Using Stock Options Effectively

This is a brief introduction into stock options and how they can be used by a long-term oriented investor, either to purchase shares at a discount or to generate additional income to supplement dividend payments.

A stock option is a contract between two parties to buy or sell the shares of the underlying company at some agreed price. The buyer of an option has the right to exercise the option if he chooses to, but has no obligation to do so. The seller of an option however has the obligation to take the other side of the trade if the option is exercised. This means that both parties have a very different risk and reward profile. The maximum risk for the buyer is the price of the option, while maximum reward is not capped. The opposite is true for the seller, with maximum reward being the price of the option. Since it does not make sense to exercise an option which is not profitable, the seller wins only if the option expires as worthless.


A call option gives the right to buy shares of the underlying company while a put option gives the right to sell shares of the underlying company. Options have a strike price which is the price at which shares can be bought or sold. Options also have an expiration date by which they must be exercised. European-style options can be exercised only at expiration while American-style options can be exercised at any time before expiration. The price of the option is also called premium.

It is said that an option is in the money (ITM) when exercising it would be profitable, and out of the money (OTM) when not profitable. A call option is in-the-money when the market price of the underlying stock is above the strike price of the option. A put option is in-the-money when the market price of the underlying stock is below the strike price.

A single option generally represents 100 shares of the underlying stock.


Implied (or expected) volatility of the underlying stock has a big impact on the price of stock options. When volatility is high, it means there are more possible outcomes for the price of the stock when the option expires. This larger uncertainty makes options more expensive. The opposite is true when implied volatility is low and options become cheaper. Therefore, as a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to be a buyer of options when volatility is low (when things feel calm in the market), and to be a seller of options when volatility is high (when there is a sell-off for example).

The VIX index, widely known as a gauge of fear in the market, is calculated by the implied volatility of options on the S&P 500 index. So when you hear someone say that the VIX is up, it simply means that the implied volatility (and by extension, price) has risen for the S&P 500 options.


A common use case for options is to hedge a position against potentially adverse result. Lets say, for example, that a stock has been going up for a good while and the investor thinks it is getting overvalued. The investor does not want to sell his position because he has a long-term portfolio, but it would be nice to lock in those gains and have protection against downside risk. He could buy a put option with a strike price near the current market price. This gives the investor the right to sell the shares at the strike price in case there is a sell-off and price of the underlying stock heads sharply lower. Note, however, that the investor still does not have to exercise the option and sell his shares. He can just simply sell the option itself, which has now become more valuable due to the change in the underlying stock price. Using options this way can be thought of as a form of insurance.

Buying Shares by Selling Put Options

Another interesting use for options is to buy shares at a pre-determined price by selling put options. This is very useful for the long-term oriented investor who is interested in buying shares in any case to build their portfolio.

Lets say, for example, that a stock is trading at $20. The investor thinks it is a little expensive at $20, but she would be willing to buy it at $18. A put option with a strike price of $18, expiring 3 months from now, is trading at $0.30. The investor decides to sell one option at this price. She receives the option premium immediately, which becomes $30 when you multiply the option price by 100. Now two scenarios are possible when the option expires: the price of the underlying stock is either above or below the strike price. If the price is above, the option will expire as worthless and the seller of the option gets to keep her $30. If the stock has fallen below the strike price, the option will be exercised and she will buy 100 shares of the company at $18 a share. But since she already received the $30 from selling the option, she effectively purchased the shares at $17.70.

Looking at the above example, both outcomes seem favorable. The investor either gets $30 or she gets to buy shares at the effective price of $17.70, when she would have bought anyway at $18. What is the downside? Well, the downside is that for those 3 months, she (or her capital, to be more precise) was tied up in this contract. This can be thought of as an opportunity cost by not having that capital available for other investments that may come up during those 3 months. Another risk is that the shares of this particular company could go even lower than $18 and represent an even better opportunity which she could have exploited if she had not used options.

Additional Income from Selling Call Options

Finally, options can be used for generating additional income to supplement the dividend payments that the investors receives from her portfolio. This strategy is implemented by selling call options with a higher strike price than the current market price.

