Bob Lang, founder of Explosive Options, discusses risk management and position sizing for options traders with Steve Sosnick, Chief Strategist at Interactive Brokers.
Summary – Traders’ Insight Radio Ep. 30
The following is a summary of a live audio recording and may contain errors in spelling or grammar. Although IBKR has edited for clarity no material changes have been made.
Hi everybody, welcome to Interactive Brokers, Traders insight radio. This is your host, Steve Sosnick, chief strategist at Interactive Brokers with me today is my friend Bob Lang from Explosive Options and I’m going to let him introduce himself very briefly.
He and I have we’ve met in person though we actually became friendly via Twitter and interacting that way. Take it away. Bob, tell us about yourself.
Thanks Steve. Great to be with you today. Great to be with all the listeners today as well.
As Steve said, I run a company called explosiveoptions.net. I’ve had this company for about a little over 11 years now and as you probably could understand from the title of the company, it’s about trading options and we try to do it in a way of helping people learn how to manage risk in a way that allows them to become profitable.
I know options trading is a huge mystery for some people out there. They don’t really understand how it works, and the applications involve the execution and that sort of thing.
There are some ways to make money trading options, so we try to teach people how to how to do that through my service and through an amazing chat room that we have. And I have used Interactive Brokers as my broker for my clients for several years now, and so it seemed like a natural process here to talk with you Steve, and I’m very excited to be here.
Tell the listeners how you interact with your customers. I’ve actually had the privilege of being out with you where you invited me to a customer event where I were at a great time meeting not only you and your lovely wife, but also various of your customers.
Tell us how you interact with them, and how you keep them on the straight and narrow, as it were.
Well, I put a lot of information out the Internet, especially on Twitter and in social media. ‘Cause I know there’s a lot of people out there listening. They’re hungry for learning and they’re hungry for understanding how to how to make money. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t have a large sum of money but hear that trading options you can make a great deal of money.
It was a very small capital base, so we try to teach people to be to be diligent, to be responsible to manage risk appropriately. I don’t do any marketing at all. I don’t spend and money doing marketing other than what I put out there on social media and putting articles and webinars and interviews together and sharing things with people.
I’ve been doing this for a long time, 20 plus years, and through my years I’ve learned a lot about how to make money and I’ve learned a lot how to lose money. I think it’s a combination there that has kept me in the game, kept me grounded and kept the ego out of my trading. So I try to share my experiences with people and I try and keep it real and hopefully people see that, hey look, you know what? That happened, and they can hear something that happened to me recently or even 5-10 years ago. They might be able to say, “Hey, that’s me. He’s talking about me. I did the same thing. This guy’s been around for a long time and I’m making the same mistakes that he did. OK, I got to find out more.” That’s how it starts, and people come in and they come to the chat room or else they follow me on Twitter or elsewhere and they feel like you know this has become their home and that that’s kind of how it starts.
It’s a very interesting point that you bring up because I think a lot of people think about options as a vehicle for speculation, and I’ve always found that I think you learn more from mistakes than you do from the wins. A lot of times you can you can win because of luck or you could win because of skill, but it’s often difficult to distinguish the two. You know one of my favorite phrases is “don’t confuse a bull market with brains” because that happens a lot of times. And obviously it’s much cheaper for your customers if they’ve learned from your mistakes, which we all have.
Let me not single you out as being alone with mistakes. I think a great way to impart wisdom to your customers is by, “Here’s where I’ve made a mistake. Don’t make, the same one.” Or, “this is a situation that has a pitfall.”
Tell me some of the ones that you’ve been working on with your customers recently.
Yeah, I think people have to understand that trading is not a game of perfect. And if you make a mistake, if you make an error and it’s correctable, then you at least have a chance to turn around and fix it.
I think one of the most important aspects of trading options is to be able to have control. You want to give up that control to the markets or gonna lose a lot of money and eventually get booted out of the game. So what do I mean by control? We oftentimes put trades together, and we think that they’re much bigger and much greater than they end up turning out to be. Then that means that we tend to want to put up more capital because we want to have bigger wins. We feel that trades are going to be that pot of gold at the end of the race, and it’s certainly never, hardly ever the case unless you get lucky.
