What Is an Iron Butterfly Option Strategy?

By Colin Dodds · August 15, 2023 · 5 minute read

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What Is an Iron Butterfly Option Strategy?

An iron butterfly spread is a type of options trade involving four separate options contracts. It’s a complicated and advanced options trade, meaning that many beginner investors will likely never use it — they may not have even heard of it.

Iron butterfly spreads can be used as a part of a larger options trading strategy, however, so long as investors understand the ins and outs of how it works, and most importantly, the risks involved.

What Is an Iron Butterfly?

An iron butterfly spread, sometimes called an “Iron Fly” or a “Butterfly Spread” is a trade involving four separate options contracts.

As a strategy that earns investors money when stocks or futures prices make moves within a defined range, it’s especially popular with traders who expect a decrease in implied volatility. To succeed with an iron butterfly spread, traders will try to forecast when option prices will likely decline, usually when the broader markets are in a holding pattern, or gradually moving upwards.

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How Does an Iron Butterfly Trade Work?

An Iron Butterfly is a four-legged options spread, since an investor buys four options contracts, two calls and two puts. The call options allow the investor to buy a stock at a given price, and the put options allow the investor to sell a stock at a given price.

In the trade, the calls and puts have three strike prices, but the same expiration date.

In a put or call option, the strike price is the price an investor can sell the underlying security when it is exercised. With a call option, the strike price is the price at which the investor can buy the security. With a put, the strike price is the value at which they can sell the security.

The three strike prices consist of one in the middle, called the options straddle, and two other strike prices, called the strangle, positioned above and below that price. As a trade, the Iron Butterfly has the propensity to deliver profits when the option’s underlying stock hits its expiration date at the middle strike price.

Recommended: Popular Options Trading Terminology to Know

Example of an Iron Butterfly

For the strategy to work, the call and put options that sit on either side of the target stock price should be far enough apart that they can still make money regardless of the unexpected price movement of the stock between the time when the trade is executed, and the expiration of the options.

As an example, you’re an investor with a sense that a stock would reach $50 in the next month, and that it would be at least within a range of $10 above or below the target price. To make an Iron Butterfly trade, you’d buy a call and a put option with a strike price of $50. Then you’d buy a call option ten dollars higher, followed by a put option ten dollars lower than the target price, or saddle price, of $50.

The theory behind the Iron Butterfly strategy is that there’s a high likelihood that the eventual price of the stock targeted in the strategy will trade within a profitable range by the time the strike price of the options arrives.

Pros and Cons of Iron Butterfly Spreads

There is a limit to the maximum profit that an investor can earn by using the Iron Butterfly. That’s because of the cost of the options they have to buy to make money on their bet, as well as the cost of the options they purchase to protect themselves in the event that their hunch is wrong.

In the strategy, the most money the investor can make becomes possible when the underlying stock reaches the stock price at which they’ve purchased the saddle options. But even in this best-case scenario, at least half of the options expire worthless.

While this limited return may seem like a downside, it also comes with limited risk. As long as the stock rises or falls — at the time of the options’ expiration — between the target price and the strike prices of the outlying call and put options, then the trade will not lose money. But the closer it is to the target price, the more money it will make.

The biggest risk in an Iron Butterfly strategy is that the stock trades outside of the strangle, making all of the options worthless.

Recommended: What Is Your Risk Tolerance?

How to Sell out of an Iron Butterfly Spread

The investor will have at least one option that is in the money, and possibly two options that are in the money, when the options expire. They will exercise those options, and make money on the trade.

Traders realize that it’s unrealistic that any given trade will reach its expiration date exactly at the strike price, or straddle price, that they choose. But with a smart spread on the outer range of the call and put options in the trade, the strategy can deliver returns on the capital put at risk that are consistently in the 15-20% range.

What Is the Difference Between Iron Condor and Iron Butterfly?

An Iron Butterfly is similar to another option strategy known as an Iron Condor. The strategies differ in terms of their strike prices and premiums. In an Iron Condor the strike prices are different and in an Iron Butterfly they’re the same. The premiums are higher in an Iron Butterfly than an Iron Condor.

💡 Quick Tip: In order to profit from purchasing a stock, the price has to rise. But an options account offers more flexibility, and an options trader might gain if the price rises or falls. This is a high-risk strategy, and investors can lose money if the trade moves in the wrong direction.

The Takeaway

The Iron Butterfly is a trading strategy that investors use when they believe that a stock price will trade within a specific range. Rather than buying the stock itself, an Iron Butterfly involves purchasing four options based on the investor’s price prediction for a certain security.

Again, trading options is an advanced investment strategy that requires a good amount of background knowledge and market experience. It may not be a good idea for beginning investors to wade into options, or advanced moves like the Iron Butterfly. However, speaking with a financial professional may help get you prepared for trading options.

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Photo credit: iStock/ponla1975

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Options involve risks, including substantial risk of loss and the possibility an investor may lose the entire amount invested in a short period of time. Before an investor begins trading options they should familiarize themselves with the Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options . Tax considerations with options transactions are unique, investors should consult with their tax advisor to understand the impact to their taxes.
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