Like in our previous example, a stock is trading at $20. It happens to be in the upper end of the range where this stock has previously traded. A call option with a strike price of $22, expiring 3 months from now, is trading at $0.30. Our investor has a position in this stock and decides to sell one option at the market price. Like before, she receives $30 for selling the option. Again two scenarios are possible: the price of the underlying stock can be above or below the strike price of the option at expiration. If the stock price is below the strike price, the option will expire as worthless and she gets to keep the $30 which was her goal all along. However, if the price is above, the option will be exercised and her shares will be called away at the price of $22 a share.

If all goes well, the stock price stays below the strike price of the call options and the investor continues to sell a new call option every 3 months. This generates a quarterly payment in addition to the quarterly dividend payments that the company pays. The main risk is of course that the investor loses her position if the option is exercised. This is why it is important to select a strike price that is considered to be a fair price by the investor. In our above example, the investor had determined that she would not mind selling at $22.


The purpose of this post is to introduce some basic strategies and use cases for stock options. I think these ideas can be particularly useful for the long-term oriented investor who is not interested in active trading. Of course, for traders there are so many things that can be done with options, but trading is not really my focus on this blog. While options (and derivatives in general) can feel a bit intimidating for beginning investors, I think they are definitely worth learning about. Yes, they are a little more complex than just buying a stock and holding it, but do not let that stop you from learning them. The downside for options is that since they work in units of 100 shares, it is not possible to use them for smaller positions. Another thing to note is that options work best with large blue-chip companies since their options have good liquidity while the options of smaller companies usually do not.

Book Review: Be Obsessed or Be Average by Grand Cardone

I ordered Grant Cardone’s new book, Be Obsessed or Be Average, at the same time as The 10X Rule which I reviewed earlier. This book has a very similar tone as the first book, but it considers things from the viewpoint of obsessions. The title is provocative for sure but it is consistent with the style of the author, no doubt intended to shock people a bit.


The main argument of the book is that while our society tends to treat any obsession as a problem or disease, obsession itself is not necessarily unhealthy if it is not directed towards harmful occupations. People with obsessive tendencies are often labeled as having ADD, ADHD, OCD or some similar disease. Unfortunately, the go-to solution in our pharma-centric society is prescription drugs. Mr. Cardone argues that instead of drugs, the solution is to direct the obsession towards healthy and positive accomplishments. And going further, the ability to be obsessed should be treated as a positive and should be used as fuel to improve the life of the individual.

Being Average

As the title suggests, argument is made that the alternative to being obsessed is to be average. While being average does not sound bad to many people, that by itself has become a problem in our society. This was one of the things that really hit me in the book and got me thinking. Why have we become so accustomed to settling for average? I know this personally because I have had this average-as-a-goal mindset on many things. This mindset creates thoughts such as “if I could just be paid the average salary in my field I would be doing fine”. Often what follows is something along the lines of “if I could just live in an average house with an average wife and have two kids”. Incidentally two kids is the average number that people have. Why has this become so acceptable and common in our society? Do we no longer strive to do great things?


One important aspect the book addresses is haters and naysayers. I think most people, including me, tend to be very worried about what other people think of them. More specifically, the worry is usually that expressing opinions freely will attract “haters” with negative attitudes. We all know there is no shortage of negative people on the internet. But it is important to realize that even though their attacks may feel personal, they are usually not. The haters don’t really hate their target, they hate their own life. A person who is hateful towards successful people (or those aspiring to be successful) is really trying to make sense of why they are not successful or why they gave up on their dreams. Do not attempt to win an argument with a hater; you cannot defeat irrationality with logic.

Focus on Money

While I agree with most of the book, there is one part that I disagree with. Cardone seems to suggest that all departments and people in a business organization should be primarily focused on money. I agree that money should be the focus for the executives and sales department (and probably many other departments), but not everyone. My experience has been that a lot of people are simply not money-oriented but they are still very valuable to an organization. These are often people with more creative tendencies such as graphics designers, artists and writers. My understanding is that these type of creative people are most productive when they can work unencumbered by financial concerns (at least to some degree).


This is definitely a good book and worth the read, though not quite as good as The 10X Rule in my opinion. However, if you are one of those people who have been diagnosed with obsessive disease, and maybe you are even taking prescription drugs for it, you should definitely read this book. Maybe you can take that obsessive tendency and harness it for productive endeavours instead of destructive ones. Or perhaps you have not been diagnosed but catch yourself having obsessive thoughts now and then. This book gives you permission to be obsessed.

