Have you ever tried juggling?

Picture this: You’re attempting a ratio spread, each move akin to juggling an odd number of balls, crafting an entrancing asymmetric display mid-air. Much like this captivating juggle, the ratio spread reflects a dance between balance and imbalance, echoing the complexities of options trading.

In the vast labyrinth of options trading, the ratio spread emerges, captivating those just starting to trade options, seasoned vets, and everyone in between with its distinctive unevenness. At its core, this strategy taps into the dynamism of asymmetry, helping traders traverse the ever-shifting lanes of the market, balancing risks and rewards.

Join us on this exploration, and you’ll quickly realize that the charm of the ratio spread isn’t just its structure. It’s in its tactical edge during specific market scenarios. Through this article, we aspire to demystify this intriguing approach, shedding light on its subtleties and guiding traders to harness its full potential.

Definition and Basics of Ratio Spread

Diving into the world of options trading, one strategy that stands out is the ratio spread. This is where an investor buys and sells varying quantities of options, all linked to the same stock and expiration, but different strike prices. This variation in numbers? That’s the “ratio” in the mix.

To simplify: Most ratio spreads involve using either calls or puts, with the key being to sell more options than you buy. This strategy earns the trader a net premium, identifying it as a credit spread. Credit spreads oppose debit spreads because they net traders a premium rather than costing them. Yet, there’s a caveat: while they can be profitable, the design of ratio spreads can also subject traders to potentially boundless losses, depending on if it’s a put or call ratio spread.

Digging deeper: A trader might opt for a 2:1 call ratio spread. This means they sell two call options at a higher strike for each call they buy at a lesser one. The goal? Capitalize on a slight uptick in the stock’s value. Conversely, a 2:1 put ratio spread is about selling more puts at a lower strike and buying fewer at a higher, aiming for a slight dip in the stock value.

Decoding the Strategy: Types and Assumptions 

Options trading presents an array of strategies, with ratio spreads showcasing their own unique twists. Two major players in this space are the call front-ratio spreads and put front-ratio spreads. Mastery requires delving deep into their structure and the reasoning behind them. 

Call Front-Ratio Spread

Imagine this: Buy one call at a lower strike and sell two or more at a higher one. The trader’s mindset? They’re optimistic but with boundaries. The stock is expected to rise, but ideally, it should plateau at the strike of the sold calls. If it surges past? The trader might face potential losses due to the multiple short call positions. 

Here’s a real-world scenario for context: Suppose a trader, motivated by news of Tesla’s planned EV price cuts, decides to set up a call front-ratio spread. They purchase one TSLA call option with a $270 strike and subsequently sell two TSLA call options with a $275 strike. 

If, by expiration, the stock lands precisely at $275, the long $270 call will possess a $5 intrinsic value, while the short $275 calls expire worthless – this situation maximizes the strategy’s profit. However, if TSLA stock leaps to $280, the trader would face mounting losses from the two short calls, which might overshadow any gains from the long call. 

Put Front-Ratio Spread

On the flip side, the put front-ratio spread entails buying one higher strike put while selling two or more at a lower strike. Here, the trader’s sentiment leans towards neutrality or mild pessimism. They foresee the stock descending but only as far as the sold puts’ strike. A significant plunge beyond the strike of the short puts might tip the scales towards a net loss due to the amplified impact of the two short put positions.

To paint a clearer picture: A trader considers setting up a put front-ratio spread with MGM because they saw they declined to meet ransom demands during casino cyberattack, and yet, their stock price rose, so they feel unsure, but slightly bullish. 

They start by buying one put at a $35 strike and selling two puts at a $30 strike. Optimal gains are in sight if the stock touches $30 by its expiration. But a steep tumble to $25? That could mean sizable losses, given those two short puts. 

