AT&T (T) Option Traders Bet on Earnings Beat

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Cautious investors have kept AT&T Inc. (T) shares lower-range bound ahead of its fiscal second quarter earnings report. It appears that options traders are positioned to anticipate a slight positive move, with a growing number of out-of-the-money call options in the open interest. If AT&T delivers a positive earnings surprise, the unusual option trading may create a strong upward trend in the price action.

A growing number of call options remain in the open interest for AT&T, with unusually high option premiums. The trading volumes suggest that, in anticipation of a positive earnings report, traders have been both selling put options and buying calls. If AT&T’s earnings report does not meet market expectations, these bets could swiftly unwind, resulting in downward pressure on the share price of AT&T.

It is difficult to accurately predict the direction a stock will move after earnings. However, a comparison of the price action between stock prices and option trading activity shows that, if the company delivers a positive report, AT&T shares could rise significantly, moving closer to its 20-day moving average in the first few days after the announcement. This could happen because options are priced for a small move, but better-than-expected good news could catch traders by surprise and create a rapid rise in price.

Key Takeaways

  • Traders and investors have kept the price of shares bound in a lower range headed into the announcement.
  • The price recently has been trading below its 20-day moving average.
  • Put and call pricing is predicting a stronger upwards move.
  • The volatility-based support and resistance levels allow for a stronger move upwards.
  • This setup creates an opportunity for traders to profit from an unexpected result.

Option trading represents the activities of speculators who want to profit from correctly forecasting unexpected moves in an underlying stock or index, or investors who want to protect their positions. That means option trading is literally a bet on market probabilities. By comparing the details of both stock and option price behavior, chart watchers can gain valuable insight, although it helps to understand the context in which this price behavior took place. The chart below depicts the price action for the AT&T share price as of Wednesday. This created the setup leading into the earnings report.

Current Trends

Over the past month, the trend of the stock has seen the share price remain in the lower bounds of the range, below the 20-day moving average. It’s notable that, in July, share prices pushed above the 20-day moving average, only to pull back below it in the days before the announcement. As indicated on this chart, the price has stayed consistently under the moving average.

The studies are formed with 20-day Keltner Channel indicators. These depict price levels that represent a multiple of the Average True Range (ATR) for the stock. This array helps to highlight the way the price has remained close to the bottom third of the range. This is a pessimistic price move for AT&T shares. 

Tip

The Average True Range (ATR) has become a standard tool for depicting historical volatility over time. The typical average length of time used in its calculation is 10 to 20 time periods, which includes two to four weeks of trading on a daily chart.

In this context where the price trend for AT&T has been holding in a lower range, chart watchers can recognize that traders and investors are expressing concern going into earnings. In the week before earnings, the share price fell, only to gap down further below the 20-day moving average the next week. That makes it important for chart watchers to determine whether the move is reflecting investors’ expectations for an unfavorable earnings report or not.

Option trading details can provide additional information to help chart watchers form an opinion about investor expectations. Recently, option traders are favoring calls over puts by a decent margin, as the open interest on options has a greater number of calls than puts. This normally suggests that investors are expecting good news from the company report. However, in this circumstance, traders appear to be expecting that AT&T will move upwards after earnings.

Tip

The Keltner Channel indicator displays a set of semi-parallel lines based on a 20-day simple moving average and an upper and lower line. Because the upper lines are drawn by adding a multiple of ATR to the average and the lower lines are drawn by subtracting a multiple of ATR from the average price, then this channel indicator makes for an excellent visualization tool when charting historical volatility.

Trading Activity

Option traders recognize that AT&T shares are below average and have priced their options as a bet that the stock will close within one of the two boxes depicted in the chart between today and July 23, the Friday after the earnings report is released. The green-framed box represents the pricing that the call option sellers are offering. It implies a 35% chance that AT&T shares will close inside this range by the end of the week if prices go higher. The red box represents the pricing for put options with a 26% probability if prices go lower on the announcement.

It is important to note that the open interest featured nearly 1.8 million call options active compared to roughly 1 million put options, demonstrating the slim bias that option buyers had, as there is a larger number of call options than puts. This unusual amount normally implies that option traders expect a move upwards. However, because the call box and the put box are relatively equal in size, it tells us that the high percentage of call options traded has not skewed expectations that much higher. This circumstance implies a far more complacent outlook.

The purple lines on the chart are generated by a 10-day Keltner Channel study set at four times the ATR. This measure tends to create highly correlated regions of strong support and resistance in the price action. These regions show up when the channel lines make a noticeable turn within the previous three months.

The levels that the turns mark are annotated in the chart below. What is notable in this chart is that the call and put pricing are in such a close range with limited space to run downward compared to the potential space for upward movement. This suggests that option buyers don’t have a strong conviction about how the company will report, even though calls are being purchased over puts. Although investors and option traders do not expect it, a surprising report would push prices dramatically higher or lower.

These support and resistance levels show a large range of support and resistance for prices. As a result, it is possible that any news, surprisingly bad or good, will catch investors by surprise and could generate an unusually large move. After the previous earnings announcement, AT&T shares rose 4% the day of earnings and dropped the following week before gradually rising above the pre-earnings price in May. Investors might be expecting the same kind of move in price after this announcement. With lots of room in the volatility range, share prices could rise or fall more than expected.

Market Impact

AT&T shares typically make mild moves after earnings, so the result might not move index prices directly. However, no matter what the report says, it will likely have a significant impact on stocks in the Communication Services sector. A positive report could lift other stocks in the sector such as T-Mobile US, Inc. (TMUS), Twitter, Inc. (TWTR), or Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ). It would also affect exchange-traded funds (ETFs) such as State Street’s Communication Services Sector Index ETF (XLC) and potentially State Street’s S&P 500 Index ETF (SPY).

Source: Investopedia