament, you may find speculation very rewarding on multiple levels. Not only can speculators earn enormous profits, but they place themselves in the most unforgiving financial arenas on Earth. They are forced to learn a great deal about their own emotional strengths and weaknesses, the dangerous greed and fear dwelling deep within their own mortal human hearts.

There are countless ways to speculate, but my personal favorite at this peculiar moment in history is trading QQQ options. I have written essays on trading the QQQs including "Volatility Trading the QQQs" and its sequel, and each month we discuss specific QQQ trades in our Zeal Intelligence newsletter for our subscribers.

If you are new to the fascinating world of options, all the terms bandied about can seem mighty cryptic and confusing. Yet, with a little bit of foundational strategic background, basic options theory is quite understandable. I am writing this essay as in introduction for speculators who are interested in options, but not quite sure how they work in the real world.

An option is a derivative as it "derives" its value from another separate underlying asset. As the price of an option's underlying asset, such as a stock or commodity, moves in the marketplace, the price of the option changes in harmony.

An option is the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell the option's underlying asset at a certain price for a certain period of time in the future. An option grants you just that, the "option" of deciding whether or not you wish to consummate a certain transaction. You can execute the transaction if it is beneficial to you or choose not to if it is not beneficial to you.

The definition of an option seems abstract when viewed in academic isolation, but it leaps to life when witnessed in the real world. In order to flesh out the concept of options, we need to have an "underlying asset" to discuss. The underlying asset of choice today for millions of speculators worldwide is the legendary QQQ.

The QQQ, also fondly known as the "Triple-Qs" or "Cubes", is what is known as an exchange-traded fund. An ETF is just like a common stock-index mutual fund with which all investors are familiar. An ETF tracks a major stock index, but it can be easily traded just like a stock. Just type the symbol QQQ into your online trading account, hit buy or sell, and you are off to the races!

The QQQs track the elite NASDAQ 100 index, which contains the biggest, best, and most important stocks of the NASDAQ Composite Index that is quoted every night on the evening news. Buying a share of the QQQ ETF is just like buying tiny fractions of 100 elite NASDAQ companies including tech behemoths Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Dell, Amgen, and Oracle. The QQQs move in lockstep with the NASDAQ.

You may not have noticed, but there was an enormous technology-stock bubble that popped in March 2000. It was quite the sight to behold! A speculative mania in the NASDAQ erupted and collapsed and today we are still dealing with the destructive aftermath of that momentous event. Because tech stocks were the super-stars of the recently departed bubble, speculators today still aggressively chase them in the vain hopes the tech bubble will return.

History teaches us that after a mega-bubble the primary bubble-instigator stocks don't come back for decades, if ever, but not many folks read history books these days so they still place much faith in the fallen NASDAQ. This faith often crowns the QQQs with the title of the most-traded stocks on the planet, earning the numero uno spot in terms of daily volume traded.

Because popular speculator sentiment yearns for the euphoric NASDAQ bubble days to return, because the QQQs are the most traded financial instruments on Earth, and because the QQQs are incredibly volatile, they have become the perfect vehicle for naked speculation.

For QQQ traders, it doesn't matter if the NASDAQ and QQQs go up or down, all that matters is that they are highly liquid because they are traded constantly and their volatility remains high so their prices jump around all the time. The QQQ speculator doesn't care at all whether the NASDAQ soars or collapses, only that he makes the right bet on what will happen in the near future.

As the QQQs move up and down in the turbulent markets, a vast universe of side bets on what will transpire next has arisen. These side bets are the QQQ options. Trading the QQQ options is not for everyone, as fortunes are made and lost daily, but they are perfect for speculators who can fully understand and handle the immense risks.

QQQ options are derivatives, their price is derived from the underlying QQQ shares. As the QQQ prices are bid up and sold down, the QQQ options prices change right along with the QQQs. QQQ options grant the speculator the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell the QQQ shares themselves at a certain price for a certain period of time.