But you know, we can’t rely on luck to be successful long-term in this business. So I think if you make a mistake you make an error and you can correct it. You can learn from that and move on, but unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who don’t learn from those mistakes and don’t learn from those errors.
They tend to repeat them over and over and over again, and they and eventually find themselves… What we what we see in poker they find themselves on the rail, which means they’re outside the game. They’re watching and they’re not participating in the game any longer.
Yeah, because the problem with options from the long side… Obviously we can talk about options from the short side in a minute, but even with options from the long side, people focus on the fact that it’s a leveraged return.
If you’re just buying a naked option, an outright call or an outright put, you know you put up a fixed amount of money for the hope of a leveraged return. And that’s a very easy and seductive idea for people, but unfortunately, it appeals to a lot of gambling mentality and gamblers don’t have a great track record overall. So how are you imparting the idea that if you’re trading from the long side a lot of times, the odds are against you and how do you overcome that?
So the gambling analogy is is very appropriate because you know much like options trading, it’s risk taking or you’re risking at a certain amount of money to make other money. But the difference between options trading and, say, a hand of blackjack is you have no edge at the at the blackjack table. The house holds every edge against you — 51% or higher, right? Whether it’s craps, whether it’s the slot machines, or whether it’s the roulette table or blackjack, the house holds every single edge against you. But with an option you can create your own edge against the markets and against other people and have a system that can be a consistent winner as long as you’re disciplined enough. I mean if you know we’re taking a risk over here, however. If you could do it in a smart way, in a more managed way, the risk that we take is to get that advantage that you talked about.
The leverage you have with options is to get a much better return than you would otherwise in playing in making a stock play. I think the similarity between options trading and gambling or the casino is very appropriate because a lot of people have that casino mentality. They want to get in there and they want to take a risk and be a player and take some money from the casino.
But the casinos weren’t built because they lost money. In fact, if you go to a casino you’ll know the difference between a casino and options trading. Steve, at a casino at least you’ll get some free drinks and they won’t tell you when it’s time to leave because there are no clocks.
On the other hand, the options market is the one place that won’t kick you out if you win consistently.
That right. You can keep going and going if you have a consistent methodology. So that the control and the discipline that I was talking about earlier is about managing risk. And I think a lot of people don’t know how to manage risk.
We’re talking about position sizing. I think sizing your positions appropriately for the amount of risk that you want to take is absolutely essential. It’s crucial to the success for options traders, and I know it may be boring for some people to say, “Look, I can only take one option, but I want 5.” If you can only buy one option then you just you should buy one option. If you lose — and again the odds are against you when you’re a buyer because of the decay factor. If you happen to win, at least you can compound that and start, you know, stringing some wins together. You don’t have that opportunity when you’re at the blackjack table, because again, if you win five hands in a row that that’s not correlated with that sixth hand, and you could throw all your money out on that six hand. The dealer gets blackjack, and you’re done, right?
Yeah, that’s true.
So following that along, do you find yourself being a bit more of a trend follower or a counter-trend trader or just opportunistic in either direction? Because there’s the random walk element to the markets, but markets do have a memory and there is trendiness in the market.
Yeah, you talk about the whole random walk thing, and one of my favorite books is “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” by Burton Malkiel.
Great book. So I would call myself a trend follower, but one of my mentors from whom I learned a lot about technical analysis is Dale Landry. He kind of coined himself affectionately “the trend following moron.” I learned a lot about why he was a trend follower for such a long period of time. He basically said that. You can find the best moves when a stock or a market is trending.
And then I realized the countertrend player is looking for tops and bottoms. Many years ago I realized that if the stock when is continually going down, down is a collection of bottoms, and how do you know that you’re they’re picking out the correct bottom or that the market is going to turn for you? You don’t. It’s a guessing game. Much like if you remember the time back in 2008-2009 when the markets were making lower highs and lower lows day after day after day, and people were continually going on TV and financial media and so forth and telling me this is the buy of the century. “You’ve got to get in there and buy it,” and we just continue to go lower and lower.
How did they know when the bottom was going to be? And then finally you know four or five months after the election, in March of 2009, well we hit it. We had 666 but we were down 40% in the prior four or five months. He kept buying, you know, reaching for that falling knife over and over and over again. He got pretty bloodied up over a long period of time.
