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9 Weeks to Better Options Trading: Special Situations: Earnings Reports, Takeovers, and Extreme Market Moves

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Veteran options trader Steve Smith breaks down special situations.

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Editor's note: To help investors profitably navigate the options market, Minyanville has launched "9 Weeks to Better Options Trading," an educational series aimed at increasing trader understanding of the nuts and bolts of options, with an emphasis on real-world applications. In this series, veteran options trader Steve Smith will demystify a range of topics from options pricing to trading strategies to special situations like earnings reports and takeovers. Read the kick-off to the series here.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL It may be the ninth inning in the Nine Weeks to Better Options Trading series, but the game is far from over. Over the past eight weeks, I've addressed not only introductory-type concepts like option pricing and behavior and risk management, but also some key basic and not-so-basic options trading strategies.

Unlike many option primers, which tend to start their focus on the innards of options math, my approach is to provide instruction on how they work in the real world. The analogy would be that we don't need to know how to build an engine in order to drive. But to travel safely and efficiently, it certainly helps to have instruction in how the vehicle operates under different conditions. Hopefully, we now have a basic operating manual that will not only get us from point A to point B, but also teaches us what do when presented with adverse or unexpected conditions.

In today's piece, we're going to look at what are generally called "special situations," or events, both known and unknown, that can have a large impact on a stock's price, and how we can use options to predict and ultimately profit from the outcome. I want to look at three areas -- mergers and acquisitions, earnings reports, and extreme moves. The first two categories would fall under predictive plays -- that is, you take action before an expected event. The third would be considered reactive in that you respond after the fact.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Mergers, both real and rumored, may be coming back in vogue, providing not only a catalyst for stock-price movement, but for an increase in option activity. While overall M&A volume is near three-year lows, there are signs that with healthy balance sheets, low interest rates, and a slowly returning sense of confidence, we might expect a dramatic pickup in activity in the second half of the year

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, as of the beginning of 2012, US corporate balance sheets had over $1.4 trillion in free cash, while private equity firms held in excess of $1 trillion in uncommitted capital. Last year, we saw a string of strategic corporate mergers, especially in technology, as firms like Intel (INTC), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Amazon (AMZN) gobbled up young companies for huge premiums, handing out big profits for those that found themselves sitting on out-of-the-money calls. These land grabs are hard to predict and, Facebook-for-Instagram notwithstanding and unplayable anyway, they have somewhat subsided of late.

Instead, we are seeing more synergistic acquisitions, like Roche's (RHHBY) play for Ilumina (ILMN), Energy Transfer Partners' (ETP) recent bid for Sunoco (SUN), and Coty's offer for Avon (AVP). In deals like these, companies look to mix and match parts to fill in product lines and/or boost top-line revenue as organic growth stalls.

While these types of transactions may continue, I think the best money-making opportunities overall will come in the reemergence of private equity and activist investor hedge funds making deals to take companies private. A great example of this was the recent purchase of PF Chang (PFCB) by Centerbridge Partners for $1.1 billion, or a 30% premium to the prior day's close.

I think mature retailers, with their relatively modest capital expenditure requirements and good cash flow will be prime sector targets for takeovers. Two names I think are ripe are Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) and Urban Outfitters (URBN). Both have recognizable and respectable brands, but have stumbled and are ready to be turned around by skilled managers.

Identifying What's in Play

Trying to predict a takeover is extraordinarily difficult. However, options activity can give an inside read that something is actually in play. Things to look for include:

  • An increase in both stock and option volume, accompanied by an increase in implied volatility.
  • Option volume that exceeds prior open interest, which suggests strong new buying.
  • A shift in skew with front-month options carrying a higher implied volatility than longer-dated options. Typically, longer-dated options carry a higher implied volatility than the near-term options. This is because the longer the time period, the greater the probability of a big price move. But if anticipation of a takeover builds, traders will bid up the price of a front-month option on expectations of a near-term move.

With this in mind, one strategy that might make sense is to short diagonal calendar spreads. This means that we buy a near-term closer-to-the-money call, and sell a longer-term option further out-of-the-money call. If a deal is announced, both options will move toward their intrinsic value based on the takeover price because most of the time premium will disappear. As well, the value of the longer-term option you've sold short will decline relative to the value of the one you're long.

For example; in Abercrombie & Fitch, with shares trading around $52.50 one can:

  • buy the August $55 call for $4.20 a contract
  • bell the January $60 call for $5 a contract

This is an $0.80 credit ($5 - $4.20). Assuming Abercrombie is bought prior to August expiration for any price above $60, the position will be worth $5. That is the spread between the long $55 call and the short Jan. $60 call. Plus, you keep the $0.80 credit you collected, giving a profit of $5.80.

However, this strategy comes with very important caveats to which you absolutely must pay close attention.

This strategy is time-sensitive. If a deal isn't announced or agreed to prior to the expiration of the front month of the option, the short January call position will become exposed to the upside. Therefore, I would suggest structuring the calendar spread in which the long calls have at least two months remaining until expiration, and exiting the position with at least two weeks to go until those calls expire. If the deal fails to materialize before those front month options expire, you will find yourself naked short the longed dated calls you sold, exposing yourself to unlimited losses -- the type of losses that can take you out of the trading game altogether.

Also, be aware that while the above strategy offers very attractive potential returns, they are capped by the width between the strike prices, meaning if a big takeover premium is offered, some money would be left on the table.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

The information on this website solely reflects the analysis of or opinion about the performance of securities and financial markets by the writers whose articles appear on the site. The views expressed by the writers are not necessarily the views of Minyanville Media, Inc. or members of its management. Nothing contained on the website is intended to constitute a recommendation or advice addressed to an individual investor or category of investors to purchase, sell or hold any security, or to take any action with respect to the prospective movement of the securities markets or to solicit the purchase or sale of any security. Any investment decisions must be made by the reader either individually or in consultation with his or her investment professional. Minyanville writers and staff may trade or hold positions in securities that are discussed in articles appearing on the website. Writers of articles are required to disclose whether they have a position in any stock or fund discussed in an article, but are not permitted to disclose the size or direction of the position. Nothing on this website is intended to solicit business of any kind for a writer's business or fund. Minyanville management and staff as well as contributing writers will not respond to emails or other communications requesting investment advice.

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