The QQQ options, like all options, come in two flavors, QQQ call options and QQQ put options. QQQ call options grant speculators the right, but not the obligation, to buy the QQQs at a certain price for a certain period of time in the future. QQQ put options provide the opposite function, granting speculators the right to sell QQQs.

A speculator who believes the QQQs are headed higher in the future will consider buying QQQ call options. A speculator who believes the QQQs are headed lower in the future will consider buying QQQ put options.

If you think about it, the "call" and "put" terminology does make sense. If you sell a call option to me that allows me to buy your QQQ shares from you, I can pick up the phone and "call" you and tell you I am "calling" in your shares to buy them right now. On the other hand, if you sell a put option to me that allows me to sell my QQQ shares to you, I can "put" them to you, "putting" them into your hands at any time and asking you to pay up.

Now you may be thinking that this all sounds quite complicated. You make a side bet on the NASDAQ via QQQ options but then you have to buy or sell actual QQQ stock to close your transaction in the future. Yikes!

If you really did have to exercise your QQQ options to buy or sell actual QQQ stock they would indeed be a pain, but in the modern world of options speculation you never have to exercise any options ever. You can directly buy or sell the actual QQQ options contracts themselves anytime for cash. QQQ options are completely self-contained, independent, fully-tradable securities in their own right.

With no need to exercise, a speculator can navigate all over the vast world of NASDAQ side bets buying and selling with abandon without ever owning a single QQQ share! I trade QQQ options contracts often but have never owned a share of the underlying QQQ stock itself.

Ultimately the mechanics of buying or selling a QQQ call or QQQ put is just like trading any stock. All you have to know is a few pieces of information and you can buy or sell the QQQ options within your normal online trading account after it has been option-enabled.

The screenshots below are of actual QQQ options quotes from the outstanding Yahoo Finance website located at http://finance.yahoo.com/ . To see real-world QQQ options quotes, just surf to Yahoo Finance, type QQQ in the "Enter symbol(s)" box at the top of the page, select "Options" in the drop-down box to the right, and click the "Get" button. Welcome to the world of options!

QQQ Options Quotes

Every options contract has a complex symbol like QAVAZ.X, but you don't have to worry about these symbols or the logic behind them as an options speculator these days. Most online trading accounts allow you to simply trade options based on a few easy-to-understand attributes rather than their formal symbols.

The first thing you need to consider is the expiration month, shown across the top of the quotes above under the letter "A". These quotes are from QQQ options that expire in January 2003. Stock options expire on the third Friday in their contract month. At expiration options become worthless, the contract no longer exists. As a speculator you want to make sure you buy options dated far enough into the future to give the QQQs time to move favorably for whatever bet you've made.

Next you need to decide if you believe the QQQs are heading higher or lower. If you think they are going up, you should consider buying call options. If you think they will fall, you should consider buying put options. Both the calls and puts sections of the quotes above are marked with the letters "B". We will assume the markets are heading down for this example, so we will look at the puts above.

Now that we have decided to consider puts expiring in January, we need to make a decision on which strike price to trade. The strike prices are marked above with the letters "C". The strike price is the contractual price at which we will gain the right to sell (because we are looking at puts) our underlying asset, QQQ stock, until our options expire. Of course most speculators who buy puts never have any underlying stock to sell, as the whole speculation world exists exclusively in options. Let's choose a $27 strike for this example.

With QQQ January 2003 $27 Puts, we are making the bet that the QQQs will trade under $27 before our options expire. If the QQQs trade under $27 at any time between now and January 17th, our options will be "in the money". For example if the QQQs were to slide down to $23, our put options would be worth at least $4 per share.

Please make sure you understand the following logic, as it is foundational for options speculation.

If we own QQQ Jan 27 Puts, we have the right to sell QQQ shares for $27 at any time between now and the third Friday in January when our options expire. If the QQQs themselves fall to $23 in the open market, we still have the contractual right to sell them at $27. The difference between our $27 strike price and the $23 QQQ market price is $4, so our options alone are now worth $4 whether we exercise or not. Because our options are now worth at least $4, they will be bid up to this level in the marketplace.

