Do smaller losses lead to better performance?

Tight Stop Losses: A Double-Edged Sword

By:Kai Zeng

Conventional stop-loss strategies may not be as effective as once thought

In options trading, the traditional wisdom of using stop-loss orders to manage risk has undergone rigorous scrutiny.

Stop-loss orders are resting orders to close out of a position that trigger based on the price of the option. Traders use such orders to potentially limit the amount of loss realized on a position.

Do stop-loss orders work?

Through extensive analysis, it is evident that conventional stop-loss strategies—ranging from 100% to 500% of the premium collected—may not be as effective as once thought. That's particularly true when considering the end goal of maximizing profitability while managing volatility.

SPY 30 delta put success rate

Initial findings suggest that even the most favorable stop-loss strategy—exiting positions at 2x the premium—tends to underperform in comparison to simply holding the position until expiration.

This outcome challenges the widespread practice of employing wide-ranging stop-loss targets to safeguard returns, highlighting a critical gap between the theory and reality of risk mitigation in options trading.

SPY 30 delta put

To address the shortcomings of traditional stop-loss strategies, the focus shifted towards the potential benefits of tightening the target range for managing losses.

Lessons we learned

Through comparing various management approaches—including holding to expiration, exiting at 21 days to expiration (DTE), and imposing tighter loss limits at 25%, 50%, and 75% of the original credit—we gained insights into the effectiveness of tighter loss management.

Contrary to the initial hypothesis, setting stringent loss targets proved to have a detrimental effect on overall portfolio performance. While indeed reducing volatility and minimizing downside risks, this strategy significantly compromised both the success rate and the returns, underscoring the complexity of balancing risk and reward in options trading.

SPY 16 delta strangle

Amid the exploration of various risk management strategies, exiting positions at 21 DTE surfaced as a compelling alternative.

This approach, validated by further analysis within a strangle portfolio allocating 25% of capital, demonstrated the potential to provide a more harmonious blend of profitability and volatility control.

By choosing to exit at a predetermined interval before expiration, traders can capitalize on the inherent time decay of options, thereby securing gains and sidestepping the pitfalls of holding positions through the unpredictable final phase of the option's life cycle.

average monthly return

Key takeaways

The journey through testing various risk management strategies in options trading culminates in several key takeaways. While the temptation to tighten stop losses to curb losses and volatility is understandable, it ultimately leads to a sacrifice in profitability and success rate.

On the contrary, adopting a strategic approach to exiting positions—specifically at 21 DTE—presents a more balanced solution.

This method not only preserves the innate prospects for profit inherent in options trading but also maintains a tangible grip on volatility, promoting a more stable and potentially lucrative trading endeavor.

Kai Zeng, director of the research team and head of Chinese content at tastylive, has 20 years of experience in markets and derivatives trading. He cohosts several live shows, including From Theory to Practice and Building Blocks. @kai_zeng1

For live daily programming, market news and commentary, visit tastylive or the YouTube channels tastylive (for options traders), and tastyliveTrending for stocks, futures, forex & macro. 

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Options involve risk and are not suitable for all investors. Please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options before deciding to invest in options.

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