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Playing the Bid-Ask Spread When Selling Covered Call Options

An integral aspect of our options trade executions is to sell at the “bid” and buy at the “ask”. Many times we can “negotiate” the bid to a higher price or the ask to a lower price. Would you like to earn $50 in 50 seconds? Why not learn how to play the bid-ask spread?

Blue Collar Investors throughout the world are always looking for ways to generate additional profits into our portfolios. This includes the use of some of the more esoteric maneuvers that may produce small returns of $40, $50 or more. One of the main philosophical approaches to Blue Collar Investing is that by generating small but consistent, low risk returns and then compounding those profits, we can become financially independent.

In my previous books and DVDs, the following phrase appears on numerous occasions:

Sell at the “bid”, the lower price; buy at the “ask”, the higher price. This references the price lists found in the options chains. Before we discuss some common sense applications to maximizing profits by playing the bid-ask spread, let’s review some definitions (stay awake now, this can make you some cash!).

Definitions as they apply to options:

BID: An offer made by an investor, a dealer or a trader to buy an option. It will usually stipulate the price the buyer is willing to purchase the option and the quantity to be purchased. As covered call writers, we sell at the “bid”.

ASK: The price a seller is willing to accept for an option, also called the offer price. The “ask” will always be higher than the bid.

BID/ASK SPREAD: The difference in price between the highest price that a buyer is willing to pay for the option and the lowest price a seller is willing to sell it. If the bid is $2.80 and the “ask” is $3.00, then the bid-ask spread is $ 0.20.

Theoretical Value: The hypothetical value of an option as calculated by a mathematical model such as the Black-Scholes Option Pricing Model.

Black-Scholes Option Pricing Model: A model used to calculate the value of an option, by factoring in stock price, strike price and expiration date, risk-free return, and the standard deviation of the stock’s return.

How the bid-ask spread is set:

There may be several bid prices and several ask prices at any point in time. However, only the highest bid and lowest ask are used to calculate the spread. These are the figures you see when accessing the options chains. Utilizing an estimate of the volatility of the underlying stock, a theoretical option value is calculated using an option pricing model, such as the Black-Scholes model. A market maker will then set the bid below this theoretical value and the “ask” above this theoretical price. This is the spread and is determined mainly by liquidity. For example, the highly liquid ETF QQQ has bid/ask spreads as low as $ 0.01. This is one of the reasons I require all stocks owned in our portfolios and on our watch list trade at least 250,000 shares per day and options to have an open interest of 100 contracts and/or a bid-ask spread of $0.30 or less. Market makers derive their profit from bid/ask spreads. The greater the spread, the more money they make. Playing the spread will decrease their profits and increase ours.

Market order vs. limit order:

If you use a market order when executing a trade, you will sell at the published bid price and buy at the published ask price (this is called “lifting” the offer or “hitting” the bid). This may be okay for the purchase and sale of stocks where the spread is tight (small), but for options, which have a wider bid/ask spread, a limit order is more appropriate and beneficial.

The Show or Fill Rule:

This is also called the Limit Order Display Rule or technically the Exchange Act Rule 11Ac1-4. This regulation requires the market makers to show or publish any order that improves the current bid or ask prices unless it is filled. Any order between the current bid-ask spread will improve the market.

Practical Application:

Most exchanges have a policy in place that requires market makers to fill AT LEAST 10 contracts at the quoted price. For many equities and ETFs the number of contracts required is a lot more and varies from security to security. These players want to buy securities at the lowest price (bid) and sell at the highest price (ask or offer). Now it’s time for Blue Collar Investors all over the world to become annoying and take out our slingshots in much the same way that David approached Goliath. As long as the bid-ask spread isn’t too tight or close together, we place our order between the two quoted prices. If the market maker (MM) does not fill the order, he will be required to publish it and then be obligated to fill at least 10 contracts, perhaps more, at that price. Since most of us are selling small numbers of contracts, let’s say up to 5 per stock, it is in the best interest of our friends on the other side to just fill our orders and settle for a lower amount on 5 contracts rather than be obligated for twice that amount and for many more traders. We got them right between the eyes….I mean between the bid-ask spread.


