Why Futures and Options Expirations Won't Boost Wall Street

With the pervasive investor uncertaintly, the so-called witching hour, a time when futures and options expire and investors usually make more trades, is unlikely to boost trading volumes Friday.The "quadruple witching" hour -- when index futures, index options, equity options and security futures expire simultaneously -- is traditionally a time of higher trading volumes and investors decide what to do next. But if the low trading volumes so far this week are any indication, the next quadruple witching hour, scheduled Friday, will likely pass with barely a bump.

The investor uncertainty that has characterized the market's choppy performance seems to be going strong. For the entire month of September, investors have behaved as if someone cast a spell rendering them unable to rally or retreat from stocks.

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The market has been stuck in a small trading range of between 1040 and 1130 on the S&P 500 ($SPX) index for the last four months. And there's been a lower-than-normal volume of stock and options trades as investors try to figure out which way the market might head next. Even the approaching quadruple witching hasn't been able to energize traders.

"We are at a point where the economic numbers are a little bit better, but they are not good enough to convince the buyers or sellers to take a stance with any kind of conviction," says Nate Peterson, senior derivatives analyst for Charles Schwab. "It's a market where you continue to wait and see. As the [reports] come out, you look for indicators that will give you a reason to buy, or to short the market."

Waiting for News

Options investors seem to be waiting for news and economic reports to help them reassess their positions before making trades, Peterson says. As a result, the average options volume in September has slipped to 15 million contracts per week from the 20 million contracts per week the market averaged through May.

That options volume may stay low until closer to October, when companies may begin making announcements in advance of the earnings season, Peterson says. Those announcements may then give investors better clues to where the market is headed. Unfortunately, while providing some clarity for investors, those announcements can also create higher market volatility.

"Right now VIX futures are around 25 – so traders are not pricing in a lot of volatility for October," Peterson says, referring to the Chicago Board Options Exchange Market Volatility Index ($VIX), which measures the market's anticipated volatility based on the sale of S&P 500 index futures and options. Historically, volatility has usually grown during earnings seasons, and an increase in the market volatility index generally makes options and futures more expensive, so Friday may be traders' last chance to lock in positions before higher volatility -- and higher prices -- kicks in.

Leading up to the quadruple witching, some traders bought new options on Wednesday and Thursday, but it seems that most are waiting until next week to decide if they need options to protect their long positions. Those who choose to buy put options for that protection as earnings season approaches can likely get them cheap, relatively speaking, on Friday, Peterson says.

And getting cheaper protection would definitely take the hex out of quadruple witching.
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