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Option traders have been picking up Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ:CSCO - 16.85) puts at a rapid-fire rate lately, as evidenced by data from the major options exchanges. On Monday, however, it looks like some speculators employed these typically bearish options to place neutral-to-bullish bets on the blue-chip tech stock.
During the course of the session, CSCO saw roughly 66,000 puts change hands -- almost twice its average daily put volume. Most popular was the January 15 put, which accounted for more than 16,300 of the contracts traded. In fact, a block of 16,100 back-month puts crossed the tape at the bid price of $0.25 each, suggesting they were sold. What's more, put open interest at the January 15 strike skyrocketed overnight, confirming our suspicions of sell-to-open activity.
By selling the puts to open, the investors are expecting CSCO to remain north of $15 through the next couple of months -- which includes the company's turn in the earnings spotlight tonight. As long as the puts remain out of the money through January options expiration, the sellers can retain the entire net credit received, which represents the maximum potential reward on the play. Should the shares retreat beneath the $15 level, though, the trader could be assigned -- meaning he or she would be on the hook to buy CSCO shares at $15 apiece, representing a premium to what they'd pay on the Street.
As alluded to earlier, yesterday's appetite for short puts runs counter to the growing preference for long puts. On the International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX), CSCO has racked up a 10-day put/call volume ratio of 0.67, which stands higher than 86% of all others of the past year. In other words, option buyers have initiated bearish bets over bullish at a much faster-than-usual clip during the past couple of weeks.
Nevertheless, CSCO still has plenty of fans on Wall Street. In fact, the equity sports 17 "strong buys" and two "buy" ratings from analysts, compared to 13 "holds" and not one "sell" or worse recommendation. Plus, the consensus 12-month price target on the stock stands at $21.74 -- implying expected upside of nearly 29% to CSCO's closing price of $16.85 on Monday, and in a neighborhood the shares haven't explored since early 2011.
Technically speaking, the growing affinity for bearish option bets isn't too surprising, with CSCO surrendering about 11% since its mid-August bullish gap. Pressuring the shares lower have been their descending 10-day and 20-day moving averages, which are now sitting at $17.19 and $17.69, respectively. Furthermore, the $17.50 region acted as a speed bump on the charts before the aforementioned gap higher, and could resume its role as a technical headwind.
Fundamentally, the company has surpassed analysts' per-share profit projections in each of the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters. Analysts, on average, are expecting Cisco to report fiscal first-quarter earnings of 46 cents per share on revenue of $11.79 billion.