In this hypothetical the bid is $2.50 and the “ask” is $3.00. That’s a spread we can work with. As covered call writers, we sell at the bid or in this case, $2.50 per share or $250 per contract. That’s the price at which the MM wants to buy our options. Instead our offer will be $2.65. That betters the current published offer of $3.00. Therefore, our friend on the other side has a dilemma: Do I fill these 5 contracts @ $2.65 or publish the new, improved offer and be responsible to fill 10 or more as required by the Show or Fill Rule? In most cases, we will get our $0.15 and the MM will get rid of us. This little maneuver will pay for our commissions and buy us lunch at Wendy’s. $75 becomes hundreds, becomes thousands, and becomes tens of thousands and so on. The market makers? They’re gazillionaires anyway…they’ll be alright.


All or None Box

For most of us checking this box is redundant, not necessary because the MM is required to fill at least 10 contracts. If this box IS checked the MM is no longer required to publish our offer and we will lose our leverage when playing the bid-ask spread.

A market order should always get filled as you are buying a said number of shares “at market” so you will hit offers until you have a fill. Limit orders will only fill at your specified limit price or better. If you don’t want partial fills and you are trading a large number of contracts you can use the all or none order. They will fill the whole order or nothing. However, this will be counterproductive when playing the bid-ask spread.


To take advantage of the show or fill rule we must:

  • Improve the market (bid-ask spread)
  • Sell 10 contracts or less
  • Not check the all or none box on the trade execution form

Blue Collar Investors have certain tools available that will level the playing field with the MMs. Taking advantage of the Show or Fill Rule is an important one especially when selling a small number of contracts. Although each successful trade will generate a small amount of cash, over time this will add up to significant dollars that will help to secure our financial future. Unlike David, though, we are not looking to injure our adversaries, just annoy them.


Next live event:

June 12th: I will be the keynote speaker for the New York City Private Investors Group at the ING Direct Cafe:

To sign up (seating is limited):

Time: 6PM to 7:30 PM

Admission is FREE and non-members are welcome.


Free resources and glossary:

In an effort to provide our members with the most thorough and informative covered call website available, we have recently added two new features to the general site:

1- Covered Call Glossary

2- Free resources including the Basic Ellman Calculator

Look for the links on the top bar of all pages of our site. Although the Blue Collar team is quite proud of our top-rated site, we will continue to listen to your valuable feedback and make enhancements that will take our site to even higher levels.

Market tone:

This was a light week for economic reports but included some encouraging news from the housing market:

  • New home sales increased by 3.3% in April and up 9.9% compared to April, 2011
  • Existing home sales rose by 3.4% in April following two straight months of declines and up 10% from April, 2011
  • Single-family home sales increased by 3.0% and condominium and co-op sales rose by 6.0%
  • The national median existing home sales price rose to $177,400 in April, up 3.1% from March and 10.1% from April, 2011
  • New orders for durable goods increased by 0.2% in April, slightly below expectations but an increase from the 3.7% decline in March

For the week, the S&P 500 rose by 1.7% for a year-to-date return of 5.70%, including dividends.

The VIX has calmed this past week to a level of 21 but has been erratic at best the past 3 months as shown in the chart below:

VIX- A 3-month chart

Note the following:

  • The red arrows highlight the rapid spikes in the VIX during the past 3 months
  • The green arrows show the subsequent declines in the VIX
  • The yellow field shows a calm and stable VIX, an ideal scenario for the conservative strategy of covered call writing


IBD: Market in correction

BCI: Cautiously bullish as the recent housing reports are huge for a recovering economy. This is more than likely a reason for continued improvement in consumer sentiment (79.3, the highest level since October, 2007).  However, I continue to favor in-the-money strikes to hedge the recent market volatility.

Happy holidays to one and all,

Alan ([email protected])


About Alan Ellman

Alan Ellman loves options trading so much he has written four top selling books on the topic of selling covered calls, one about put-selling and a sixth book about long-term investing. Alan is a national speaker for The Money Show, The Stock Traders Expo and the American Association of Individual Investors. He also writes financial columns for both US and International publications along with his own award-winning blog.. He is a retired dentist, a personal fitness trainer, successful real estate investor, but he is known mostly for his practical and successful stock option strategies.

