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Diagonal Spread with Calls

NOTE: This graph assumes the strategy was established for a net debit. Also, notice the profit and loss lines are not straight. That’s because the back-month call is still open when the front-month call expires. Straight lines and hard angles usually indicate that all options in the strategy have the same expiration date.

The Setup

  • Sell an out-of-the-money call, strike price A (approx. 30 days from expiration – “front-month”)
  • Buy a further out-of-the-money call, strike price B (approx. 60 days from expiration – “back-month”)
  • At expiration of the front-month call, sell another call with strike A and the same expiration as the back-month call
  • Generally, the stock will be below strike A

Who Should Run It

Veterans and higher

NOTE: The level of knowledge required for this trade is considerable, because you’re dealing with options that expire on different dates.

When to Run It

You’re expecting neutral activity during the front month, then neutral to bearish activity during the back month.

The Sweet Spot

For step one, you want the stock price to stay at or around strike A until expiration of the front-month option. For step two, you’ll want the stock price to be below strike A when the back-month option expires.

About the Security

Options are contracts which control underlying assets, oftentimes stock. It is possible to buy (own or long) or sell (“write” or short) an option to initiate a position. Options are traded through a broker, like TradeKing, who charges a commission when buying or selling option contracts.

Options: The Basics is a great place to start when learning about options. Before trading options carefully consider your objectives, the risks, transaction costs and fees.

The Strategy

You can think of this as a two-step strategy. It’s a cross between a long calendar call spread and a short call spread. It starts out as a time decay play. Then once you sell a second call with strike A (after front-month expiration), you have legged into a short call spread. Ideally, you will be able to establish this strategy for a net credit or for a small net debit. Then, the sale of the second call will be all gravy.

For this strategy, we're using the example of one-month diagonal spreads. But please note, it is possible to use different time intervals. If you’re going to use more than a one-month interval between the front-month and back-month options, you need to understand the ins and outs of rolling an option position.

Maximum Potential Profit

Potential profit is limited to the net credit received for selling both calls with strike A, minus the premium paid for the call with strike B.

NOTE: You can’t precisely calculate potential profit at initiation, because it depends on the premium received for the sale of the second call at a later date.

Maximum Potential Loss

If established for a net credit, risk is limited to the difference between strike A and strike B, minus the net credit received.

If established for a net debit, risk is limited to the difference between strike A and strike B, plus the net debit paid.

NOTE: You can’t precisely calculate your risk at initiation, because it depends on the premium received for the sale of the second call at a later date.

Break-even at Expiration

It is possible to approximate break-even points, but there are too many variables to give an exact formula.

Because there are two expiration dates for the options in a diagonal spread, a pricing model must be used to “guesstimate” what the value of the back-month call will be when the front-month call expires. TradeKing’s Profit + Loss Calculator can help you in this regard. But keep in mind, the Profit + Loss Calculator assumes that all other variables, such as implied volatility, interest rates, etc., remain constant over the life of the trade — and they may not behave that way in reality.

TradeKing Margin Requirements

Margin requirement is the difference between the strike prices (if the position is closed at expiration of the front-month option).

NOTE: If established for a net credit, the proceeds may be applied to the initial margin requirement.

Keep in mind this requirement is on a per-unit basis. So don’t forget to multiply by the total number of units when you’re doing the math.

As Time Goes By

For this strategy, before front-month expiration, time decay is your friend, since the shorter-term call will lose time value faster than the longer-term call. After closing the front-month call with strike A and selling another call with strike A that has the same expiration as the back-month call with strike B, time decay is somewhat neutral. That’s because you’ll see erosion in the value of both the option you sold (good) and the option you bought (bad).

Implied Volatility

After the strategy is established, although you want neutral movement on the stock if it’s at or below strike A, you’re better off if implied volatility increases close to front-month expiration. That way, you will receive a higher premium for selling another call at strike A.

After front-month expiration, you have legged into a short call spread. So the effect of implied volatility depends on where the stock is relative to your strike prices.

If your forecast was correct and the stock price is approaching or below strike A, you want implied volatility to decrease. That’s because it will decrease the value of both options, and ideally you want them to expire worthless.

If your forecast was incorrect and the stock price is approaching or above strike B, you want implied volatility to increase for two reasons. First, it will increase the value of the near-the-money option you bought faster than the in-the-money option you sold, thereby decreasing the overall value of the spread. Second, it reflects an increased probability of a price swing (which will hopefully be to the downside).

Options Guy's Tips

  • Ideally, you want some initial volatility with some predictability. Some volatility is good, because the plan is to sell two options, and you want to get as much as possible for them. On the other hand, we want the stock price to remain relatively stable. That’s a bit of a paradox, and that’s why this strategy is for more advanced traders.
  • To run this strategy, you need to know how to manage the risk of early assignment on your short options.


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