Bullish Or Bearish? This Useful Ratio Can Help You Gauge Market Sentiment

We spend a lot of time showing you how to use options to generate income and hedge your portfolio. These days, more and more investors are opening up to the idea of actively using options for market-beating returns and consistent income.

And while many have shed their reservations about using options for trading, there is another use for derivatives that we haven’t talked about much…

One of our favorite uses for options is not for direct buying or selling, but as a gauge of market sentiment.

Now, remember that no indicator is perfect. But this is one of the most widely followed by professional traders. It can actually help you time the market. In fact, you could have used this to avoid much of market crash in 2008, for example.

The Put-Call Ratio

The put-call ratio is an extremely easy-to-use indicator and marvelous in its simplicity. The ratio is the number of put options traded divided by the number of call options traded over a given period, usually one month or more.

For example, if there were a total of 2.9 million put options traded on the exchange and 3.2 million call options traded, the put-call ratio would be 0.91 for the period. Since calls (which represent an option to buy), outnumber puts (which represent an option to sell) the measure would indicate bullish sentiment.

The ratio is most often used as a contrarian indicator — a way of betting against the investment herd. When the ratio is extremely high, i.e., many put options relative to calls, contrarian investors reason that traders are overly pessimistic. When the ratio reaches extreme highs or lows, it may mean that the bullish or bearish outlook has gone too far and the potential exists for a market reversal.

For example, if everyone is buying calls and overly bullish, then the potential for new buyers may soon hit a limit, and the market will fall when the bulls start taking profits. Conversely, if everyone is selling, then the market may turn higher when buyers start scooping up lower prices.

The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) website provides historical data for the put-call ratio on equities, indices, and the overall total. The equity put-call ratio measures options traded on individual stocks. The index put-call ratio focuses on options traded on the major indices. The total put-call ratio is an aggregate measure of the two.

Since professional traders often use index options to hedge their portfolios, the index put-call ratio is usually above 1. Traders and investors are generally much more optimistic on individual stocks, so there are typically fewer puts relative to calls in the equity put-call ratio, meaning a measure of less than 1.

Using the Put-Call Ratio for Market Timing

We like to use the CBOE Total Put-Call Ratio (CPC) because it combines equity and index options for a more inclusive view of market sentiment. Since the daily ratio makes for a muddled chart, the best way to use it is through a simple moving average to smooth the data. Some traders use the 10-day moving average for short-term market direction. We like using the 120-day moving average for longer-term market movements.

You can see the total put-call ratio from January 2019 through today in the graph below. The 120-day moving average is noted in red, with bullish and bearish parameters placed at 1 and 0.85, respectively. (Note: this is just a loose parameter, not a hard-and-fast rule.) When the ratio is around 0.85, it means there are much fewer puts relative to calls traded and the market may be overly bullish. Conversely, a ratio of 1 is well above the long-term average and may indicate an overly pessimistic sentiment.

Action To Take

After the put-call ratio moves beyond one of the boundaries, you may want to wait for confirmation of a turn in sentiment by waiting for the ratio to significantly correct from the boundary line. This may mean that you miss some of the initial change in sentiment, but it also helps avoid some of the false shifts indicated by the ratio.

Looking at the chart, we can see the incredibly high levels in March of 2020. Understandably, many traders were making bearish bets against the market as it was falling during the Covid-19 selloff. However, as a contrarian indicator, this clearly would have been an excellent time for bullish investors to buy. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, because we know that the market went on an incredible run afterwards.

More recently, we can see the critical 0.85 level was breached recently. Today, the ratio sits at 0.75, below the moving average. This indicates bullish sentiment in the market right now. Keep in mind, however, since the market has a long-term bullish bias, this may not necessarily mean it’s time to sell. Since this isn’t the kind of extreme sentiment we saw back in March of 2020, for example, it may be best to simply interpret this as a sign of caution for now.

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