Implied Volatility and Ratio Spreads

A pivotal factor in crafting ratio spreads is gauging the implied volatility (IV) landscape and understanding how to line up options with their implied volatility values. A heightened IV typically bodes well for this approach, since the sold options tend to gain value, bolstering the net credit when entering the trade. Yet, increased volatility can also translate to broader stock price oscillations, so traders must weigh and become at ease with potential risks.

In a nutshell, ratio spreads offer a sophisticated angle to options trading, catering to traders’ distinct market predictions. Their finesse in juxtaposing rewards with risks, particularly in certain volatility contexts, earmarks them as a vital instrument for the seasoned trader. 

Diving Deeper: Understanding the Setup 

Venturing into the world of ratio spreads demands a solid grasp on the correct setup for both call and put front ratio spreads. These configurations are the linchpins of the strategy, steering the possible outcomes in sync with market shifts. Let’s unravel the anatomy of each. 

Setting Up the Call Front-Ratio Spread:

  • Kick things off by buying one lower strike call option. This long call anchors your position and acts as the bedrock for the spread. 
  • In tandem, sell two or more higher strike call options. These short calls distinguish the ratio spread, boosting premium inflow and demarcating your peak profit territory. 

To visualize how this strategy can play out, let’s take a look at its payoff diagram: 

The chart illustrates a call ratio spread, showing the potential profit and loss at different underlying asset prices.

Payoff Diagram of a Call Ratio Spread.

The underpinning logic here is to harness a measured price uptick, shown above as the max profit peak. If the stock inches upwards and nestles close to the strike of the short calls come expiration, you’re positioned for prime gains. If the stock either hovers below the long call’s strike or underperforms expectations, the premium pocketed from the sold calls could neutralize the long call’s acquisition cost, or perhaps turn a modest profit. But a soaring stock price, scaling heights past the short calls’ strike? That could spell trouble due to the amplified exposure of the short stances. 

Setting Up the Put Front-Ratio Spread:

  • Initiate by acquiring one higher strike put option. This serves as the shield in your strategy. 

Simultaneously, dispense two or more lower strike put options. These short puts amplify the premium earnings, cushioning the cost of the long put and possibly culminating in net gains.

In contrast, when traders have a moderately bearish outlook, they might opt for a put ratio spread. The payoff for this strategy differs from the call ratio spread, as illustrated here:

The chart illustrates a put ratio spread, demonstrating potential earnings and losses at varied underlying asset price points.

Payoff Diagram of a Put Ratio Spread.

Here, the guiding principle is to cash in on a gentle stock price drop. Should the stock take a slight downturn, settling near the strike of the short puts by its expiration, you’re on the path to optimal profits. If, however, the stock maintains ground above the long put’s strike or doesn’t dive as projected, the earnings from the short puts can curtail losses or potentially carve out a lean profit. But brace for potential setbacks if the stock price plummets deep below the short puts, considering the doubled stakes of the twin short positions.

Both the call and put front ratio spread setups pivot on capitalizing modest directional nudges in stock price. The charm of these spreads is their adaptability, boasting the chance for gains even if the stock charts an unexpected course—courtesy of the rich premiums from the multifold options sold. Yet, it’s paramount to grasp the inherent risks, especially given the heightened exposure from the dispatched options. 

Illustrative Examples

Navigating the waters of options trading can sometimes feel like deciphering hieroglyphics. To shed light on this, let’s dive into illustrative scenarios showcasing the dynamics of the ratio spread strategy: 

1. Call Front-Ratio Spread Example:

Picture this: Microsoft (MSFT) currently trades at $325 per share. You’re a trader who’s betting on a moderate uptick in the next 30 days after they get closer to closing their deal with Activision.

