13 ETFs Every Options Trader Must Know

by on February 22, 2013

On most days, ETFs are among the most heavily-traded names in the investing world. This is a sure sign that active traders are using ETFs—a transparent, cost-effective way to trade market fluctuations–to gain access to a very wide range of sectors, commodities, countries, indexes, currencies and assets. The options market for ETFs has also been gaining steam. Whether you are looking to buy calls on the potential upside of an ETF, buy puts on a potential decline or write options, in the well-established ETF names you are likely to find a willing counter-party [see ETF Call And Put Options Explained].

Options are an additional tool used for speculation, or risk control. Buying calls and puts limits the buyer’s risk to the cost of a contract, which is a fraction of the cost of buying/shorting the actual ETF, but still lets the buyer profit from favorable moves. Options can also be used to hedge a position, create very low-risk trading strategies using numerous options, or create an additional stream of income through writing options on already established ETF positions [see also 10 Questions About ETFs You've Been Too Afraid To Ask].

Below, in no particular order, we cover 13 of the 100 Most Liquid ETFs by trading volume that have very active options markets:

1. SPDR S&P 500 (SPY, A)

This ETF is consistently one of the most actively-traded securities listed on U.S. markets, averaging over 130 million shares per day. Daily call and put volume with a strike price within several dollars of the current ETF price usually accounts for 100,000 contracts or more in the nearest expiry month, with additional volume for strikes well away from the current price and with further out expiry dates. There is likely to be open interest of hundreds of thousands of contracts at any given time [see S&P 500 Visual History].

2. SPDR Gold Trust (GLD, A-)

For those looking to trade the price of gold, this popular ETF usually does more than nine million in daily average volume and is backed by physical gold holdings. GLD options are available across a wide range of strikes and expiry dates, but volume is generally focused around the nearest expiry, or a few months out, with a strike price near the current ETF price. If you trade in this “active pocket” of the options market, you can usually expect more than 5,000 call or put options to change hands each day. There may be open interest of hundreds of thousands on a given contract at a given time [see GLD-Free Gold Bug ETFdb Portfolio].

3. iShares MSCI Brazil Index (EWZ, A-)

Providing access to the often volatile Brazilian equity market, this ETF attracts active traders with its more than 10 million shares per day trading volume and established options market. Volume in EWZ options is focused on near-term expiry dates, and volume is insignificant on far-out-of-the-money options (with a strike price more than $5 away from the current ETF price). Trade contracts within a couple months of expiry and with active strike prices and daily call and put volume of 1,000 to 3,000 contracts can be expected.

4. iShares FTSE China 25 Index Fund (FXI, B-)

With China’s expansion over the last several years, the interest in an ETF that tracks its top companies has also blossomed. The ETF usually does more than 15 million in daily volume, and it has a very active options markets. Call and put volume is in the thousands to tens of thousands per day, depending on the strike and expiry date. Open interest can range from thousands to tens of thousands at very active strikes, and sometimes hundreds of thousands [try out Free ETF Country Exposure Tool].

5. Barclays 20 Year Treasury Bond Fund (TLT, B-)

One of most active bond ETFs, daily volume is often above 4.5 million shares and has significant (thousands) call and put volume across a wide range of strike prices, and varying expiry dates. Open interest of a couple thousand shares is not uncommon in a wide array of front month (next to expire) strikes, but will vary based on market conditions and the movement of the ETF price.

6. Silver Trust (SLV, C+)

The most well-known silver ETF is backed by physical silver and trades more than 10 million shares per day. Volume occurs at very far-in and very far-out-of-the-money strikes, with the more active strikes exchanging thousands of contracts. Open interest can easily get into the tens of thousands on an active contract [see also 17 ETFs For Day Traders].

7. PowerShares (QQQ, B+)

Tracking the tech-heavy Nasdaq, volume is well over 30 million shares per day. Daily volume on near-term contracts with strikes near the current ETF price runs from the thousands to the tens of thousands and a large amount of open interest. Like SPY, this is one of the most active of the ETF options markets [see How To Swing Trade ETFs].

8. Market Vectors TR Gold Miners (GDX, B+)

GDX tracks the price performance of a basket of gold miner stocks, and it consistently trades more than 14 million shares per day. Volume for active strikes can push up to ten thousand a day, but usually a few thousand is to be expected.

9. S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures ETN (VXX, A-)

How this ETF works can be tough to wrap your head around, but it moves inversely to the S&P 500 and tracks implied volatility. It does close to 30 million shares per day, can get extremely volatile, and has a very active options market. Expect volume across a wide range of strike prices, since the underlying ETF can really move in a stock market panic or surge. Many contracts will do several thousands in volume a day.

10. MSCI Emerging Markets Index (EEM, B+)

With volume of more than 50 million per day, active traders have embraced this ETF, which tracks global up-and-coming markets primarily in Asia and Latin America. Active contracts regularly see a few thousand contracts change hands in a session, and open interest can reach into the hundreds of thousands [see How To Use A Breakout Trading Strategy For ETFs].

11. Financial Select Sector SPDR (XLF, A)

Very popular among options and shares traders, this financial-sector-tracking ETF does close to 50 million in daily volume and a large number of strikes will do several hundred in volume, with very active strikes doing several thousand. Open interest can push up into the hundreds of thousands.

12. Daily Small Cap Bear 3X Shares (TZA, C+)

As the most active of the leveraged ETFs this fund provides no shortage of excitement–and danger for those who don’t know what they are getting into. Daily volume is usually more than 14 million shares and up several thousand calls and puts for active strike prices. Open interest may get high during big moves, and it is usually several thousand into the tens of thousands.

13. Energy Select Sector SPDR (XLE, A)

Tracking the energy sector, next to XLF, this is one of the highest volume sector ETFs available. Daily volume checks in near 10 million shares per day, and option trades occur across a wide range of strike prices. Daily volume on active contracts ranges from a few hundred to several thousand; open interest is often several thousand to tens of thousands depending on market conditions and the specifications of the call or put contract.

The Bottom Line

For those looking to trade options on ETFs, you can find many with daily activity. Ultimately you need a market that will allow you to get in and out easily, and for most traders trading several contracts at a time, these ETFs allow for that. On a daily basis volume is usually centered around strike prices that are close to the current ETF price and nearer to expiry–stick to trading these contracts as they generally provide the best opportunity for short-term gains.

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Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.