So if we expect the QQQs that are trading at $27.72 today to fall to $23 before the third Friday in January 2003, are the QQQ Jan 27 Puts a good buy today? The "Bid" and "Ask" columns above in the options quote page help us make this crucial decision.

When looking at any financial-market quotes, the bid and ask are always from the perspective of the dealer who sells the financial securities to you. The "Ask" columns above, marked with the letters "D", contain the price at which the options dealer will sell us QQQ Jan 27 Puts today. In the Yahoo Finance screenshot above you can see that the dealer will sell us all the QQQ Jan 27 Puts contracts we want for $1.45. The dealer is "asking" for $1.45 to part with his put contracts.

If we believe that the QQQs are heading south to $23 which would make our $27 puts worth at least $4, this is a great buy. Just like buying a stock, a speculator can buy QQQ Jan 27 Puts for $1.45 now. Based on his market studies, he believes he can sell them at $4.00 before the options expire in January. If it works out the way our speculator hopes, he will earn a massive 176% profit!

The prospects of a huge 176% gain by speculating in QQQ puts while the QQQs themselves only fall 15% helps to illustrate why options speculation is so seductive and alluring! Our speculator buys puts, the QQQs fall, his puts soar in value, and he sells them.

When we want to sell our options and close the trade, we need to look at the dealer's bid price, marked with the letters "E" above. In the screenshot the dealer is bidding $1.35 to buy QQQ Jan 27 Puts today. We could sell them today for $1.35 or wait until the QQQs fall and put options prices surge higher.

The difference between the dealer's bid and ask prices, or his bid-ask spread, is how he earns his profits to feed his family. He buys low at his bid and sells high at his ask, earning a small profit on every transaction. The $0.10 bid-ask spreads seen in every quote above are typical in QQQ options.

The actual options bids and asks at any moment in time are determined by a combination of free-market supply and demand and a mathematically-complex options pricing model. Options prices have two components, intrinsic value and time value. Once again we will look at the actual QQQ Jan 27 Puts quote to illustrate this important concept.

The screenshots above were snapped on Friday November 22nd when the QQQ ETF itself closed at $27.72. Since the contract grants the speculator the right to sell QQQs at $27 if he wishes, but the free-market QQQ price is above that at $27.72, the options are worthless right? Who in their right mind would exercise a put options contract to sell at $27 when they could just as easily sell at the higher $27.72 in the open market? No one!

In this case the "intrinsic value" of our QQQ Jan 27 Puts is zero. The intrinsic value component of the option is the difference between the options' strike price and the underlying QQQ market price when the options are in the money. Since a put is a bet the QQQs will fall, the actual QQQ price has to be below the QQQ put options' strike price for them to have intrinsic value. As we discussed above when the QQQs fall to $23 our $27 puts will have $4 of intrinsic value.

Since these QQQ Jan 27 Puts have no intrinsic value at this time, they are "out of the money", why will they still cost us $1.45 to buy as quoted above?  The answer is the second component of options pricing, the "time value". When a speculator buys an options contract, another party has to sell it to him. This "counterparty" assumes risk by granting the speculator the right to sell QQQs back at any time before expiration.

The longer the time between today and the options' expiration date, the higher the premium the seller demands to compensate for the risk. Obviously there is not a lot of risk the market will move against the seller if the expiration is tomorrow, but if it is 8 weeks from today a lot could happen in this crazy world of ours. Time value starts off high on an options contract and steadily decays towards zero as expiration draws nearer.

The sum of any options' intrinsic value and time value is known as the option premium, or price. The premium for our QQQ Jan 27 Puts discussed above is $1.45, with zero intrinsic value because they remain out of the money plus $1.45 in time value to compensate the option seller for the uncertainty between now and expiration.

While we discussed a put option above, a bet the QQQs will fall, the same underlying logic applies to a call option, a bet the QQQs will rise, but the in-the-money and the out-of-the-money scenarios are of course reversed.