Strategy Execution:

  • Buy 1 call option with a $327 strike at a $2 premium.
  • Sell 2 call options with a $330 strike for a $1 premium each.
  1. If MSFT lingers below $327 come expiration, both your long and short calls fizzle out. You’ll break even with the loss from the long call offset by the gains from the two short calls: $2 – $2 = $0.
  2. Now, should MSFT climb and settle at $330, your long call fetches $3 ($330 – $327). The short calls, meanwhile, become irrelevant. Your net gain becomes $3 (long call’s value) – $2 (initial outlay) + $2 (from the dual short calls) = $3.
  3. If MSFT leaps to $332, the long call rakes in $5 ($332 – $327). But, the short calls, now in tricky territory, drain $2 each. This leaves you with a net uptick of $1.

2. Put Front-Ratio Spread Example:

Picture General Motors (GM) with shares valued at $30. You’re foreseeing a slight decline in its near future after finding out that they might have to shell out $6.5B in US fuel economy fines

Strategy Execution:

  • Buy 1 put option with a $28 strike, incurring a $2 premium.
  • Sell 2 put options with a $25 strike, raking in $1.50 per option.
  1. If GM holds its ground above $28 by expiration, all your options run their course without impact. The math reveals a slight loss: earnings of $1 from the short puts minus the $2 spent on the long put, resulting in a $1 deficit.
  2. Now, if GM shifts gears and reaches $25, the long put garners a $3 profit, while the short puts bow out without a fuss. You’d be looking at a neat $3 + $3 (from the dual short puts) – $2 = $4 in gains.
  3. On a gloomier note, if GM slumps to $22, the long put swells by $6. However, the underbelly of the short puts now costs $3 each, balancing the books to a net gain of $0.

These instances underscore the intricate possibilities emanating from ratio spreads, underscoring the strategy’s adaptability alongside its inherent risks. 

Comparative Analysis: Ratio Spread vs. Other Spreads

In the multifaceted world of options trading, understanding the subtle differences among other spreads is indispensable for savvy investors. Here’s a snapshot comparing ratio spreads, back spreads, and vertical spreads: 

1. Ratio Spread:

A ratio spread strategy involves holding an uneven number of long and short options. More often, it’s established in a 1:2 ratio: for every option bought, two are sold. The beauty of this approach is that the premiums from the sold options can significantly reduce the purchase cost. But beware: it also opens the door to potential boundless losses if the underlying asset sways unfavorably. 

2. Back Spread:

Think of backspread as the yin to ratio spread’s yang. In this strategy, investors purchase more options than they sell, aiming to capitalize on a pronounced shift in the underlying asset, be it a rise or fall. The allure here? Unlimited profit potential in one direction. However, if the asset barely budges, it might spell losses. 

Let’s take a closer look at its payoff diagram to understand its structure and potential outcomes: 

The chart illustrates a call backspread, showing potential profit and loss across different underlying asset prices at expiration.

Backspread Payoff Diagram – Visualizing the Profit and Loss Potential.

As shown in the diagram, the back spread strategy involves selling fewer options than are bought, either calls or puts, with the same expiration date. This configuration can result in:

  • Limited loss potential if the underlying asset remains near the strike price of the options involved.
  • Significant profit potential if the asset makes a large move in the direction of the purchased options.

For traders expecting substantial price volatility but uncertain about the direction, the back spread can be a valuable tool to consider in their arsenal. 

3. Vertical Spread:

Vertical spreads are all about balance as indicated below. Here, traders buy and sell options of the same expiry but differing strike prices, either as calls or puts. This method sets a ceiling on both gains and losses, making it a predictable play. Its straightforward nature and known profit or loss potential are its standout traits. 

The graph below provides a clear depiction. Showing how the vertical spread strategy and its relatives get their names. 

The chart illustrates option spreads with expiration dates on the x-axis and strike prices on the y-axis. Three distinctive lines represent vertical, horizontal (calendar), and diagonal spreads.

A vertical spread gets its “vertical” name due to its correlation with strike price.

As illustrated, each type of spread has its unique positioning on the graph. Vertical spreads are structured using options of the same type and expiration date but with different strike prices. 

