Is The Threat Of Air Strikes Against Iran Driving Oil ETF Option Prices Higher? (USO, OIL, DBO, XLE, XES)

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March 29, 2012 10:56pm NYSE:DBO NYSE:OIL

Jared Woodard:  Probably. First, some context. Here’s the one-month volatility risk premium in the U.S. Oil Fund (NYSEARCA:USO) options since 2007. 


Think of this as an estimate of how richly or cheaply priced options on crude oil are, relative to the actual historical volatility of the asset. Any ratio above 1.00 indicates that option buyers were willing to pay a premium above the value of the volatility subsequently exhibited by crude oil futures. As you can see, the ratio is usually greater than one. When oil prices dropped precipitously in 2008 and oil volatility exploded higher, option buyers made out quite well (the ratio dipped towards 0.75); otherwise, it has generally paid to be a net seller. Notice that the 50-period moving average of this ratio has been above 1.50 since December, which means that oil option premiums have been very rich compared to the volatility of the underlying.

Something is definitely keeping a permanent bid under options on crude – that’s not in doubt. The presumed cause is the threat of airstrikes against Iran. The chart below compares the value of the AIRSTRIKE.IRAN.DEC12 contract on Intrade against the relevant snippet of the USO 1M no-lag VRP.*

Since the start of 2012, it looks like there has been a reasonably tight relationship between the sentiment of crude options markets and that of Intrade participants. The run-up in USO VRP during late January and February coincides with an increase in the price of the airstrike contract. While the Intrade probability is still hovering at 40% at the time of writing, crude options have already begun to discount the likelihood of this event (or of whatever was causing such elevated premiums). Given the tiny volume in the Intrade contract – the largest daily volume was 87 – and the size of the USO options market – average daily volume is 88k contracts, and we can also include NYMEX WTI options as the IV of both products is in sync – we can assume that options markets are more efficient. The fact that the VRP was also high in November and December while the Intrade contract was not is curious, since there was some volume in the latter at that time.

Lots of things influence the prices of options on oil – there are all the standard supply and demand factors, plus other special items like whether the government will tap the SPR. And I’m as wary as anyone about drawing conclusions based on inactive Intrade contracts. But the correlation so far this year is interesting.

* There’s an important difference in the volatility estimates of the two charts. The top chart shows an estimate of the premium paid at time t1 for an option expiring at t30 over the annualized volatility that occurred in the underlying during t1t30. As such, it’s a fairly accurate estimate of whether a given option is richly priced or not. The bottom “no lag” version shows the ratio of implied volatility at t1 to the historical volatility that occurred over the previous month, i.e. t-30t1. This “live” version of the VRP is meaningful because it shows the amount of premium option buyers are willing to pay today without the benefit of foresight.

Related: iPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Total Return ETF (NYSEARCA:OIL), PowerShares DB Oil Fund (NYSEARCA:DBO), SPDR Oil & Gas Equipment & Services Fund (NYSEARCA:XES), Energy Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLE).

Disclosure: we have positions open in USO and CL futures options in the paid newsletter and in managed accounts.

Written By Jared Woodard From Condor Options

Condor Options is a New York-based research and trading firm focusing on market neutral trading strategies. Condor Options publishes an educational newsletter teaching iron condors and volatility-based options trading, with a focus on risk management and quantitative analysis.

Jared Woodard is the principal of Condor Options. With over a decade of experience trading options, equities, and futures, he publishes the Condor Options newsletter (iron condors) and associated blog. Jared has been quoted in various media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Financial Times Alphaville, and The Chicago Sun-Times. In 2008 he was profiled as a top options mentor in Stocks, Futures, and Options magazine, and in 2010 was interviewed for Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities magazine. He is a founder and contributing editor of Expiring Monthly: The Option Trader’s Journal. He is also an associate member of the National Futures Association and registered principal of Clinamen Financial Group LLC, a commodity trading advisor.


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