So if you have an idea for a potential trade, it is easy to find a specific QQQ options contract that will suit your needs. All you have to know is how long you think you will need for the markets to move the way you expect, the contract month, the strike price you want to purchase, whether a call or put is the right bet, and the current dealer's ask price in the marketplace, and you can buy an options contract.

Most online brokers will let you trade options if you sign a form in blood that says you fully understand and accept the large risks involved. Buying the options we described above is as easy as entering "QQQ", "January", "27", "Put", "1.45", and the number of contracts you want in the appropriate page on your broker's website.

My personal favorite online broker by far used to be Datek, which was unfortunately just swallowed up by Ameritrade. I haven't had any problems trading options through Ameritrade yet though, so I suspect it is probably as good of brokerage as any to set up an online account if you don't have one yet.

There is one more options contract idiosyncrasy you need to know about. While options prices are always quoted as single share numbers, such as $1.45 for the QQQ puts above, the options contracts are always traded in 100-share blocks. To find out what a single 100-share options contract is worth, you just take the quoted price times 100. It would cost $145 plus commissions to buy the QQQ Jan 27 Puts discussed above. You can buy or sell as many 100-share contracts at a time as you want, from one to thousands.

Commissions for options trading are quite inexpensive today. Ameritrade charges $10.99 per limit-order trade plus $1.50 per contract both ways, on your original option buy and again on your sell later. If you were to buy 10 contracts of the QQQ Jan 27 Puts at $1.45, it would cost you $1475.99 ($1450 dealer's ask plus $25.99 commissions).

If you were fortunate enough to sell your options at $4.00 sometime before January expiration after the QQQs fall to $23 as discussed above, you would earn $3974.01 in proceeds from your 10 contracts ($4000 dealer's bid less $25.99 commissions). In this example you would have earned a very impressive 169% profit net of round-trip commissions (but before taxes) if you made the right bet. See why options speculation is so seductive?

Of course an options speculator can lose money just as fast or faster than he can earn it if he makes the wrong bet. If you stick to "going long" options, buying calls and puts from others and then selling them back later, you can only lose 100%, your entire options premium, if you are wrong. But if you get into "writing options", issuing them yourself from scratch and selling them, you can have potentially unlimited losses if the market moves against you. In this essay I am only talking about long options, buying calls and puts from others and selling them back later.

Important note for starving lawyers. I am not recommending QQQ Jan 27 Puts here. They are discussed above as a hypothetical example only. I do not think QQQ Jan 27 Puts are a good bet right now and I wouldn't buy them myself today if they were the last puts on Earth. If you buy them you will probably suffer a 100% loss, your wife will leave you, a meteorite will obliterate your car, and your dog will vomit on and short-circuit your computer. Don't do it! If you want real up-to-date options recommendations, please subscribe to our Zeal Intelligence newsletter. We need to feed our families too you know!]

Now that all these fuzzy concepts are hopefully starting to coalesce in your brain, let's look at another example of QQQ options trading over an actual market time horizon. The QQQ candlesticks (open, high, low, and close data) below are real QQQ trading numbers from the entire month of October 2002. The prices of the QQQ Dec 21 Calls and QQQ Dec 21 Puts shown below are hypothetical, but representative of reality.

October 2002 was quite the month for the US equity markets! Early on the QQQs plunged to their lowest level in history, closing at $20.06 on October 9th. Such horrific QQQ lows have never before been witnessed since the ETF was only recently born on March 10th, 1999. Investors were terrified, fear abounded, and bad news was everywhere.

Yet, just like bear rallies always do, out of the depths of despair the QQQs sprang to life merely one day later. On October 10th a magnificent bear-market rally erupted that ran for many weeks on end. October was the kind of chaotically-volatile month that QQQ speculators live for!

In the above graph, we will assume our speculator, nicknamed Spec, bought some QQQ options on October 1st. He either bought QQQ Dec 21 Calls or QQQ Dec 21 Puts. Either trade could have turned out well or ended in disaster, all depending on Spec's timing.

Timing is truly everything for QQQ options speculators!

