Hedging Update – Stocks

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In order to cover more stocks and ETFs this week, I thought I'd break up the hedging update into two posts — one primarily for stocks, and one for ETFs. The table below shows the costs, as of Tuesday's close, of hedging 10 widely-traded NYSE stocks and 9 of the 10 most widely-traded Nasdaq names against greater-than-20% declines over the next several months, using optimal puts.


For comparison purposes, I've also added the costs of hedging the SPDR S&P 500 Trust ETF (SPY) and the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (DIA) against the similar declines. The Nasdaq 100-tracking ETF PowerShares QQQ Trust ETF (QQQ) is also included, as it was on Nasdaq's most active list as of Tuesday. First, a reminder about what optimal puts mean in this context, and why I've used 20% as a decline threshold, plus a note on why there were no optimal puts available for one of the Nasdaq stocks.

Optimal Puts

Optimal puts are the ones that will give you the level of protection you want at the lowest possible cost. As University of Maine finance professor Dr. Robert Strong, CFA has noted, picking the most economical puts can be a complicated task. With Portfolio Armor (available on the web, and as an Apple iOS app), you just enter the symbol of the stock or ETF you're looking to hedge, the number of shares you own, and the maximum decline you're willing to risk (your threshold). Then the app uses an algorithm developed by a finance Ph.D to sort through and analyze all of the available puts for your position, scanning for the optimal ones.

Decline Thresholds

You can enter any percentage you like for a threshold when using Portfolio Armor (the higher the percentage though, the greater the chance you will find optimal puts for your position). The idea for a 20% threshold comes, as I've mentioned before, from a comment fund manager John Hussman made in a market commentary in October 2008:

An intolerable loss, in my view, is one that requires a heroic recovery simply to break even … a short-term loss of 20%, particularly after the market has become severely depressed, should not be at all intolerable to long-term investors because such losses are generally reversed in the first few months of an advance (or even a powerful bear market rally). 

Essentially, 20% is a large enough threshold that it reduces the cost of hedging but not so large that it precludes a recovery. When hedging, cost is always a concern, which is where optimal puts come in.

How Costs Are Calculated

To be conservative, Portfolio Armor calculated the costs below based on the ask prices of the optimal put options. In practice, though, an investor may be able to buy some of these put options for less (i.e., at a price between the bid and the ask).

Why There Were No Optimal Puts for LVLT

In some cases, the cost of protection may be greater than the loss you are looking to hedge against. That was the case with Level 3 Communications (LVLT). As of Tuesday, the cost of protecting against greater-than-20% declines in that stock over the next several months was itself greater than 20%. Because of that, Portfolio Armor indicated that no optimal contracts were found for it.

Hedging Costs as of Tuesday's Close



Cost of Protection (as % of position value)

  Nasdaq Stocks  
(CSCO) Cisco Systems 5.84%**
(LVLT) Level 3 Communications No optimal puts at this threshold
(MSFT) Microsoft 2.35%**
(INTC) Intel Corporation 3.71%**
(MU) Micron Technologies Inc. 19.3%**
(QQQ) PowerShares QQQ Trust ETF 1.64%*
(ORCL) Oracle 3.02%*
(DELL) Dell, Inc. 4.72%**
(CMCSA) Comcast Corporation 3.34%**
(YHOO) Yahoo! Inc. 7.24%**
(FITB) Fifth Third Bancorp 5.93%**
  NYSE Stocks  
(BAC) Bank of America Corporation 6.94%**
(F) Ford Motor Co. 4.69%*
(S) Sprint Nextel Corp. 9.76%**
(C) Citigroup, Inc. 3.33%*
(PFE) Pfizer, Inc. 1.90%*
(GE) General Electric Co. (GE) 3.01%*
(WFC) Wells Fargo & Company 5.48%**
(NOK) Nokia Corporation 10.70%*
(RF) Regions Financial 12.46%**
(JPM) JPMorgan Chase & Co. 2.69%*


SPDR S&P 500


(DIA) SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Avg. 1.09%*

*Based on optimal puts expiring in December, 2011.

**Based on optimal puts expiring in January, 2012.