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Options Trading Lesson: The Butterfly

Jan 12, 2008
I am sure many of you have heard of a sophisticated sounding strategy called the Butterfly. For some reason, it seems to be the darling strategy of many of those 'teach-you in five hours' type option companies. They publicize the 'mystical magical Butterfly' and the 'sophisticated Condor' as if they were going to unlock the options version of Pandora's box. I guess they feel that, by introducing you to the catchy named strategies, they will grab your attention and thereby give them a chance to promote themselves. From a marketing standpoint, that is not a bad idea.

However, the Butterfly is a 'sophisticated' only for those that do not know options! If you have done your homework and have learned the option basics properly, then the Butterfly is a simple strategy that is just a combination of an already familiar, basic strategy. Let's take a closer look and uncover the secrets of the mysterious Butterfly!

Butterfly Construction
The first thing you must understand about the Butterfly is that it is constructed by using either all calls or all puts. The Butterfly is never a combination of the two. (We will talk about an exception called the Iron Butterfly later.)

Whether you choose to use calls or puts, butterflies are always constructed in a '1-2-1' arrangement. For the long Butterfly, you would buy one low strike, sell two medium strikes and buy one high strike with the strike prices equally spaced. The center strike typically matches the current price of the stock.

For example, if the stock is 55 and you decide to create a long Butterfly by using calls, you could buy a 50 call, sell two 55 calls, and buy one 60 call. If you decided to use puts, you could buy a 50 put, sell two 55 puts, and buy one 60 put. The long Butterfly is always long the outer strikes and short the center strike.

You would construct the short Butterfly in the opposite way. The short Butterfly will always be short the outer strikes and long the center strike. For example, to create a short Butterfly, you could sell a 50 call, buy two 55 calls, and sell one 60 call. The short Butterfly trader is simply taking the opposite side of the trade with the long Butterfly trader.

This is not a complicated construction. The trick is to understand that while there are three strikes to a Butterfly, there are four options involved. I know the construction will be hard to associate with long or short in the beginning, so here is a little trick or two to help you remember how to differentiate a long Butterfly from a short Butterfly.
When I think of whether a Butterfly is long or short, I always look at that first strike. If that first strike is long, then it is a long Butterfly. It is as simple as that. Some people find it easier to just focus on the center strike where you have the two-option position. If you are short the center strike, then you are long the Butterfly.

The opposite would be true for short butterflies. These are just a couple of ways that you can determine whether a Butterfly is long or short until you become so familiar that you automatically know which Butterfly is which. Until you get to that point, you will want to use little tricks to remember which one is which. Use whichever is most comfortable but I suggest you focus on only one 'trick' and use only it until you become so familiar with butterflies you don't need it any longer to recognize which one you have. Make your choice and stick with it!

The following chart shows the long and short Butterfly construction:

Notice that the strike prices are equally spaced. This is a necessary aspect of all butterflies. However, while the strikes must be equally spaced, they do not need to be spaced by five dollars as in this example.

We could have spaced them by ten dollars and created a different long Butterfly by purchasing the 45 call, selling two 55 calls, and buying one 65 call. You just have to understand that the strikes must be set up in an equidistant manner and they must be either all calls or all puts in the proper 1-2-1 ratio.

From a terminology standpoint, we call this the 50/55/60 Butterfly or, more simply, the 55 Butterfly taking the lead from the Butterfly's middle strike.

We add to that term whatever month you are dealing with. If we are referring to the June expiration cycle, it would be called the June 55 Butterfly. If we were in April, it would be called the April 55 Butterfly.
About the Author
Ron Ianieri is currently Chief Options Strategist at The Options University, an educational company that teaches investors how to make consistent profits using options while limiting risk. For more information please contact The Options University at http://www.optionsuniversity.com or 866-561-8227
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