Are you long or short an in-the-money call option on a stock that’s about to pay a dividend? Make sure you understand early exercise and options dividend risk.
American-style options can be exercised at any time before expiration
Addressing options dividend risk involves comparing the amount of a dividend against an options position’s extrinsic (time) value
People who trade options do so for a number of reasons: to target downside protection, to potentially enhance income from stocks they own, or to seek capital-efficient directional exposure, to name a few. But one common element shared by all option traders is exposure to risk.
Consider options dividend risk. If you trade options on stocks that pay cash dividends, you need to understand how dividends affect options prices, options exercise and assignment, and other factors in the life cycle of an option.
To make a long story short: Failure to understand dividend risk could derail your strategy and cost you money.
Dividends, stock splits, mergers, acquisitions, and spin-offs are examples of corporate actions—things done by a company that may require adjustments to the number of outstanding shares or the share price in order to keep the inherent value of each share consistent before and after the corporate action. Depending on the specifics of the corporate action, certain options contract terms and obligations, such as the strike price, multiplier, and the terms of the deliverable, could be altered.
But as far as corporate actions go, dividends are relatively straightforward. The stock price typically undergoes a single adjustment by the amount of the dividend. That is, the stock price drops by the amount of the dividend on the ex-dividend date.
So, for example, suppose a stock trading for $50 per share declares a $0.50 dividend. After the ex-dividend date (all else equal), it becomes a $49.50 stock (plus the $0.50 dividend) to the owner of each share as of the “record date.” That’s the cutoff day, set by the company, for receipt of a dividend. And that’s it—no changes are made to the listed options strike prices or contract terms.
From a shareholder standpoint, it’s essentially an even swap—$50 in stock versus $49.50 in stock plus $0.50 in cash—but call and put options prices must account for the decline in the stock value and adjust accordingly.
It’s important to note, though, that this adjustment to options prices isn’t a sudden, unexpected change right after the ex-dividend date. Option traders anticipate dividends in the weeks and months leading up to the ex-dividend date, so options prices adjust ahead of time.
Put options generally become more expensive because the price drops by the amount of the dividend (all else being equal). Call options become cheaper because of the anticipated drop in the price of the stock leading up to the ex-dividend date.
In general, options equilibrium prices ahead of a dividend payment reflect expected values after the dividend, but that assumes everyone who holds an in-the-money (ITM) option understands the dynamics of early exercise and assignment and will exercise at the optimal time.
Let’s take a step back.
Theoretical options values are derived from options pricing model formulas, such as Black-Scholes or Bjerksund-Stensland. These formulas use variables like the underlying stock price, exercise price, time to expiration, interest rate, dividend yield, and volatility to calculate the fair value of an options contract.
Traditionally, long call options involving a cash dividend would be exercised only on the day before the stock’s ex-dividend date. That’s because if an investor buys the stock on or after the record date, the investor does not receive the dividend. So, an investor must own the stock before the ex-dividend date. Whoever owns the stock as of the ex-dividend date receives the cash dividend, so owners of call options might choose to exercise certain ITM options early to capture the cash dividend.
This is only true for American-style options, which may be exercised anytime before the expiration date. In contrast, European-style options can only be exercised on the expiration date.
Suppose XYZ is trading at $50, you’re long the 40-strike call option that expires in one week, and XYZ is expected to pay a $0.50 dividend tomorrow.
The call option is deep ITM and should have an intrinsic value of $10 (stock price minus strike price) and a delta of or near 100. (Remember the multiplier—one standard options contract is deliverable into 100 shares of the underlying stock). So the options contract has a similar price risk characteristic as 100 shares of stock.
Once the stock goes ex-dividend, the $50 becomes $49.50, and the owner of record gets the $0.50 dividend. With the stock at $49.50, the intrinsic value of the call option is reduced by that same $0.50. But of course, owning a call option doesn’t entitle the holder to the dividend.
In other words, the $0.50 loss from the lower stock price is offset by the $0.50 dividend, so the option trader might consider exercising the option (and becoming the owner of the stock) rather than holding it—not because of any additional profit per se, but because you avoid a $0.50 loss on the call if you were to hold it through the ex-dividend period. Of course, this doesn’t account for any contract fess or transaction costs, which could increase the loss amount.
So with a deep ITM option, it’s easy to see why early exercise might make sense. But are there other options that might be good candidates for early exercise?
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The answer lies in an options contract’s extrinsic value, also known as its “time value” or “time premium.” Remember, options prices are made up of two components: intrinsic value—the amount by which an option is ITM—and extrinsic value, or the value over and above its intrinsic value based on the amount of time until expiration and the stock’s implied volatility.
When you exercise a call, you’ll receive 100 shares of the underlying stock for each standard contract at the strike price. You’ll forgo any remaining extrinsic value in that call.
Let’s look at another example. Suppose the 45-strike call is trading for $5.10. With the stock at $50, that would mean $5 in intrinsic value and $0.10 of time value. In this case, exercising the call would cost $0.10 in forgone time premium but entitle you to the $0.50 dividend, so it may still be worth exercising early if contract fees and transaction costs are low.
So, really, any option that has an extrinsic value of less than the amount of the dividend might, more likely, be a candidate for early exercise.
Suppose you’re long the 48-strike call and it’s trading for $2.60 (with the stock still trading at $50). This would represent $2 in intrinsic value and $0.60 of time value. In this case, if you were to exercise the call, you’d stand to lose more in time value than you’d gain from the dividend if you were to exercise.
It’s important to pay attention to your long ITM call positions so you can consider strategically exercising calls before the ex-dividend date, but if you’re short ITM calls on a stock that’s about to go ex-dividend, you might want to pay closer attention.
According to put-call parity, a put and a call of the same strike and expiration date will have roughly the same amount of extrinsic value. So a simple way to see if you might be assigned on that short call is to look at the corresponding strike and price of the put.
Again, any option that has an extrinsic value of less than the amount of the dividend might be a candidate for early exercise. So if a trader is short an ITM call and the strike’s corresponding put is trading for less than the upcoming dividend, they’re more likely to be assigned.
In this situation, the trader might consider avoiding an early assignment ahead of a dividend by either buying back the call option or rolling it to another option, such as a higher call strike or a deferred expiration date.
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