Was that a smart buy? Absolutely no question about it, but I would rather be on a trend. I mean I could have waited for that bottom to come in three-four, or five-six months later and ridden a trend and still made a nice amount chunk of money and not have been living through the pain of losing money during that time when the markets went down.
Oh, at one of the things that I’ve been fairly adamant about in in my work is there’s only one true bottom. There are any number of short-term bottoms or bottom-like events, but there’s only one and I think the idea of trying to go all in goes back to your position sizing.
You know just because you think, “OK, that’s the bottom,” remember, in March of 2009 that was it, wasn’t it? It felt miserable. It really felt like we were never going to have an up day again, which of course, that’s the capitulation. Not before, none of this false enthusiasm. And I think that’s what we have to be very wary of right now.
Could we have seen the bottom? Yes I do?
We’ll get to some of the stuff about the Fed and other stuff as we go on, but I don’t want to lose sight of the position sizing because this is very important to many people, and it’s a tactic I think people don’t understand. How do you advocate that?
I know there’s sort of the old Bill gross method of don’t put more than 2% into any into any one position. Obviously with options it’s different than if you have a bond portfolio, so how do you work with your client base and toward finding the optimal position size for a given portfolio?
Well, there there’s the old adage, “If you can’t sleep at night, you clearly have too much too much exposure and too much risk.” So I mean maybe for some people it’s selling down to the sleeping point.
I tell people, “Look, do you know what you are willing to lose?” For some people, let’s say they have $100,000 portfolio. They’re willing to risk 1000 bucks of a total loss. And then they’re willing to say, “That’s us”, so it’s 1%, right? And you can risk $1000.
And you can make a much larger sum of money. You can make 10 or 15 hundred [dollars] into $2000.
But of course your loss is capped at that $1000. That’s the thing that beauty about options is. You know you can only lose what you put into it. It’s defined risk.
But as far as the position sizing is concerned, I’ve heard from everybody, people who’ve come to me and they say, “Bob I’ve got the winning method. It’s a black box theory methodology here. I can’t lose, I’ve back-tested it for 10 years, it’s an absolute winner, I can’t lose all right.” And so they go on and whatever. The next call I’m getting is, “Oh my God, what did they do? I can’t believe it. I lost it all.” It’s because you believe in something and that’s great to have conviction in it, but risk management rules always are the priority. They’re always most important thing. You can have the best system in the world…
I’m sure you remember back in 1998 what was the talk back then? The fall of these brilliant geniuses from Long Term Capital Management. The smartest people in the world were making gazillions of dollars for their clients. They took excessive risk and they almost ripped out the whole financial markets. People don’t remember this. It’s actually said it was even worse than 2008.
Yeah, I remember that because as someone who was helping to manage a very, very successful black box — which needed, by the way, to be constantly fed and maintained and reassessed and with very strict risk limits for each position — even then it was tricky. The lack of liquidity meant that some of our positions actually did fairly well in that period. We tended to be long gamma, long downside and tended to do well in these kind of events.
But you know there were the questions of “OK, you guys are long a whole bunch of LEAPs and they’re illiquid. Where do you mark them?” In a crisis like that, even if you’re right you can end up in a in a sticky situation.
So I remember that, and being here in Greenwich [CT], they were in Greenwich as well. I remember taking the train to work one day. And you know the conductor’s like, “Next stop, Greenwich CT, home of everyone’s favorite hedge fund.”
Yeah, I knew a lot of those guys. My first job was at Salomon Brothers. For some of those people it was, I mean to call it market hubris. These were literally the smartest guys in the room. Two of them were Nobel Prize winners.
That’s right, yeah.
The thing is that the most brilliant people in the world, even they can trip up and cause bad things to happen just because of that nature of trying to get large enough and big enough. You can never be never be big enough for everybody else. So, yeah.
I always like to remind people the market can remain irrational much longer than you can remain solvent.
That’s right. John Maynard Keynes, some 100 years ago, said the same thing, no?
Yep, and those Nobel Prize winners must have skipped that part of his book.
Yeah, no doubt.
So, do your clients tend to trade from the long side? I guess you don’t involve them in very many writing strategies as a trend follower? You might as well follow the trend and lever on it as opposed as opposed to writing. Do you do much writing with your clients?
