What Is Max Pain in Options Trading?

By Mike Zaccardi, CMT, CFA · February 10, 2022 · 4 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is Max Pain in Options Trading?

The max pain of an options trade is the strike price with the most options contracts. It’s the price that causes financial losses for the greatest number of options holders at expiration.

Learn more about this important options trading concept today.

Max Pain Defined

Max pain, or the maximum pain price, is the strike price with the most open options contracts combining puts and calls. It is the strike price that causes the highest dollar value of losses among option buyers on a given stock at a specific expiration.

According to the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), about 30% of options expire worthless, 10% are exercised, and 60% close out before expiration. The concept of max pain focuses on the 30% of options that expire with no intrinsic value.

Some large institutional options sellers see an investment opportunity in writing options that eventually expire worthless, according to max pain theory. If options expire worthless, the seller of those options keeps the entire premium as profit.

Max pain options trading stems from the Maximum Pain Theory. The theory contends that option sellers seek to hedge portfolios with options expiration. The Maximum Pain Theory also suggests an option’s price will arrive at a max pain price where the most options contracts held through expiration will experience losses. Bear in mind that an options contract that is not “in the money” at expiration is worthless.

Recommended: Popular Options Trading Terminology to Know

How Max Pain Works

The Maximum Pain Theory asserts that the price of the underlying asset is likely to converge at the maximum pain strike price. The max pain price is the strike with the greatest dollar value of calls and puts. As the expiration date approaches, the underlying stock price might “pin” to that option strike price.

Some day traders closely monitor the max pain price on the afternoon of expiration – usually the third Friday of the month for monthly options or each Friday for weekly options contracts.

Max Pain trading can be controversial, as some believe it borders on “market manipulation” when traders seek to pin a stock price to a certain price at a certain time. Market participants disagree about whether or not Max Pain Theory works in practice. If a trader can predict which strike price will feature the greatest combination of dollar value between calls and puts, the theory states that they could profit from using that information.

Some market makers may consider Max Pain Price Theory when hedging their portfolios. Delta hedging is a strategy used by options traders – often market makers — to reduce the directional risk of price movements in the security underlying the options contracts. A market maker is often the seller of options contracts, and they seek to hedge the risk of options price movements by buying or selling underlying shares of stock.

This activity can cause the stock price to converge at the max pain price. Delta hedging plays a significant role in max pain trading.

How to Calculate the Max Point

Calculating the max pain options price is relatively straightforward if you have the data. Follow these steps to determine the max pain strike:

•   Step 1: Calculate the difference between each strike price and the underlying stock price.

•   Step 2: Multiply the results from Step One by the open interest at each strike.

•   Step 3: Add the dollar value for both the put and the call at each strike.

•   Step 4: Repeat Steps One through Three for each strike price on the option chain.

•   Step 5: The strike price with the highest dollar value of puts and calls is the max pain price.

Since the stock price constantly changes and open interest in the options market rises and falls, the max pain price can change daily. An options trader might be interested to see if there is a high amount of open interest at a specific price as that price could be where the underlying share price gravitates toward at expiration, at least according to Max Pain Theory.

Max Pain Point Example

Let’s assume that XYZ stock trades at $96 a week before options expiration. A trader researches the option chain on XYZ stock and notices a high amount of open interest at the $100 strike. The trader performs the steps mentioned earlier to calculate the max pain price.

Indeed, $100 is the max pain price. Since the trader believes in Max Pain Theory, they go long shares of XYZ on the assumption that it will rise to $100 by the next week’s options expiration. Another options trading strategy could be to put on a bullish options position instead of buying shares of the underlying stock.

This hypothetical example looks simple on paper but many factors influence the price of a stock. There could be company-specific news issued during the final days before expiration that sends a stock price significantly higher or lower.

Macro factors and overall market momentum might overwhelm market makers’ attempt to pin a stock to a max pain strike. Finally, stock price volatility could cause the max pain price to shift in the hours and even minutes leading up to expiration.

Pros and Cons of Using Max Pain Theory When Trading

Max Pain Options Theory can be an effective strategy for options traders looking for a systematic approach for their options strategy. That said, not everyone agrees that Max Pain Theory works in practice. Here are some of the pros and cons of Max Pain Theory.

Pros

Cons

A systematic approach to trading options Lack of agreement supporting the theory
Trades the most liquid areas of the options market Stock prices don’t always gravitate to a max pain price
Benefits from supposed market manipulation Other factors, such as market momentum or company news, could move the stock price

Max pain trading in the options market is easier today amid a brokerage world with low or even no commissions. Previously, it was simply not economical for many retail traders with small account sizes to buy and sell options using max pain theory.

Critics contend that there should be more regulatory oversight on max pain price trading — particularly on large institutions that could be manipulating prices. It’s unclear whether there will be more oversight of such practices in the future.

The Takeaway

Max Pain Theory is one approach to options trading based on the strike price that would cause the most losses. Options traders who calculate the max pain price, can use that information to inform their investing strategy. But it’s not necessary to invest in options at all to build your nest egg.

If complex options strategies like the Max Pain Theory still seem too daunting, SoFi members can always trade individual stocks, cryptocurrency, and initial public offerings (IPOs) with no trading commissions through the SoFi Invest® online brokerage. SoFi does not currently offer options, but it does provide an easy way for investors to get started building a portfolio.

Photo credit: iStock/valentinrussanov


SoFi Invest®
The information provided is not meant to provide investment or financial advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s specific financial needs, goals and risk profile. SoFi can’t guarantee future financial performance. Advisory services offered through SoFi Wealth, LLC. SoFi Securities, LLC, member FINRA / SIPC . SoFi Invest refers to the three investment and trading platforms operated by Social Finance, Inc. and its affiliates (described below). Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of the platforms below.
1) Automated Investing—The Automated Investing platform is owned by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor (“Sofi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC, an affiliated SEC registered broker dealer and member FINRA/SIPC, (“Sofi Securities).
2) Active Investing—The Active Investing platform is owned by SoFi Securities LLC. Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
3) Cryptocurrency is offered by SoFi Digital Assets, LLC, a FinCEN registered Money Service Business.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above, including state licensure of Sofi Digital Assets, LLC, please visit www.sofi.com/legal. Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform. Information related to lending products contained herein should not be construed as an offer or pre-qualification for any loan product offered by SoFi Lending Corp and/or its affiliates.
SOIN1021432

All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender