Theta: Different Levels of Reliability
Sep 18, 2018
One of the most successful traders I've come across in my career was one that completely embraced the "positive theta" (i.e. collecting theta) philosophy. You might even say he was obsessed with it.
In options trading, if the overall portfolio level theta is positive, it is often described as “collecting.” This means the overall contribution of short premium positions offering positive theta outpaces those that might be “paying theta.”
Due to time decay, or the theoretical decline in an option’s value as expiration approaches, a “collecting” portfolio theoretically should book that expected positive theta on a daily basis.
Theoretical is a keyword because options can obviously increase in value at times too, through an increase in volatility or a significant move in the underlying stock (or both), which can neutralize the effect of positive theta.
A big reason that traders often utilize short premium strategies is that empirical research on historical data has clearly demonstrated that win rates for short premium positions consistently outperform long premium positions, all else being equal. If you want to review that topic in greater detail, we recommend this previous installment of From Theory to Practice.
Traders looking to learn more about the dynamics of positive theta will find a recent episode of Trade Logic Unlocked to their liking. The focus of the show is "theta's reliability" - particularly focusing on research related to “collecting” positions.
As the hosts of Trade Logic Unlocked remind us, a big chunk of our P/L on a daily basis theoretically comes from positive theta, especially during the first half of elapsed time on route to expiration. The chart below shows how the contribution of positive theta (as a percentage of total P/L) declines as time passes:
The above is a stark reminder of the risk-reward balance that is so integral to a successful options trading endeavor. While it may seem attractive to leverage the high win rates associated with short premium/positive theta positions, one also must keep in mind that the risks increase as we march closer to expiration. This give and take is outlined in the slide below:
As shown above, after half of the days-to-expiration have elapsed, the dynamics of positive theta position shift. As expiration gets closer, theta per day increases, but so does the positions sensitivity to movement (which is described by increasing delta and gamma). In this sense, positive theta can be viewed as “more reliable” earlier in the cycle and less reliable later.
Depending on your risk profile and approach, the above information may help you to refine your trading philosophy to help ensure that the positions deployed in your portfolio closely match the exposure(s) you want at any given moment in time.
If you are looking to better understand how overall time to expiration can affect the performance of a position, new research by tastytrade on weekly options may also be of interest. On a new episode of Market Measures, a study is presented that compares the side-by-side historical performance of options with 7 days-to-expiration versus those with 45 days-to-expiration in SPY. This research will no doubt help solidify your understanding of the respective risks and rewards associated with each approach.
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Thanks for reading!
Sage Anderson has an extensive background trading equity derivatives and managing volatility-based portfolios. He has traded hundreds of thousands of contracts across the spectrum of industries in the single-stock universe.
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