Pros and Cons of a Covered Call ETF—and When to Buy

By Brian Nibley · March 05, 2021 · 6 minute read

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Pros and Cons of a Covered Call ETF—and When to Buy

A covered call ETF is an exchange-traded fund that provides investors with additional income by writing options on the securities the ETF holds. These actively managed ETFs offer investors the benefits of writing call options on stocks, without them having to participate in the options market directly.

The upside is that investors take on less risk and potentially earn income in the form of options contract premiums on top of dividends. The downside is that potential upside profits will be capped because the call options will have to be exercised once the underlying security reaches a certain strike price (one of many options trading terms to know), at which point the shares will be called away from the shareholder.

Basics of the Covered Call Strategy

Covered calls involve buying shares of a stock and then writing call options contracts on some of those shares. A covered call could also be referred to as “call writing” or “writing a call option” on a security.

Other investors can then purchase the call option contract. They pay a small fee to the call writer, known as a premium, for doing so. The contract gives a buyer of the option the right, but not the obligation, to buy shares at a specific price on or before a specified date.

In the case of call options, when the share price of the underlying security rises above the strike price, an option holder can choose to exercise the option, at which point the stock will be called away from the person who wrote the call option.

The option holder then receives shares at a cost lower than current market value. Their profits will equal the difference between the option strike price and where the stock is currently trading minus the premium paid. The higher the stock price rises before the expiry date, the greater the profit for the person holding the call option.

Because the call option writer receives income on the deal in the form of a premium, they want the stock price to either stay flat, fall, or rise only slightly. If the stock rises beyond the strike price of the option, then they’ll receive the premium, but their shares will be called away. The option writer will have a gain or loss depending on the difference of the exercise price and the purchase price of the stock and the premium received.

On the other hand, if the stock doesn’t reach the strike price of the option, then the writer keeps both the premium and the shares. They’re then free to repeat the process as many times as they wish.

What Is a Covered Call ETF?

A covered call ETF is an actively-managed exchange-traded fund (ETF) that buys a set of stocks and writes call options on them—engaging in the call-writing process as much as possible in order to maximize returns for investors.

By investing in a covered call ETF, investors have the opportunity to benefit from covered calls without directly participating in the options market on their own. The fund takes care of the covered calls for them.

The ETF covered call strategy usually involves writing short-term (under two-month expiry) calls that are out-of-the-money (OTM), meaning the security’s price is below a call option’s strike price. Using shorter-term options allows investors to take advantage of rapid time decay.

Options like these also serve to create a balance between earning high amounts of premium payments while increasing the odds that the contracts will expire OTM (which, for covered call writers, is a positive outcome).

Writing options OTM serves to make sure that investors can benefit from some amount of the upward price potential of the underlying securities.

When to Buy a Covered Call ETF

A good time to buy a covered call ETF might be when most of the securities held by the ETF are expected to trade sideways or go down slightly for some time. Beyond that, any time is a good time for investors who find the strategy appealing, want to take the chance of gaining extra income for their portfolios, and don’t mind missing out on outsized gains if the market rips higher.

Covered call ETFs might also be attractive to people nearing retirement, people who are generally more risk-averse, or anyone looking to add some additional income to their portfolio without having to learn how to write and trade options.

If an investor were considering ETFs vs index funds, they might choose an ETF for the reason that the fund might employ creative strategies like covered calls, whereas index funds merely try to track an index.

When Not to Buy a Covered Call ETF

The one time not to buy a covered call ETF might be when stocks are generally rising and making new record highs on a regular basis. This is a scenario where covered call ETFs would underperform the rest of the market.

If the underlying securities rise only slightly, and do not exceed the strike prices set for the covered calls, then these ETFs should also perform well. It’s only when stocks rise to the point that the shares get called away from the fund that the fund will almost certainly underperform compared to holding shares directly.

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Pros and Cons of a Covered Call ETF

The main benefits that come from taking advantage of an ETF covered call strategy are:

•  Reduced risk
•  Increased income

Pros of a Covered Call ETF

Overall, a covered call ETF has largely the same risk profile as holding the underlying securities would. But some investors see these ETFs as less risky than holding individual stocks because the ETF should, in theory, do as well or slightly better than the market in most situations. (The one exception would be during extended, strong bull markets.)

But while covered call ETFs reduce the risk associated with owning a lot of shares while also providing additional income, hedging against downside risk would best be accomplished by using put options.

Cons of a Covered Call ETF

Covered call ETFs are actively managed, which means they tend to have higher expense ratios than passively managed ETFs that track an index. But the extra income can potentially offset that cost.

The Takeaway

A covered call ETF is an actively managed exchange-traded fund that offers investors the benefits of writing call options on stocks, without them having to participate directly in the options market.

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