What Is a Diagonal Spread and How Does It Work?

By Paulina Likos · July 21, 2023 · 7 minute read

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What Is a Diagonal Spread and How Does It Work?

A diagonal spread is an options trading strategy that involves taking a long and short position on the same stock with different strike prices and different expiration dates. It’s a combination of a vertical spread and calendar spread.

Using this strategy can allow the trader to get an early payday if the stock moves in a direction that’s in their favor. The way it works is the trader makes two options trades — either call options or put options simultaneously, with different strike prices and expiration takes.

Diagonal Spreads Defined

Diagonal spreads combine a two-step options trading strategy and are considered an advanced trading tactic. It’s a combination of a calendar spread and a short call or put spread. These positions have different expirations and different strikes which spread off diagonally, hence the name of the strategy.

A calendar spread is when a trader buys a contract with a longer expiration date while going short on an option with a near-term expiration date with the same strike price. But if two different strike prices are used, this is a diagonal spread.

A diagonal spread includes a calendar spread, also referred to as a horizontal spread or a time spread, combined with a vertical spread, because different strike prices are involved.

How Diagonal Spreads Work

A long put diagonal spread involves purchasing a put for some time in the future while selling a put in the short-term. Purchasing an option in the later term tends to be more expensive due to the embedded value of time. On the other hand, the trader sells the nearer term option to lower the cost of the other option. Traders usually use diagonal spreads when they have conviction on a stock’s movement while minimizing the effects of time.

A diagonal bull spread becomes a valuable trade when the price of the stock increases, while a diagonal bear spread increases in value when the stock price decreases.

Diagonal spreads require experience because traders have to account for volatility and have a good sense of timing.

Setting Up a Diagonal Spread

When traders are bullish on a stock, they generally use call options vs. using put options when they’re bearish on a stock.

The most common way to set up a diagonal spread is to buy a back month option that is in the money, which is a futures contract whose delivery dates are further into the future. Then, you sell a front month option with a strike price that is out of the money, which is a contract that has a near-term expiration date.

Setting up a diagonal spread in this manner would constitute a debit spread, though credit spread structures can also be used.

Maximum Loss

When a stock’s price rises, the maximum loss is equal to the premium paid when buying a call. If the stock falls, the maximum loss is the difference between the strike prices plus or minus the option premium paid or received.

Maximum Profit

It can be difficult to anticipate what the maximum gain may be since traders can’t know what the back-month option will be trading at when the front-month option expires as a result of shifting volatility expectations. In a long diagonal spread, the stock price must be near the short strike for a trade to go in the market participant’s favor.

The max profit potential for a short diagonal call spread is the net credit received minus commissions. If the strike price plummets below the short call, the value of the spread will be close to zero and the credit received is profit.

On the other hand, the max profit scenario of a short diagonal put spread is when the stock price soars above the strike price of the sold higher strike put option, as the value of the spread nears zero and the credit received is profit.

Breakeven Point

The breakeven point cannot be calculated, rather it can be estimated. The breakeven price at expiration for a long call is below the strike price of the short call. During expiration of a long call, the breakeven point is the stock price at which the price of the short call is the net credit received for the spread.

Traders are not able to predict what the breakeven stock price will be because it depends on market volatility, which can impact the price of the short call.

Diagonal Spread Examples

In one example, a trader is bullish on ABC stock, currently priced at $300. If the front month is January and the back month is February, the trader may want to purchase a $298 strike call with February expiry, which is in the money. Then the trader sells a $302 strike call with January expiry, which would be out of the money. This would give the trader a four-dollar wide diagonal spread.

In another scenario, a trader is bearish on XYZ stock at a current market price of $129. To set up a diagonal spread, the trader could buy a $132 February put, which would be several dollars in the money. Next, the trader could sell a $126 January put, which would be a few dollars out of the money. This trade would be a six-dollar wide diagonal spread.

Types of Diagonal Spreads

There are different types of diagonal spread strategies traders can use to get their desired outcome. Here are several diagonal spreads traders can try:

1. Long Call Diagonal Spreads

To execute on a long call diagonal spread, traders must buy an in the money call option with a longer term expiration date and then sell an out of the money call option with a nearer term expiration date. Traders can use this advanced options strategy if they are mildly bullish on a stock in the near term and very bullish in the longer term. An ideal set up for a long call diagonal spread is during times of low volatility as you do not want your trade to be disrupted by sharp price swings.

2. Long Put Diagonal Spreads

To execute on a long put diagonal spread, traders must buy an in the money put option with a longer term expiration date and then sell an out of the money put option with a nearer term expiration date that has an out the money strike. Traders typically use long put diagonal spreads to mimic a covered put position.

3. Short Call Diagonal Spreads

A short call diagonal spread is when traders sell a long-term call with a lower strike price and buy a shorter-term call with a higher strike price. A trader benefits from a short call option when the price of the underlying asset falls, thus making this a bearish strategy.

4. Short Put Diagonal Spreads

A short put diagonal spread involves selling a longer-term put with a higher strike price and buying a shorter-term put with a lower strike price. This is a bullish strategy, as the trader benefits if the underlying asset goes up in price, making both options expire worthless and netting the investor the net credit earned at the beginning of the trade.

5. Double Diagonal Spread

A double diagonal spread is when a trader buys a longer-term straddle and sells a shorter-term strangle, a trade that benefits from time decay and an increase in volatility. Traders setting up a double diagonal are long the middle strike calls and puts, which expire further in the future, and short out of the money call and put options with sooner expiries. The ideal outcome for double diagonals is to stay between the two OTM strike prices as they approach expiration.

Risks of Diagonal Spreads

The biggest risk traders have in diagonal spreads is overpaying for the diagonal spread. That said, the maximum risk is the debt a trader incurred to enter the position. If traders pay too much for their diagonal spreads they can remain unprofitable.

Market volatility can be used to the trader’s advantage when using diagonal spreads, although it can also pose a risk to such trades. Depending on the level of volatility, it can substantially change the price of the option and impact the trader’s profit potential. Diagonal spreads are an advanced trading strategy so traders who are experienced in dealing with volatility are best suited to incorporating diagonal spreads in their investment strategy.

The Takeaway

Setting up a diagonal spread correctly is an important part of the profit potential of the strategy, otherwise traders are at risk of losing money. This advanced options trading strategy requires traders to make both long and short trades, either with calls or puts, that have different expiration dates and strike prices. Traders should know these option trades are lined up diagonally from one another.

Qualified investors who are ready to try their hand at options trading, despite the risks involved, might consider checking out SoFi’s options trading platform. The platform’s user-friendly design allows investors to trade through the mobile app or web platform, and get important metrics like breakeven percentage, maximum profit/loss, and more with the click of a button.

Plus, SoFi offers educational resources — including a step-by-step in-app guide — to help you learn more about options trading. Trading options involves high-risk strategies, and should be undertaken by experienced investors.

With SoFi, user-friendly options trading is finally here.

Photo credit: iStock/percds

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