Credit Spread vs Debit Spread

By Colin Dodds · March 08, 2022 · 6 minute read

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Credit Spread vs Debit Spread

An options spread involves buying and selling different options contracts for the same underlying asset, at the same time. In the world of vertical spreads, there are credit spreads and debit spreads. What is the difference between a credit vs. a debit spread, and how do investors use these strategies?

When an investor chooses a credit spread, or net credit spread, they simultaneously sell a higher premium option and buy a lower premium option, typically of the same security but at a different strike price. This results in a credit to their account.

A debit spread is the inverse: The investor purchases a higher premium option while simultaneously selling a lower premium option of the same security, resulting in a net payment or debit from their account.

Keep reading to learn more about the differences between credit spreads and debit spreads, and how volatility may impact each.

Why Use a Spread Strategy When Trading Options?

Options contracts give their holder the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset, often a security like a stock. Having different strategies to trade options gives investors exposure to price movement in an underlying asset, allowing them to take a bullish or bearish position without having to own the security itself. Beyond the market price of the underlying, a number of factors — including the level of volatility, time to expiration, and market interest rates — impact the value of the options contract.

With so many factors to consider, investors have developed a host of strategies for how to trade options. A vertical spread comes in two flavors — a credit or a debit spread — which can involve buying (or selling) a call (or put), and simultaneously selling (or buying) another call (or put) at a different strike price, but with the same expiration. Let’s look at these two strategies for trading options.

How a Credit Spread Works

In a credit spread, the investor sells a high-premium option and buys a low-premium option of the same security. Those trades result in a credit to the trader’s account, because the option they sell is worth more than the one they buy. In this scenario, the investor hopes that both options will be out-of-the-money on the expiration date and expire worthless, allowing the investor to keep the original net premium collected.

How a Debit Spread Works

In a debit spread, the investor buys a high-premium option and sells a low-premium option of the same security. Those trades result in a debit from the trader’s account. But they make the trade in the expectation that the price movement during the life of the options contract will result in a profit. The best case scenario is that both options are in-the-money on the day of expiration, allowing the investor to close out both contracts for their maximum potential gain.

Credit Spreads

To help with understanding how credit spreads works: An investor simultaneously buys and sells options on the same underlying security with the same expiration, but at different strike prices. The premium that the investor receives on the option they sell is higher than the premium they pay on the option they buy, which leads to a net return or credit for the investor.

One important note is that credit spreads require traders to use margin loans, because if both options are in-the-money at expiration, their short leg will be more valuable than their long leg. So before a trader can engage in a credit spread, they’ll need to make sure their brokerage account is appropriately set up.

The strategy takes two forms. The first credit spread strategy is the bull put credit spread, in which the investor buys a put option at one strike price and sells a put option at a higher strike price. Put options tend to increase in value as the underlying asset price goes down, and they decrease in value as the underlying price goes up.

Thus, this is a bullish strategy, because the investor hopes for a price increase in the underlying such that both options expire worthless. If the price of the underlying asset is above the higher strike price put on expiration day, the investor achieves the maximum potential profit. On the flip side, if the underlying security falls below the long-put strike price, then the investor would suffer the maximum potential loss on the strategy.

Another factor that can work in favor of the investor in credit spread is time decay. This is the phenomenon whereby options tend to lose value as they approach their expiration date. Holding the price of the underlying asset constant, the difference in value between the two options in a credit spread will naturally evaporate, meaning that the investor can either close out both contracts for a gain or let them expire worthless.

The other credit-spread trading strategy is called the bear call credit spread, or a bear call spread. In a way, it’s the opposite of the bull put spread. The investor buys a call option at one strike price and sells a call option at a lower strike price, hoping for a decrease in the price of the underlying asset.

A bull put spread can be profitable if the price of the security remains under a certain level throughout the duration of the options contracts. If the security is below the lower call’s strike price at expiration, then the spread seller gets to keep the entire premium on the options they sell in the strategy. But there’s a risk, too. If the price of the security underlying the options rises above the long-call strike price at the expiration of the strategy, then the investor will face the maximum loss.

Debit Spreads

A debit spread is the inverse of a credit spread. Like a credit spread, a debit spread involves buying two sets of options, in equal amounts, of the same underlying security with the same expiration date. But in a debit spread, the investor buys one set of options with a higher premium, while selling a set of options with a lower premium.

While the credit spread strategy results in a net credit to the trader’s account when they make the trade, a debit spread strategy results in an immediate net debit in their account, hence the name. The debit occurs because the premium paid on the options the investor purchases is higher than the premium the investor receives for the options they buy.

Investors typically use debit spread strategies as a way to offset the cost of buying an expensive option outright. They may choose a debit spread over purchasing a lone option if they expect moderate price movement in the underlying asset.

Like credit spreads, debit spreads come in bullish and bearish varieties. A bull-debit spread can be constructed using call options, where the investor purchases a call option at a lower strike price and sells a call option at a higher strike price. The maximum potential gain is equal to the difference in strike prices minus the net premium paid up front, and is achieved if the underlying asset goes above the higher strike price call on expiration day. Similarly, one can construct a bear-debit spread using put options.

With debit spread strategies, the investor faces an initial outlay on their trade, which also represents their maximum potential loss. Unlike with credit spreads, time decay is typically working against the investor in a debit spread, since they are hoping for both options to expire in-the-money so that they can close out both contracts and pocket the difference.

Pros and Cons of Credit and Debit Spreads, Depending on Volatility

When comparing a credit spread vs. debit spread, here are a few key details to keep in mind.

Credit Spreads

Debit Spreads

Investor receives a net premium when the trade is initiated. Investor pays a net premium when the trade is initiated.
Maximum potential loss may be greater than the initial premium collected upfront. Maximum potential loss is limited to the net premium paid.
Requires the use of margin. Does not require the use of margin.
Time decay works in favor of the investor. Time decay is working against the investor.

The Takeaway

Of the many options strategies that investors employ, one popular type is an options spread: either a credit spread or a debit spread. The spread in these strategies refers to a practice of buying and selling of different options with the same underlying security and expiration date, but with different strike prices.

Key to the strategy is the fact that spreads create upper and lower bounds on potential gains and losses. It’s at the discretion of the investor to choose the strike prices of the options they buy and sell when creating the spread. This gives the investor a degree of flexibility with respect to how much risk they take on.

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Photo credit: iStock/Pekic

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