While ratio spreads offer cost savings from selling multiple options, they’re accompanied by the shadow of larger losses. Back spreads tantalize with significant profit prospects but come with their own set of challenges, especially if the market remains dormant. Vertical spreads, calendar spreads, and diagonal spreads strike a middle ground. Ultimately, the decision hinges on a trader’s market intuition, risk appetite, and specific goals. 

Financial Implications: Profit, Loss, and Breakeven

Diving into ratio spreads? Equip yourself with a clear understanding of potential financial outcomes. Both call and put ratio spreads present unique profit, loss, and breakeven landscapes. 

1. Call Ratio Spread:

  • Profit Potential: Maximum profit is realized when the underlying stock ends right at the strike price of the short calls come expiration. Essentially, it’s the premium difference from selling the calls versus buying the long call.
  • Loss Scenarios: The catch with call ratio spread is the risk looming on the upside. If the stock surges past the strike prices of the short calls, losses might skyrocket. You’ll be in a bind, needing to procure shares at the market rate but only able to sell them at the strike price.
  • Breakeven Point: Call ratio spreads boast two breakeven markers. The lower one equates to the long call’s strike minus net premiums, while the upper corresponds to the short call’s strike plus potential losses.

2. Put Ratio Spread:

  • Profit Potential: Maximum gains knock when the stock closes at the short puts’ strike price upon expiration. The profit is essentially the premium difference between the long and short puts.
  • Loss Scenarios: The challenge here is on the downside. With more sold put options than bought, a drastic stock drop could spell substantial losses. But, the silver lining is the premium cushion from the sold puts.
  • Breakeven Point: Mirroring its call counterpart, put ratio spreads have two breakeven points. The upper point is the long put’s strike plus net premiums, and the lower one is the short put’s strike minus possible losses.

For a shrewd trader, knowing how to pinpoint the breakeven points is paramount in risk management. The formulas mentioned for both call and put ratio spreads can be invaluable tools in discerning where a position stands neutral, neither in profit nor loss.

Ratio spreads, whether call or put, present traders with a window to capitalize on option premium differences. But with potential rewards come inherent risks, primarily from the asymmetric number of options in play. A firm grasp of financial implications, particularly the breakeven thresholds, becomes vital in adeptly navigating and buffering against potential setbacks. 

Managing and Optimizing the Strategy

Mastery of the ratio spread strategy goes beyond mere setup; it’s about deftly steering it towards the best outcomes. Central to this is the vigilant tracking of the underlying asset’s price. This allows traders to respond swiftly to market oscillations, be it to harness potential gains or curb impending losses. 

Having clear exit milestones—set in line with risk appetites and strategic aims—acts as a guiding star for traders, signaling when to wind down positions. These predetermined markers effectively sideline emotions, promoting decisions grounded in strategy and foresight. Enhancing this approach, many seasoned traders also rely on trading alerts to be promptly informed of pivotal market shifts. 

Yet, the market’s predictability is often fickle. When it rebels against expectations, traders have a toolkit of defense strategies at their disposal. One might mull over rolling the position to a later expiration, affording the trade added time to possibly turn favorable. At times, layering on more spreads or tweaking existing ones can recalibrate an off-kilter position. And occasionally, the shrewdest move might be a partial withdrawal—closing a segment of the position to pare down risks.

Capital management is the bedrock of this strategy. Striking a harmony—where one isn’t overextended yet has sufficient capital for tweaks—is vital. With ratio spreads being swayed by implied volatility, regularly gauging the volatility landscape is key. And remember, financial markets dance to countless external beats. Being well-informed primes traders to forecast market gyrations and finetune their game plans.

The ratio spread strategy, while potentially lucrative, demands alertness, flexibility, and a sharp market intuition. By keeping their fingers on the market’s pulse and staying nimble, traders can not only weather the storm but also flourish using this method.