19 Responses to “Playing the Bid-Ask Spread When Selling Covered Call Options”

  1. Barry B May 26, 2012 3:19 pm #

    Premium Members,

    The Weekly Report for 05-25-12 has been uploaded to the Premium Member website and is available for download. Due to technical difficulties, the report has been uploaded in two parts…Weekly Stock Screen And Watch List 05-25-12 PART 1OF2, and Weekly Stock Screen And Watch List 05-25-12 PART 2OF2. Please be sure that you download both parts.

    Have a great holiday weekend.


    Barry and The BCI Team

  2. Tom May 27, 2012 5:44 am #

    When a stock on the running list shows a segment rank lower than the previous week (WPI for example) would you avoid this stock and favor ones heading in the other direction?



    • Alan Ellman May 28, 2012 10:48 am #


      All stocks in the “white cells” of our “running list” are eligible. They have passed several rigorous screens to deserve a place on our list. Now you bring out a valid point regarding stocks with a lower industry segment rank than the previous week. I treat this parameter in the following manner: After I’ve selected the stocks to run my calculations, I will favor the ones with the higher industry ranks with everything else being equal. In other words, if I’m deciding between 2 stocks and one has an industry rank of “A” and the other “C”, I’ll go with the “A”. All the substantial information found in the premium reports will allow you to tailor your portfolio to your specific needs.


  3. Steve Z May 27, 2012 9:15 am #

    Alan, at least with TOS, there is an additional option in terms of selecting the Exchange. There is a choice of Best, CBOE, PHLX, AMEX, ISE, BOX, NYSE, or NASDAQ. The default is “Best” but some people believe that for a small number of contracts, you usually/often get better fills by using the higher trading volume exchanges, such as by specifying ISE rather than by just using “best.” This makes conceptual sense and if true, it would obviously be worth doing. Any perspective? Steve

    • Alan Ellman May 29, 2012 1:47 pm #


      I do NOT see this as an issue. Most of the options we buy and sell are multi-listed and the bid-ask spread is (in theory) the “best” national pricing. By setting a limit order and “playing the bid-ask spread” where indicated we should be getting great executions. I have a contact who is a former options market-maker who I will ask about this to confirm.


  4. Joan May 28, 2012 10:36 am #


    Would you favor a stock like ADS which has been on your stock list for 17 weeks and up about 20% during that time. Or would you be concerned that the trend could end? Thanks for all this great information.


    • Alan Ellman May 29, 2012 5:23 pm #


      I view a stock that has been strong for a significant time frame as a stronger candidate than one new to the running list. As long as our technical indicators are confirming of the uptrend, I’m in as long as the calculations meet my goals. Keep in mind that our obligation is only one month and we have our exit strategies in case the trade turns against us.


  5. Maria May 28, 2012 6:00 pm #


    On this weeks running list about a third of the stocks have dividends. Should we be concerned about the option buyer exercising and buying our shares early to capture the dividend? Thanks for your help.


    • Alan Ellman May 29, 2012 5:32 pm #


      Unless there are tax concerns, early exercise of our options is more a bonus than a negative. We have generated our option premium, sold at a price we agreed to when entering the trade and now have our cash to re-invest mid-contract. Let’s not confuse covered call writing with a dividend capture strategy. Should we capture a dividend in the process I consider it a bonus but not a requirement.


  6. Dave U May 28, 2012 6:39 pm #

    Does the quote rule you mention apply if one places a “buy write” order for both the underlying stock and the option? My broker does allow me to place a limit on this type of order and it does result in me not incurring a second fixed fee for the separate options sale order.

    • Alan Ellman May 29, 2012 5:41 pm #


      You can absolutely use this strategy when using a buy-write combination form. For example if you buy a stock for $28 and look to sell the $30 call which has a bid-ask spread of $1 – $1.50:

      Without playing the bid-ask spread you would submit a net debit order for $27 ($28 – $1). Instead, enter a net debit of $26.80. The mid-point of the spread is $1.25. Drop a bit to favor the market maker to $1.20. $28 – $1.20 = $26.80.