Finding Quality Stocks in Helsinki

In a previous blog post describing my investment philosophy I explained that I try to invest in companies of highest quality. But how to measure the quality of a company? There are many ways of course, such as looking at the strength of the balance sheet, competitive advantage or track record of management. There are also various equity research institutions which provide metrics and rankings to measure the quality of different companies.

However, I came up with another interesting data point to look at. I have a margin account with my stock broker, Nordnet, where I hold Finnish stocks. This means that they will lend me money to buy shares, and any shares I own will be used as collateral for the loan. The stock broker has internal metrics for calculating how safe the stock of each company is, and the value for collateral is different for each company. For example, if the company is considered really safe and stable, the bank may accept 80% of the value of the position as collateral. If the company is really risky, they may accept only 30%. They will tweak these values if there are significant changes in a company, but they appear to be relatively stable.

Why is this such an interesting metric to look at? The business model of a stock broker is to earn commissions on trades and sell other services for fees. Generally they do not want to speculate which stocks go up or down, in other words they do not want to take on risk if they can avoid it. The collateral value gives us some idea of what they think a stock is worth in a worst-case scenario. This means they are putting their money where their mouth is, or in other words, risking their own money in proportion to this figure that they state. Meanwhile they will hype and advertise the IPOs of hottest tech stocks all day long but they will not lend money against their shares. Interesting isn’t it? Lets look at Rovio, for example, which went public about 3 months ago. The broker is accepting only 20% of the value of Rovio shares as collateral, which means that in a worst-case scenario the broker thinks the fundamental value of Rovio is only 20% of what it is currently trading at.

But enough about Rovio, lets get to the quality names that this blog post is about. All the links for the companies lead to the Investor Relations sections of their website.

Grade A (collateral value 85%)

These companies, according to the broker, are the safest and highest quality listings traded in Helsinki. If one were to build a portfolio consisting of just these stocks, I expect that investor to sleep well at night. There are two telecomm stocks (Telia and Elisa), so maybe owning both is not necessary. Kesko is a stable consumer goods company, one of two large companies that sell food and other necessary items in our duopoly. I think not many will disagree with my opinion that Kone and Wärtsilä are the highest quality industrial stocks we have in Finland. Sampo is our leading financial services company and Fortum is an electric utility which is not going anywhere. The only company in this list that has been struggling lately is Telia, but their share price seems to have bottomed between 3.5 and 4 euros.

Grade B (collateral value 80%)

This second group is very interesting. These companies are still of very high quality, but not quite as rock-solid as the first group in the opinion of my stock broker. Each of these companies has some specific risks which I suspect landed them in the second group. For example, Nokian Tyres has some exposure to Russia which has risks. Metso is heavily exposed to the mining sector and their share price got crushed along with the share prices of mining companies at the start of 2016. Neste has strong dependency for government subsidies in biofuels. Orion is vulnerable to expiring drug patents. Nordea is undergoing a large upgrade of their tech/software infrastructure. And being the largest bank in Scandinavia has lots of regulatory risks as well. Tieto is the largest software company in Finland, but software is an area that is easily disrupted and Tieto is very dependent on government/municipality contracts. Overall I would stay these are very good companies to own, but one should be aware of some company-specific risks.

Grade C (collateral value 75%)

Companies that belong to the third group are, according to my stock broker, slightly more risky than the first two groups. If I try to look for a common thread among these names, I think their competitive advantage is weaker than any companies in the first two groups which means they are more susceptible to disruption by competitors. They seem to lack a “moat” as Warren Buffett calls it. I don’t personally own any companies from this group. Going back to my investment philosophy, I said I wanted to own the highest quality companies, and those are found in the first two groups.


I found this method of ranking stocks particularly interesting because I had already formed some opinion about the quality of different companies through research and other methods, and I found there was a very strong correlation with how my stock broker ranked these companies. This strong correlation definitely surprised me. Of course, one should not buy stocks based on this list alone, but it does serve as an interesting data point to consider.

But lets say, for the sake of argument, that one would construct a portfolio using this list as a guide. A rough rule of thumb would be to own all the companies from group A, half of the companies from group B and maybe one or two from group C. This would result in a fairly safe and defensive portfolio, perfect for an investor who is interested in protecting the invested capital and not chasing quick profits.

Oh, you might be wondering where is Nokia? They did not make the list as my stock broker would rank them in group D that I did not include here. Apparently they see Nokia as a fairly high risk business. It is currently my only position that is not included in this post.