First, let's assume Spec didn't believe the naysayers and assumed the markets were bound to bounce soon. He read my "Volatility Trading the QQQs" essay and realized that a bear-market bounce was almost certainly upon us. He fought his fear like a prudent contrarian speculator and bought calls even though general fear was rampant. He decided on QQQ Dec 21 Calls which he bought on October 1st, the yellow "B" buy date above.

Five trading days later on October 8th, the yellow "S1" first sell date above, Spec was literally feeling sick to his stomach. He read my October 4th essay "Trading Volatility Ratios" where I closed with, "If the SPX/VIX ratio proves true to its golden historical track-record, we are in for a spectacular bear market rally that will knock the socks off those not expecting it and yield legendary profits for those who are."

"That damn Adam Hamilton," Spec cursed, "is a lunatic! The markets are falling apart. Woe is me!" Indeed Spec's QQQ calls had plummeted from his purchase price of $2.00 to only $0.85, a stunning 58% loss in five trading days. An 8% fall in the QQQs translated into a brutal 58% loss in Spec's leveraged options. If Spec sold his calls at S1 he felt like a goat, lost a lot of money, and was not a happy camper.

But, if Spec was still thinking like a contrarian and realized that rampant fear and plunging prices are often harbingers of fantastic bear-market rallies, he would have held on to his calls. If he had fought his own fear and waited until point "S2", merely eleven trading days later on October 23rd, the QQQs had soared to $24.60. His QQQ Dec 21 Calls were now worth $4.60, a huge 130% gain for him on only a 12% rise in the underlying QQQs! If Spec overcame his now thriving greed and sold here, he felt like a hero.

Timing is truly everything for QQQ options speculators!

Now, let's assume Spec believed the naysayers and failed to read my "Handicapping Market Crashes" essay discussing how market crashes never happen years into a supercycle bust from dismal lows. He had been reading tons of Internet message-board posts and commentaries in late September offering very convincing arguments that the markets were ready to fall off a cliff. Since general fear was high, Spec did the comfortable thing and bought QQQ Dec 21 Puts for $1.00 on October 1st.

Five trading days later, on October 8th, Spec's QQQ puts were soaring. The QQQs had fallen 8%, but his puts were now worth $1.80, up 80%. "That Adam Hamilton is retarded, " thought Spec, "I can't believe he is actually betting these doomed markets will ever rise again." If Spec sold here, he would feel like a hero, but his greed kicked in and he salivated over the prospects of the markets plunging even farther.

Eleven trading days later, Spec watched in horror as the bear-market rally gutted his puts. By October 23rd, the QQQs were only up 12% but his QQQ Dec 21 Puts had plunged by 55% to $0.45. If he sold now, he would feel like a goat, having hemorrhaged a huge amount of his precious and scarce capital.

Did I mention that timing is truly everything for QQQ options speculators?

On October 1st it really didn't matter if Spec bought QQQ calls or QQQ puts. If he had a multi-week time horizon in mind, he could have made out like a bandit with the calls. If he had only a multi-day time horizon in mind, Spec could have won big profits with his puts. Whatever way he chose to trade, he had to have the courage of his convictions to stick with his position until it was time to sell, no earlier and no later.

Like Spec, every QQQ options speculator must be ready for enormous swings in his or her positions day-to-day and week-to-week. They must also endure epic emotional battles between greed and fear raging deep within their own hearts, and still make the right decisions at the right times. While speculation in theory sounds easy, in real-time real-world practice it is actually incredibly challenging.

Finally, here is a strategic overview of the QQQs' behavior over the past couple years marked with the optimal times to trade QQQ options.

QQQ Options Strategy

As this horrific supercycle bust following the NASDAQ bubble continues to unfold, vast strategic options trading opportunities emerge for QQQ speculators. Excruciating downlegs are inevitably followed by exhilarating bear-market rallies, and then the whole roller coaster starts all over again.

The time to buy puts, making bets the NASDAQ will fall, is right after a massive bear-market rally when widespread greed is rampant. On the graph these red circles are easy to find, but believe me, in the real world it will take every ounce of strength and fortitude the contrarian speculator can muster to buy puts when everyone else is convinced the bear market is finally extinct.