Sure. I think that that’s one of the easiest ways to take some risk off of positions. So if I have some stock positions, immediately what I’m looking to do is to write calls against it. That’s the easiest, most plain vanilla way to use options.
But for the most part I look at lots of different options, ’cause there’s three different types of options trades. There’s one for volatility, and direction, and time. The three different ones, and I use them also when we’re looking for a big volatility move. I’m entering strangles or straddles.
These terminologies, of course may be a little bit foreign to some people, but….
They can always come to IBKR Campus and learn all about our various learning tools for option strategies.
Sorry, had to throw in the plug there.
It’s a great place to learn all that. I’ve been there myself. It’s a great place to learn new language and new terminology to help you on your way to becoming an options trader.
You know what we’re doing is a trend follower. I said I look for different opportunities for what the market is telling me to do. I mean, more recently I’ve been talking with people and they’re trying to force their own viewpoint on the markets. In an article I wrote last week, I said basically this is the moment in time during a bear market where the most people are going to get hurt, and it’s because we’ve had this bear market. Let’s say it’s been going on since the beginning of the year, but we made our all-time high on January 3rd, January 4th. We’ve just been at a steady decline ever since.
And so we could say, we’ve been at a bear market for the better part of seven months, probably a little bit longer. But let’s just say since beginning of year. People are frustrated people are exhausted. They’re tired of this bear market. They’re tired of this behavior day after day after day it says, you know, I mean people wake up and they say, “How much money am I gonna lose today?” Because they’re defeated and people just want this to be over, so I think where people lose money is when they say to themselves, “All right. Well I’m going to do whatever I can and I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to use technicals or whatever, but I’m going to make sure that the market is going to move up in my favor.”
And it’s irrational. It’s really illogical. It’s irrational to tell the markets what to do.
But that’s what people are going to do, and they’re going to lose a large amount of money, and they’re going to end up in a whole world of hurt here.
The markets do not care what you think about them. That’s really, you’ve learned that lesson the hard way. I’m sure I know I’ve learned it the hard way. My point of view is one of many, and you have no other choice but to recognize if you’re wrong and recognize it very quickly and most importantly recognize that you cannot impose your will on the market.
Long Term Capital. Again, I hate to bring them up. If anyone could impose their will on the market, it was those guys and you could…
Sorry, didn’t mean to take away your train of thought on that one.
No, no, you’re exactly right and I think that most people right now, they’re gonna have a great opportunity to step back and sit back and wait for what’s going to be on the other side of the wall. Because you know, we always know that if the bull market comes around eventually, a bear market will still stay around for an extraordinarily long time, but it has to play out. A fellow that you may have known personally, Marty Zweig, once said, “Don’t fight the Fed.” He said a whole lot of other things that really crystallized me in terms of understanding markets and behavior and psychology. But this one thing that one thing that he said, “Don’t fight the Fed”, well, the Fed is in hawkish mode, right? And they currently are right now.
Just to dumb it down a little bit, why fight the Fed? Why do that?
So you have to wait this till this whole thing plays out because we know at the end of the day, it’s a game of survival here. If you can survive through this bear market to make it to the next bull market, it will be much more of like an Oasis than it is right now.
Well, you’ve hit upon one of my most common themes, you and I think are very copacetic on this one. I’ve been saying this quite a bit, you know, if “Don’t fight the Fed” was your mantra on the way up, it kind of needs to be your mantra now. And until or unless we see the Fed — I’m not even going to say step on the gas — but at least takes their foot off the brake, I don’t see how it’s an environment that lends itself to going all in on the long side.
Yeah, there’s always going to be opportunities, and you and I each have trading mentalities, and we know that there are always opportunities even in a bear market. There’s certainly trading opportunities. Stocks that are in a downtrend can bounce and they can bounce for longer. Bear market rallies are short, sharp and ferocious. They can sucker you in, but they can also give you some opportunities.
But I think overall as an investment thesis, I can’t agree with you more because something I’ve been advocating for some time is that the Fed is not your friend right now, and so don’t fight them. Going back to the idea of you know you might think one thing but the market’s going to do what it’s going to do, and if the money, if the monetary tide is flowing out, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter. It’s very hard to fight that.
