How to boost your stock returns while lowering your risk

An options strategy called Covered Call Writing is a conservative strategy designed to reduce risk and increase income when investing in stocks. Briefly stated, stock options are contracts in which you buy or sell the right to buy or sell. Although there are eight types of options contracts, we’re interested here in low-risk “Covered Call Writing.”

Here’s how it works: Say it’s August and you buy 300 shares of XYZ stock at the price of $48 per share. XYZ pays a quarterly dividend of 50 cents per share. Therefore, if the price never moves, you’ll earn 4.2% per year.

At the same time, you would participate in Covered Call Writing. To do so, you, you would “write three January 50 Calls.” This means you are selling (“writing”) the right for someone else to buy the stock from you (they “call” it away) between now and the third Friday of January at the specified price of $50. (All contracts expire the third Friday of the month.)

Each contract represents 100 shares, hence three contracts. The buyers pay you a fee (called a “premium”) of $3.5 per share, or $1,050. (The premium is based on the amount of time until expiration and the spread between the current price and the “strike price,” in this case $50. Therefore, the premium changes constantly.)

Assuming you don’t cancel, only two things can happen next: The contract will get exercised or it will expire worthless in January. Either way, you keep the $1,050. Clearly, this strategy can yield big rewards. Among the advantages are:

1. You are establishing a profitable sell price the day you buy the stock. If exercised, you are guaranteed a profit;

2. You reduce risk because premium in effect reduces the price you paid for the stock;

3. Your annual yield is boosted far above that of the dividend alone.

However, there are other considerations. For one, you are limiting your potential profits. No matter how high the stock rises, you won’t sell for more than $50. You can solve this problem by buying your option back, in effect canceling it out. You would do this if you later think the stock will dramatically rise and you don’t want to miss the gains to be made.

Also, you have not reduced the risk that your stock may drop in price. The only certainty is, should XYZ drop $25, your option will not be exercised – a small consolation. To protect yourself, you may “buy a January 45 put” giving you the right to sell your stock for $45. This is the opposite of what we’ve reviewed here, and is designed to minimize losses, rather than protect gains.

Because of the potential for price drops, you should choose a high quality, blue-chip stock that fits your budget, an which offers a stable trading range, solid fundamental, high dividends, and good growth potential.

Covered Call Writing is not a reason to own stocks, but the strategy might be of help if you already own them. Prior to opening an account, you must receive and urged to read “Characteristics and Risk of Standardized Options,” which is published by the Options Clearing Corporation in cooperation with NASD and all major U.S. stock exchanges. The booklet is available from any broker or financial advisor.

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