Short Call Ladder

The short call ladder, or bear call ladder, is an unlimited profit, limited risk strategy in options trading that is employed when the options trader thinks that the underlying security will experience significant volatility in the near term.

Short Call Ladder Construction
Sell 1 ITM Call
Buy 1 ATM Call
Buy 1 OTM Call

To setup the short call ladder, the options trader sells an in-the-money call, purchases an at-the-money call and purchases another higher strike out-of-the-money call of the same underlying security and expiration date.

Limited Downside, Unlimited Upside Profit Potential

Maximum gain for the short call ladder strategy is limited if the underlying stock price goes down. In this scenario, maximum profit is limited to the initial credit received since all the long and short calls will expire worthless.

However, if the underlying stock price rallies explosively, potential profit is unlimited due to the extra long call.

The formula for calculating profit is given below:

  • Maximum Profit = Unlimited
  • Profit Achieved When Price of Underlying > Total Strike Prices of Long Calls - Strike Price of Short Call + Net Premium Received
  • Profit = Price of Underlying - Upper Breakeven
Short Call Ladder Payoff Diagram
Graph showing the expected profit or loss for the short call ladder option strategy in relation to the market price of the underlying security on option expiration date.

Limited Risk

Losses are limited when employing the short call ladder strategy and maximum loss occurs when the stock price is between the strike prices of the two long calls on expiration date. At this price, the higher striking long call expires worthless while the lower striking long call is worth much less than the short call, thus resulting in a loss.

The formula for calculating maximum loss is given below:

  • Max Loss = Strike Price of Lower Strike Long Call - Strike Price of Short Call - Net Premium Received + Commissions Paid
  • Max Loss Occurs When Price of Underlying is in between the Strike Prices of the 2 Long Calls

Breakeven Point(s)

There are 2 break-even points for the short call ladder position. The breakeven points can be calculated using the following formulae.

  • Upper Breakeven Point = Total Strike Prices of Long Calls - Strike Price of Short Call + Net Premium Received
  • Lower Breakeven Point = Strike Price of Short Call - Net Premium Received

Example

Suppose XYZ stock is trading at $35 in June. An options trader executes a short call ladder strategy by selling a JUL 30 call for $600, buying a JUL 35 call for $200 and a JUL 40 call for $100. The net credit received for entering this trade is $300.

In the event that XYZ stock rallies and is trading at $50 on expiration in July, all the call options will expire in the money. The long JUL 35 call will expire with $1500 in intrinsic value while the long JUL 40 call will expire with $1000 in intrinsic value.

Buying back the short JUL 30 call will only cost the options trader $2000. So selling the long calls and buying back the short call will leave the trader with a $500 gain. Together with the initial credit of $300, his total profit comes to $800. This profit can be even higher if the stock had rallied beyond $50.

However, if the stock price had dropped to $30 instead, all the calls will expire worthless and his profit will only be the initial credit of $300 received.

On the other hand, let's say XYZ stock remains at $35 on expiration date. At this price, only the short JUL 30 call will expire in the money with an intrinsic value of $500. Taking into account the initial credit of $300, buying back this call to close the position will leave the trader with a $200 loss - this is also his maximum possible loss.

Note: While we have covered the use of this strategy with reference to stock options, the short call ladder is equally applicable using ETF options, index options as well as options on futures.

Commissions

For ease of understanding, the calculations depicted in the above examples did not take into account commission charges as they are relatively small amounts (typically around $10 to $20) and varies across option brokerages.

However, for active traders, commissions can eat up a sizable portion of their profits in the long run. If you trade options actively, it is wise to look for a low commissions broker. Traders who trade large number of contracts in each trade should check out OptionsHouse.com as they offer a low fee of only $0.15 per contract (+$4.95 per trade).

Similar Strategies

The following strategies are similar to the short call ladder in that they are also high volatility strategies that have unlimited profit potential and limited risk.

Strip
Strap
Short Put Ladder

Long Call Ladder

The converse strategy to the short call ladder is the long call ladder. Long call ladders are employed when little or no movement is expected of the underlying stock price.

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