This article was published on 31 July 2004. Some information may be out of date.

QHere is something different: derivative or option trading.

It was announced last month that some NZ companies would begin to offer option trading. Whilst I realise that such an investment vehicle can be risky if one is not well versed in the strategies and markets available (like most vehicles), the fact remains that this form of trading can produce great returns.

My question is this: If an average NZ investor, looking to establish a nice retirement fund, traded options regularly, what tax implications would there be?

I have heard that because of our country’s lack of capital gains tax there would be little taxes to pay. Can you shed any light on this matter?

AOptions on five shares, Carter Holt Harvey, Contact Energy, Fletcher Building, Telecom and The Warehouse, will be traded on the New Zealand Exchange from September 28.

Let’s start by understanding what they are. Then we’ll look at tax.

There are two types of options, calls and puts. A call option gives you the right to buy, say, 1000 Telecom shares at a fixed (“exercise”) price on or before an expiry date.

Let’s say you pay 40c a share, or $400, for the option; the exercise price is $6.25; and the expiry date is next June 23.

If, before that date, Telecom shares rise above $6.25, you can exercise your option to buy at the then-cheap price.

You can then sell the shares whenever you wish — hopefully at a profit that will more than cover the price of the option and all transaction costs.

But if June 23 comes and goes and the shares have never reached $6.25, you throw away your option. The $400 is wasted. Obviously, when you bought the option, you were expecting the share price to rise.

What about the person who sold the option to you? At the time of the sale, they get the $400.

After that, if the Telecom share price rises enough for you to exercise the option, the seller loses. They have to sell the shares to you at below market price.

If they don’t already own the shares, they will have to buy high and sell lower (or they may minimise their loss by buying as soon as the share price hits $6.25).

On the other hand, if the price never tops $6.25 by June 23, they’ve gained by $400. And as long as it doesn’t top $6.65, they’ve made at least some gain.

The person who sells a call, then, is expecting that the share price won’t rise much, or will fall.

They, too, may be a risk taker. There’s another possibility, though. The seller might already own Telecom shares, and be worrying that the price will fall.

For them, selling the option has given them at least some gain — what they got for the option — if the price does in fact go down.

People or institutions in that situation use options to reduce rather than take risk, and are prepared to give up some of their potential return to do that.

How’s your brain doing? Time for a cuppa before we look at put options?

A put gives you the right to sell — as opposed to buy — say, 1000 Telecom shares at an exercise price on or before an expiry date.

You can follow through the examples above in reverse. But the basic idea is that if you sell a put, you are expecting the share price to rise.

If you buy a put, you might be expecting that the share price will fall. Or you might own Telecom shares and be worried that their price will fall. With the option, you can limit your loss by guaranteeing your won’t get less than the exercise price.

There are three main points about options:

  • They’re quite tricky to get your head around. Don’t trade them if you don’t fully understand them.
  • If you own the underlying shares, you can use options to reduce the risk of holding those shares, as explained above.

    But there’s no free lunch. If you sell a call, you get the proceeds from the sale. But if the price of your shares rises, you could end up losing part of the share price gain.

    And if you buy a put, you limit your potential losses. But to do that, you pay the price of the option.

    In some cases, it will end up worth the hassle and the transaction costs, in other cases, not.

  • If you’re trading options as a risk taker — without owning the underlying shares — note the following: Options trading is what is called a zero sum game. For every dollar one person gains, another person loses a dollar.

    The average options trader, then, makes zero, before transaction costs. After fees, commissions, brokerages, taxes and so on, the average person suffers a loss.

    You might think you’ll do better than average. But I wouldn’t count on it.

    The Consumers Institute surveyed people who attended a three-day course on options trading — run by a man who said he made a 4900 per cent return on options!

    Of the 31 people who responded and had been actively trading options, one had made a profit, one had broken even, and four had made money using a related technique.

    The others reported losses ranging from about $2000 to $6000. Add course costs of $3000 to $5000, plus more for software and advanced courses. “It’s an expensive process,” says Consumer magazine.

What about taxes?

New Zealand doesn’t have a capital gains tax. But if you trade any financial instrument that doesn’t pay interest or dividends, the only reason to buy it is to sell at a profit. So that profit will be subject to income tax.

I don’t like the chances of any options trader convincing the IRD that their gains shouldn’t be taxed.

What’s more, if you are paying tax on your options profits, “there’s a higher chance that the IRD may ask questions about your other investments,” says PricewaterhouseCoopers tax partner Tony Gault. “You’re putting yourself on the radar screen.”

The situation may be different, though, if you own the underlying shares and use a share option to reduce risk.

If your share gains are already taxable and your losses deductible, your options would almost certainly be treated in the same way, says Vernon Phillips of the IRD. There would be situations, then, when a gain on one could be offset by a loss on the other.

If your share gains aren’t taxable, and you buy or sell an option for the purpose of reducing risk, it’s possible that any gain or loss from that activity may not be taxable or deductible. It’s complicated stuff. Investors should check this point with their adviser.

No paywalls or ads — just generous people like you. All Kiwis deserve accurate, unbiased financial guidance. So let’s keep it free. Can you help? Every bit makes a difference.

Mary Holm is a freelance journalist, a director of Financial Services Complaints Ltd (FSCL), a seminar presenter and a bestselling author on personal finance. From 2011 to 2019 she was a founding director of the Financial Markets Authority. Her opinions are personal, and do not reflect the position of any organisation in which she holds office. Mary’s advice is of a general nature, and she is not responsible for any loss that any reader may suffer from following it. Send questions to [email protected] or click here. Letters should not exceed 200 words. We won’t publish your name. Please provide a (preferably daytime) phone number. Unfortunately, Mary cannot answer all questions, correspond directly with readers, or give financial advice.