Choosing Credit Spreads vs. Debit Spreads: Let Volatility Decide

Align your option vertical spread with the level and direction of implied volatility to position your trade for success.

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https://tickertapecdn.tdameritrade.com/assets/images/pages/md/Weighing options: credit vs. debit spreads
2 min read

Vertical spreads are among the first strategies that option traders learn because they’re relatively straightforward and have defined risk profiles. Vertical spreads come in two flavors: credit spreads and debit spreads. But many traders struggle to choose one over the other. All else being equal, picking the right spread sometimes boils down to the level and direction of implied volatility (IV). 

On the Level?

Start by identifying the level of implied volatility, which plays a crucial role in the pricing of options. When implied volatility is relatively high, options tend to be expensive, and savvy traders prefer to sell them to maximize their credit. When IV is relatively low, option prices tend to be cheap, and—you guessed it—savvy traders prefer to buy options designed to minimize their cost, excluding transaction costs. 

As a general rule, some traders consider buying a debit spread when IV is between the 0 to 33% percentile of its 52-week range. Likewise, you might consider selling a credit spread when IV is between the 67% to 100% percentile of its 52-week range (figure 1).

Implied volatility and percentile ranking

FIGURE 1: SWEET SPOT?

Side-by-side examples compare a current level of implied volatility (IV) and its percentile ranking for the last 52 weeks. For illustrative purposes only.  

Right Direction?

Now, let’s talk about the direction of implied volatility. Direction matters because options trades are exposed to changes in IV—also known by its option greek term vega—for the duration of the trade. 

Debit spreads are designed to almost always have a positive vega and benefit when IV rises over time. This ideally allows you to sell the spread for more than you paid for it. Credit spreads almost always have a negative vega, and benefit when IV falls over time. This makes sense because as IV falls, options become less expensive and are cheaper to buy back to close the trade.

As another general rule, some traders consider buying debit spreads when IV is low and rising. Likewise, they consider selling credit spreads when IV is high and falling (figure 2) 

Charting implied volatility

FIGURE 2: ON TREND? Charting tools can help with some of the heavy lifting, including tracking implied volatility over time. This is useful for gauging the direction of the trend and possible turning points. For illustrative purposes only.

It’s worth pointing out that there are countless ways to construct vertical spreads with various strike prices, time to expiration, and levels of IV. Much of the trade will depend on the timing and movement of the underlying asset.

But bottom line, all else being equal, it’s important to align the trade with the level and direction of implied volatility to give your trade the best chance of success.

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Investools, Inc. and TD Ameritrade, Inc., member FINRA/SIPC, are separate but affiliated companies that are not responsible for each other’s services or policies. Devin Ekberg is not a representative of TD Ameritrade, Inc.

Maximum potential reward for a debit spread is limited to the difference between strikes, less net premium paid. The maximum loss is the net premium paid and transaction costs.

Maximum potential reward for a credit spread is limited to the net premium received, less transaction costs. The maximum loss is the difference between strikes, less net premium received, plus transaction costs.

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Past performance of a security or strategy does not guarantee future results or success.

Options are not suitable for all investors as the special risks inherent to options trading may expose investors to potentially rapid and substantial losses. Options trading subject to TD Ameritrade review and approval. Please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options before investing in options.

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The information is not intended to be investment advice or construed as a recommendation or endorsement of any particular investment or investment strategy, and is for illustrative purposes only. Be sure to understand all risks involved with each strategy, including commission costs, before attempting to place any trade. Clients must consider all relevant risk factors, including their own personal financial situations, before trading.

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