USO Options Bears Grow Bold as Oil Prices Sink

Options traders have been placing bearish bets on United States Oil Fund

Jun 6, 2017 at 12:11 PM
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Energy shares have been spiraling alongside crude oil prices, with Schaeffer's Senior V.P. of Research Todd Salamone suggesting investors avoid the "vulnerable" group in recent Monday Morning Outlook commentaries. The sector's struggles are highlighted in the recent price action of the United States Oil Fund (USO), whose shares have plunged more than 8% since being swiftly rejected by their 80-day moving average on May 24. Against this backdrop, one options bear lowered her expectations for USO, betting on the exchange-traded fund (ETF) to trade deeper into single-digit territory.

On Monday, roughly 95,000 puts traded on USO, compared to roughly 53,000 calls. Trade-Alert highlighted noteworthy action at the August 9.50 and 10 puts, where it seems one speculator sold to close the higher-strike options -- likely initiated in mid- and late-May when USO was trading north of $10 -- and bought to open the lower-strike puts. By rolling the option down, the trader is looking to maximize the profit potential on her bearish oil bet.

This skepticism among USO options traders has been growing in recent weeks. At the International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX), speculators have bought to open 103,034 puts in the last 10 sessions, compared to 83,511 calls. Even more telling, the resultant put/call volume ratio of 1.23 is nearly double where it was two weeks ago.

And while put open interest is currently docked at a 52-week peak of 2 million contracts, there's a notable put-skew is notable among short-term USO options, too. The fund's Schaeffer's put/call open interest ratio (SOIR) of 1.44 ranks in the 76th annual percentile, meaning traders are more put-heavy than usual among options set to expire in three months or less.

Drilling down, the August 8.50 put is USO's top open interest position, with 241,845 contracts outstanding. Nearly all of the activity here transpired on May 26, when a block of 215,000 contracts was bought to open for $2.9 million (number of contracts * $0.135 premium paid * 100 shares per contract). This is also the most the put buyer stands to lose, should USO settle north of $8.50 at expiration at the close on Friday, Aug. 18, while profit will accumulate on a move below breakeven at $8.36 (strike less premium paid).

At last check, USO shares were up 0.3% at $9.83, even with July-dated crude futures trading down 0.3% at $47.27 per barrel. Earlier, the energy ETF was staring at a 0.7% loss to hit an intraday low of $9.73.   

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