I was I was going to say the monetary tightening you talked about is extremely important. That even with the proliferation of algo traders and program traders and that sort of thing these days, let’s not forget 80% of the money that flows into and out of the markets is institutional. We’re talking mutual funds, hedge funds, big banks, pension funds, Charitable Trusts, that sort of stuff. It’s said to be 80% of the money that’s flowing in or out. And if they’re not in the game right now, let’s face it, a lot of this, money has been pulled out over a long period of time here. And they’re not in the game.
These are your long term investors, the ones who have the insight and the foresight to get in early before market prices go up. They’re like the big elephant in the room, you know. And — excuse my French Steve — I like to tell people that I like to be a fly on elephant’s ass. I like to be riding that elephant belong because when he steps in water everybody gets wet, so I want I want to be riding along with that elephant when he’s putting money to work.
He’s not putting money to work right now, and so I can identify that. I could see that and say, “OK if he’s not playing, then why should I be?” So, it’s a matter of being patient, waiting, and not anybody necessarily getting me a phone call and saying, hey Bob, we’re putting a $70 trillion worth of money into the markets today. Just letting you know, I don’t get that phone call.
(laughs) No, I don’t either. I’ve been waiting by the phone for that for years.
For years the signals and the signs will be there as long as your eyes are open and you’re ready. Again going back to risk, if you’re out of the game, you’re not gonna be watching for those things. You don’t care ’cause if you’re out of money. So that’s why I tell people, “Just be patient, just wait.”
If you don’t want to play the bear market fine, step out, step back and wait for your moment to get back in because at some point in time it’ll be there.
Well, Warren Buffett often has referred to cash on the sidelines as a call option that gives him the opportunity to step in and buy, and I think that’s important in this environment.
Going back to the institutional aspect of it, one of the questions I get asked a lot — and I’m sure you get asked it a ton as well — is why isn’t VIX higher? One of the thoughts that goes through my mind is institutions have largely de-risked, and so they don’t need to buy as much volatility protection. Do you subscribe to that idea?
That’s absolutely 100% correct, and you know why? Why does somebody? What if you’re a big institution and, as you said, de-risked, why do you have to buy protection against your cash? It’s really essentially what people are saying. I mean, if I’m going to buy volatility it’s because I’m going to, protect myself against my positions going down. So it’s a completely different situation here.
And again, this goes into my theme. What I talked about earlier, about why this is the toughest part of the bear market right now, because normally in a bear market you see rising volatility and you see big movements and now of course, what does rising volatility mean when the VIX goes up? It means option prices become expensive, right, on both puts and calls. But when volatility is coming down it means everything is inexpensive. So you would think that if put options are cheap along with call options, OK, well, give me puts. But if the market is telling you that you’re not going to get those ginormous moves like we’ve been used to over the past couple of months, well, that’s a dilemma too.
So if you’re trying to buy some protection or just play a directional move, you’re not gonna get the bang for your buck like you would normally get. And in fact, when volatility is low, you have the chance that the trend, if it’s going down, it’s gonna reverse on you really, really quickly.
Look what happened last week. We had, before last week, about 10 out of 12 weeks that were down out of the past three months. We had that big huge week last week, you know. We’re reversing, right back down today. The market volatility is not moving very much at all either. And in addition, Steve, I would tell you that one of the reasons why volatility is down is because the uncertainty factor has been lowered as well too.
So what does that mean? That means that we all know that the Fed is going to be raising interest rates. I think if you don’t know that you’ve been living under a rock. We also know that the economy is soft, and we’re likely going to print another negative GDP number on Thursday morning — the technical definition of a recession, two quarters in a row — but I think that people really understand that the economy is weak right now and earnings are going to be weak, so people know these thing. The surprises aren’t necessarily going to pop volatility and shock everybody.
Let me just state for those who might be listening to it further on, we are taping this the Tuesday that is the first day of the two-day Fed meeting. So as of now, markets were widely anticipating 75 basis points. By the time you’re listening to this we’ll know the answer to that for sure, and we’ll also know what the GDP print is. [It came out at -0.9%]
But yes, and broadly speaking I believe that to be the case. I was asserting recently that VIX is probably about right considering the type of intraday moves we’ve been having. We do tend to see that high-low intraday, certainly a percent or more are not uncommon. Two to three percent is not uncommon, so when you think about VIX being mathematically speaking, the market’s best estimate of volatility over the coming 30 day period, yeah, it’s about it’s about right. It’s not too cheap. It’s not too expensive.