      You will not always achieve the “sale” price, but you will be surprised that it won’t be rare either. You have nothing to, lose and everything to gain.


  7. Alan Ellman May 29, 2012 7:08 am #

    Running list stocks in the news: SWI:

    SWI (software maker for IT professionals) reported a stellar earnings report on April 26th with revenues up 38% year-over-year and earnings beating estimates by 8.7%. Guidance has also been raised with revenues expected to be up between 26-31% in 2012 with operating margins at 50%. Our premium running list shows an industry segment rank of “A”, a beta of 1.15, and its next projected earnings report on July 26th.


  8. Adrian May 30, 2012 2:52 am #

    Alan, for buying back any options then can I do this at just above the midpoint price, rather than at the ‘ask’ price(opposite of how you try for more cents when selling calls)? thanks

    • Alan Ellman May 30, 2012 10:39 am #


      Yes. As long as we “improve” the market and meet the requirements stated in the above article, the “Show or fill rule” applies. I place my limit order slighly above the midpoint when buying back calls. For tight spreads ($0.10 or less) I go with the published “ask”.


  9. Alan Ellman May 30, 2012 10:20 am #

    Running list stocks in then news: TRIP:

    TRIP was a spin off from Expedia Inc. (EXPE) late last year. On May 1st the company reported ints 1st quarter results with revenues growing @ 33% and earnings @ 79%. Earnings came in 23% ahead of estimates. Guidance has been raised by 8.3% for 2012 and by 10.3% for 2013.

    Share price is up 69% year-to-date compared to 3.2% for the S&P 500. This is in stark contrast to two other recent high-profile IPOs, FB and GRPN.

    On our premium “running list” we note that the chart < 1 year which normally creates greater risk for the covered call writer. Generally, only those with a high risk-tolerance should use stocks trading less than 1-year for the underlying. That is why we highlight this fact in the "comments" column of the report. However, in this case TRIP has been reported in EXPE reports prior to spinning off. This provides investors with a greater comfort level than other IPOs. Our running list shows an industry segment rank of "B" and a next projected earnings report date on 7/28/2012. Alan

  10. Barry B May 30, 2012 4:44 pm #

    Premium Members,

    The Weekly Report for 05-25-12 has been revised and uploaded to the Premium Member website and is available for download. There have been no changes to the data. This revision has the entire report in one document instead of the two part document uploaded over the weekend.

    Please look for the report dates 05/25/12-REVA

    Have a great holiday weekend.


    Barry and The BCI Team

  11. Alan Ellman May 31, 2012 4:19 pm #

    Premium members:

    This week’s 6-page report of top-performing ETFs and analysis of ALL Select Sector Components has been uploaded to your premium site.

    For your convenience, here is the link to login to the premium site:

    Not a premium member? Check out this link:

    Alan and the BCI team

  12. Alan Ellman June 1, 2012 12:39 pm #

    Offsite Q&A:

    Even though I realize that the gold etf (GLD) is not on the weekly report, I sometimes check the index to get some idea of where it is moving. Recently, because of my interest in options, I’ve looked at the option chain. I noticed that there are two to three strikes at the same price with different premiums. Can you tell me what the difference is in the different options?

    My response:

    Good observation. GLD is one of a handful of securities that have “weeklys” or weekly expiring options. For June, 2012 there are options expiring June 1st, 8th, 16th and 29th currently. Those expiring later will have greater premiums for the same strike prices due to the greater time value.


  13. Brent June 4, 2012 9:31 am #

    spot on description of working the bid/ask spread. You described in a few minutes what took me a year of trial and error to learn. I do try the midpoint to see if they are hungry enough to accept it. Sometimes it works, if not I move a little to the side as you suggest.

    I’ve found that when your option is in the money the market maker is less accommodating when you are trying to sell to close. They seem to know your broker is going to charge you more for assignment than they will have to pay for the transaction. They will let the spread widen a bit and ignore anything not at the bid price.

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