Advanced Insights: Impact of Volatility Skew

The volatility skew, often referred to as the “smile,” is a crucial concept in options trading. It represents the difference in implied volatility across options with varying strike prices but the same expiration date. This pattern allows us to line up options with their implied volatility values. In equity markets, it’s common for out-of-the-money puts to have higher implied volatilities than out-of-the-money calls. This creates a skew that decreases as one moves from lower to higher strike prices. 

Here’s how the smile expresses itself: 

Graph showcasing the volatility skew with the distinctive “smile” shape, representing the difference in implied volatility across various strike prices.]

Highlighting the disparity in implied volatility across strike prices.

As depicted in the graph above, the volatility skew – often characterized by its iconic “smile” shape – presents a discernible pattern of increasing implied volatility for both deep out-of-the-money and deep in-the-money options. 

For those wielding the ratio spread strategy, this volatility skew becomes undeniably salient. Take, for instance, a put ratio spread—buying one in-the-money put while selling multiple out-of-the-money puts. These latter options, inflated in implied volatility owing to the skew, amplify the strategy’s appeal. Why? Because traders pocket a heftier premium from selling these puts. This plumped-up premium can significantly boost the strategy’s profit prospects, particularly if the stock price nudges lower but stays above the sold puts’ strike price.

However, this skew isn’t all rosy. The bloated implied volatility can be seen as the market bracing for a potential drop, implying a tangible risk of the asset nosediving below the sold puts’ strike price. Here, the inherent gamble of the ratio spread—a severe move bucking the position—becomes glaringly evident.

Yet, there’s another layer: the volatility skew’s own fluidity. As markets ebb and flow, the skew’s contour and intensity evolve. This necessitates that traders, while employing ratio spreads, must monitor not just the underlying asset’s price but the ever-morphing skew as well. 


In the realm of options trading, the ratio spread distinguishes itself as a strategy pulsing with adaptability and profit potential. Its intimate ties to elements like volatility skew emphasize the importance of thorough knowledge when engaging with such advanced tactics.

The delicate balance of risk versus reward is a cornerstone of fundamental option strategies, with ratio spreads serving as a prime illustration. When skillfully maneuvered, these strategies become powerful tools, enabling traders to harness specific market outlooks. However, the intricate nature of ratio spreads underscores the continual need for learning and adaptability.

Reflecting on ratio spreads within the grand tapestry of trading, it’s evident: the well-informed trader, armed with sagacity and insight, stands poised to expertly chart the complex seas of options and to reap the rewards therein. 

Deeper Dive into Ratio Spread: FAQs

What Sets a Ratio Spread Apart From Other Spread Strategies?

A ratio spread is distinctive because it employs an unequal number of long and short options. Instead of the common 1:1 ratio found in many spreads, this strategy often utilizes different ratios, giving traders added flexibility in profit potential but also presenting unique risk dynamics. 

When Should a Trader Consider Using a Ratio Spread?

The best time to adopt a ratio spread often coincides with specific market conditions. It’s typically preferred when a trader has a moderately bullish or bearish anticipation for an asset, and a defined perspective on the asset’s implied volatility.

How Does the Level of Implied Volatility Influence the Ratio Spread Strategy?

Implied volatility is instrumental in shaping ratio spreads. A rise in implied volatility can amplify the potential profit of a front ratio spread, especially if the stock price undergoes a notable shift. But it’s essential to remember that heightened volatility often brings increased risk.

What Main Risks Come with Employing Ratio Spreads?

While ratio spreads present both flexibility and profit opportunities, they’re not without their risks, mainly stemming from their asymmetrical nature. The dominant risk is the possibility of infinite losses, especially where more options are sold than purchased. Therefore, it’s vital for traders to implement safeguard measures or use different order types like stop-losses to counteract this risk.

How Does the Volatility Skew Influence a Ratio Spread’s Results?

Volatility skew highlights the variance in implied volatility across options with different strike prices. Given that ratio spreads typically encompass options with varied strike prices, this skew can sway the strategy’s profitability. Depending on the specific configuration and skew direction, the outcome can either be enhanced or diminished.