The time to buy calls, making bets the NASDAQ will soar, is right after a brutal downleg reaches terminal velocity on outrageous volatility. While the green circles indicating these times are crystal clear with 20/20 hindsight, it is very challenging to fight the black fear gripping your heart as the markets seem to be on the edge of the abyss and actually bet that a bounce is imminent.

Honestly, unless you are God and can see the future you are not going to hit the interim QQQ tops and bottoms perfectly with your QQQ options speculations. That's fine though, no worries. If you can even catch 1/2 to 2/3 of each major move, you will reap spectacular profits.

For example, in the actual February 2002 issue of Zeal Intelligence we recommended our clients buy QQQ Sep 30 Puts. The QQQs were trading at $38.51 at the time, the NASDAQ looked toppy after the QQQs had rallied an amazing 52% from their post 9/11 lows, and irrational exuberance and naked greed abounded. Even though we didn't buy these puts at the exact top, we were able to purchase them at $1.40.

When the August 2002 issue of Zeal Intelligence was published after the abysmal July 23rd lows, marked above with the white arrow, I wrongly thought the interim bottom was in. I explained why in detail in "Trading Volatility Bottoms" and "VIX Bounces S&P 500". The true bounce really arrived eleven weeks later on October 9th. At Zeal we missed both the exact top and exact bottom because of my mistake. So did our clients lynch us?

No, they were actually pretty understanding, bless them! Our sell recommendation on the QQQ Sep 30 Puts in August that we had recommended in February were at an options price of $6.30. We were blessed with actual realized trading profits for our clients and us of 350% through six brutal months of 2002 when most market players were hemorrhaging huge amounts of capital as the indices plummeted. A 350% profit sure beats a kick in the teeth!

You don't have to hit the exact tops and bottoms to make great QQQ options trades. Greed is a dangerous and lethal emotion for any speculator anyway, so trading the middle of these giant NASDAQ moves with QQQ options is a fine and acceptable way to play the game.

So you too are interested in speculation in QQQ options?

Remember the game is far harder in real-time than with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Long options trading, buying calls and puts and selling them later, is a brutal zero-sum game. The only way you can win is if whoever sold you the options loses, and vice versa. No new wealth is created, capital just changes hands among speculators and hedgers.

QQQ options trading is very risky. If the markets don't cooperate and conform to your bet before your options expire, you will take a 100% loss on your trade. And yes, you will lose money. Period. To the best of my knowledge no options trader in the universe earns profits on every single trade he or she executes. Most of the time you lose it will be because of your own internal greed and fear, which you will have to learn to actively suppress when you trade. Never get too greedy as greed kills. Never grow too fearful as fear is just as lethal.

Consider your losses as speculation tuition, necessary lessons you can learn from to become a far superior trader in the future. Always keep learning. Read everything you can find on options until your eyes bleed and you curse the day options were invented. Then go read some more about options!

With each trade you execute and every good book you read you will grow as a trader. The longer you stick with it and study the foundational principles and apply them in your own real-world trades, the easier the game will become for you and the larger your profits will grow.

Also never speculate with 100% of your capital! Only a fraction of your total liquid assets are appropriate for use in hyper-risky options speculations. Please see my "Bear-Market Portfolio Design" essay for ideas on how to divide up your overall portfolio between conservative investments and aggressive speculations.

While definitely not for everyone, if you have risk capital that you can afford to lose and you have the right temperament for bearing controlled risks, you may really enjoy trading QQQ options.

If you are interested in learning more about QQQ options speculation, please consider subscribing to our acclaimed Zeal Intelligence newsletter. In addition to recommending specific QQQ calls and puts trades based on our research, we often discuss the underlying logic, technical indicators, and fundamental indicators that lead us to initiate and close trades when we do.

It is really helpful to shadow a more experienced trader to deepen your own understanding, especially if you are new to this great speculation game.

Thank you very much for granting me your valuable time to read this very long essay. I wish you Godspeed and great fortune in your own QQQ options speculations!

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