A Guide to Box Spreads: What They Are and How They Work

By Paulina Likos · January 31, 2022 · 4 minute read

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A Guide to Box Spreads: What They Are and How They Work

A box spread, or long box, is an options strategy in which a trader buys a call and sells a put, which yields a similar trade profile of a long stock trade position. Depending on which strike prices the trader chooses, the spread will come close to the current market value of the stock.

The arbitrage strategy involves a combination of buying a stock at one strike price and selling stock on another strike price. These trade quotes, when connected form a box and make the difference between the two strike prices.

What Is a Box Spread in Options Trading?

A box spread is an arbitrage options trading strategy used by traders attempting to profit by taking little to no risk. To do this, they’re using both long and short strategies.

This options trade involves a four-legged spread, buying a bull call spread with the corresponding bear put spread with both vertical spreads having the same strike prices and expiration dates. The box spread trading strategy is a delta neutral strategy because the trader is neither bearish or bullish, rather the goal of the trade is to lock in a profit.

Recommended: Popular Options Trading Terminology to Know

Traders using box trades are mostly professional traders such as market makers or institutional traders. Box spreads are not the best trading strategy for retail traders because they don’t yield high profits and transaction costs can impact potential returns. Large investment firms have the tools and resources to execute on box spread trades quickly and efficiently.

How Do Box Spreads Work?

To form a box spread, traders start out by buying a bull call spread and a bear put spread. These two options positions have the same strike prices and expiration dates. These trades must take place at the same time to execute a profit effectively.

The bear spread starts out with the trader taking a fixed profit, then after a period of time, the trader loses money then, the trader has a fixed loss. A bull spread is the opposite. Initially the trader incurs a fixed loss, then after a period time, the trader takes a fixed profit.

By taking both of these vertical spread positions, traders can lock in a profit that could potentially be risk free. In both corresponding positions there is either a fixed loss or fixed profit. This is why many traders see box spreads as a low risk trading option.

The bear spread bets that the stock price will decline while the bull spread bets that the stock price will increase. By combining both positions, the profit and loss offset one another, leaving the trader with a small profit, known as the box spread.

Recommended: Guide to Options Spreads: Definition & Types

How to Use the Box Spread Strategy

Traders make money on a box spread based on the difference between the two strike prices. When executed correctly, this is worth the difference in strike prices at expiration. This means, if a trader purchases a $100/$110 vertical spread, that trade would be worth ten dollars at expiration, no more, no less.

This is a guaranteed profit regardless of market volatility or whether the stock price increases or decreases. Traders execute on box spreads when an options contract is mispriced, or more specifically when spreads are underpriced.

If traders believe the outlook of the stock market will change in the future, they may take advantage of a scenario where put options are less expensive than call options, a perfect set up for box spreads.

When the trader believes the spreads are overpriced in relation to their value at expiration, the trader would employ a short box spread, selling a bull call spread with its corresponding bear put spread with the same prices and expiration dates. If the trade yields an amount higher than the combined expiration value of the spreads for selling these two spreads, that’s the trader’s profit.

Box Spread Risks

Many sophisticated investors think of box spread options trading as a risk-free trading strategy but in reality there is no such thing as a risk-less trade. When asset prices are misplaced, this is the ideal time to execute on a box spread. However, the market moves fast and prices can change quickly, so these trades can be difficult to fill and hard to identify in the first place.

Profits from box spreads tend to be small. Traders also need to consider expenses associated with these trades like brokerage fees, taxes, and transaction costs, which could eat at overall returns. This is why box spreads typically make the most sense for institutional traders who are able to do a high volume of trades and manage other expenses.

Another risk for traders to consider is early exercise. This is when a trader decides to exercise an option before expiration. If traders are in a box spread and exercise one of their positions early, they are no longer in a box spread and their risk/reward profile has changed. When employing a box spread trading strategy, early exercise could impact the initial desired outcome.

Box Spread Example

To execute on a box spread, traders buy the call spread at the lower strike price and the put spread at the higher strike price. By making these positions traders are “buying the box.” A lower strike call and a higher strike put have to be worth more to secure a profit.

For example, a trader takes two strike prices $95 and $100 and buys a long $95 call and sells the short $100 call, this is a long $95/$100 vertical spread. To form the box spread, the trader would have to buy the $95/$100 put spread. This means buying the $100 put and selling the $95 put.

These trading positions are synthetic, meaning, the trader copies a position to mimic another position so they have the same risk and reward profile.

For this example, at the $95 strike price, the trader is synthetically long and for the $100 strike, the trader is synthetically short. In other words, the trader in these positions is buying shares at $95 and selling them at $100 and the most the trader can make is $5 at expiration.

Start Trading Stocks with SoFi

The best time to use a box spread is when a trader believes the underlying spreads are underpriced relative to their value at expiration. While considered a low-risk, low-reward trading strategy, box trades may not be the best trading strategy for the retail investor. Still, understanding box spreads can be beneficial to understand the relationship between how different options can work together.

For market participants who want to start trading or investing, a SoFi Invest® brokerage account is a great way to get started. The platform doesn’t allow options trading yet, but it does let you build a portfolio of stocks, exchange traded funds, and other types of investments.

Photo credit: iStock/MicroStockHub


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