I called it a Goldilocks VIX. And I do think that you’re always susceptible to a jump because you know, VIX tends to take the elevator to the roof and the stairs back to the lobby. Kind of the opposite of the market, you know. I think it’s I think it’s tough. It’s not unfairly priced. Do you broadly agree with that? What’s your take on that one?
No, I agree with that. And in fact, if you look at other aspects or derivatives of the VIX – and I hate to get all technical here, the VVIX, which is the volatility of the VIX — basically, a derivative of volatility — and that is really extremely low right now too. So this indicator is telling you that no, you really should not expect a lot of huge amount of volatility in the markets, which is kind of explained as well by what we call the SKEW index. The SKEW index tells us where the out outlier bets are being made. When that SKEW index is rising, it means people are speculating that we’re going to have large moves in the markets. Actually the SKEW index is actually rather low, so you have a couple these other indicators that are confirming to you the fact that the market volatility is low, should be low, and it’s priced just about right. So I would agree with you.
OK. Well, we you know we’ll have another month or so of summer to follow and we’ll find out about that one. I’m getting the little motion from our producer that we’re uh… I knew this was going to happen. You and I could talk for an hour or two, but we pretty much have about 1/2 an hour as our goal for the podcast. Anything else you’d like to wrap up with or that you’d like our listeners to know about you, just as a final wrap?
Well, just that I put a lot of information out there and try to help educate people because I realize that this is a difficult to task to do. I think with options trading if you learn what you’re doing the right way and take your time, it’s an endless journey. I’m learning something every single day. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I know you learn something every day as well and it’s endless learning. It’s a fantastic way to earn money and grow your wealth in a way that that unmatched by anything else in financial markets.
It includes crypto and foreign currency, so I think that options trading is a fantastic place to be and I hope it that people get a chance to see what I’m doing. I have this book I wrote called Know Your Options, kind of soup to nuts about options trading from start to finish. It tells you how to get started and gets you working on technicals and so forth. All the options terminology and language and so forth. It’s a great starter book for anybody who wants to get going. I think most people could read that book and get going and open up a trading account and get moving right away.
I’m excited. Every day I wake up in the morning I’m excited to have an opportunity to make a buck in the options market and until that till that goes away, I’m motivated every single day.
And just again, please remind the listeners of your website and your Twitter handle all the good stuff they can find. I know you’re on thestreet.com periodically. That’s where you and I met. I know Jim Cramer features your work from time to time. Just make sure everybody has your website and social media handles.
So my website, thank you, is explosiveoptions.net. As well, I’m on Twitter. My handle is @aztecs99. I went San Diego State so they’re the Aztecs. Because of that it’s my handle. And right, as you said of course, thestreet.com. Steve, we met, did an interview together, and it was just a wonderful interview and it was so great working with you at that time and I’m glad we got a chance to do it again.
And I’m one of the two guys who run “Action Alerts PLUS” for thestreet.com which is their big flagship product that Jim Cramer ran for many, many years. He started it with the charitable trust. He’s moved on, of course, to CNBC. Chris Versace and I took over the product in October of 2021, and we’ve been running it ever since. And we’re doing pretty well. We’re back in line with the S&P 500.
And we’re holding a lot of cash. We have some reserves as well too. I’ve got some good plays in there. But that’s also another place you guys can find me.
Well, I urge you all to check out some of some of the places that Bob told you where to find him. He and I have an ongoing discussion and I’d love it if the more listeners who joined our discussion the better.
Just to wrap up again, my guest was Bob Lang of Explosive Options. This is Steve Sosnick of Interactive Brokers, and I wish you all thank you very much for listening and we’ll be back again with another podcast soon. Thanks everybody.
Disclosure: Interactive Brokers
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Disclosure: Options Trading
Options involve risk and are not suitable for all investors. For more information read the Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options, also known as the options disclosure document (ODD). To receive a copy of the ODD call 312-542-6901 or copy and paste this link into your browser: