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Knowledge Is Power

A Review of My Experience with the
Investools Investor Foundation Workshop
(and now a review of TastyTrade too)

NOTE:  TD Ameritrade shut down Investools in 2017.
The Investools review remains for referential purposes
below our TastyTrade review and methodology synopsis.

I want to state that neither I or any friends or family had or have any interest, financial or otherwise, in Tastytrade, TastyLive, TastyWorks, Investools, ThinkorSwim, or TD Ameritrade..

TastyLive (formerly TastyTrade) - The Best Options Trading Education and It's FREE

Lucky for us (retail traders) when one of the creators of ThinkorSwim, Tom Sosnoff, sold to TD Ameritrade he didn't take his money and go buy a tropical island. He started TastyTrade. (I have no idea how he comes up with his product names.) TastyTrade, which has since changed its name to TastyLive, is a network in the media sense of the word. From their Website they stream eight hours of live programming every weekday (starting at 7 am Central Time) and every minute of it is focused on educating retail traders primarily on how to trade options, with some coverage of futures. There are no fees to watch the programming and the archives of past programs are also available for free viewing. Tom Sosnoff is the lead on most of the programs and he, along with the person who was in charge of trader education at ThinkorSwim, Tony Batista (call him "Bat"), delivers content that not only educates but, through in-depth research performed by their sizable research staff, shows why what they are saying is supported by the facts of the markets.

Tasty Trade Options Eduation

The day's programs are replayed in the evening and can also be viewed on demand at any time that day or night. Daily features such as tasty BITES and Johnny Trades are for those new to options trading while Market Measures and Options Jive are for those who are familier with trading options. And Liz and Jenny even have a show called IRA Options that focuses on options trades that are allowable in an IRA account. There are also special series such as Two Yutes that follow new traders getting their feet wet. All of these programs and more are available under the On Demand tab near the top of their home page. Experienced traders should check under the Explore More tab to access Bat's podcast called Options Trades Today.

Tasty Trade Options Trading

You can also sign up for a free account to see a daily program schedule, get a customizable dashboard to organize your favorite videos and research slide decks, and create custom playlists but that's optional and nothing is required to watch their programming. If you click on the SEE ALL SHOWS link under the On Demand tab you can access their extensive archive of past programs.

The trading methods they teach are excellent for not only beginning traders, but for those who have limited account balances as well as those who simply want their options trading to be a small part of their trading activity. You trade defined-risk vertical spreads that limit your losses on losing trades to help preserve your account value. Account preservation is the key to successfully learning to trade options. The main reason people fail at options trading is risking too much and eventually blowing out their accounts. Following TastyTrade's methodology helps prevent that from happening.

Synopsis of Trading Methodology

The TastyTrade options trading methodology for those who are either learning to trade options or have an account balance under $25,000 involves not buying, but selling Call options because you make money if the market goes down, goes sideways, or even goes up but not by a lot. Their methodology has three simple facets:

Facet No. 1 - Sell $1-wide Call spreads on stocks or ETFs that have:
a) dollar-increment strikes in the their options chain, ex: strike prices of 45, 46, 47, etc. (stocks under $100 are more likely to have dollar-increment strikes in their options chain)
b) a "Current IV Percentile" above 50 (also called "IV Rank," you can find this volatility statistic on the ThinkorSwim or their TastyWorks platform)
and the options themselves should be:
c) "penny-increment" options meaning bid-ask spreads of 1 to 3 cents which indicates sufficient liquidity
d) around 45 days to expiration to "give yourself time to be right" (meaning if a trade goes bad it will have time to turn around)
e) have about a 70% probability of expiring out of the money (another stat available on the ThinkorSwim and TastyWorks platforms)
With respect to e) above, you can use Delta to approximate the "probability of expiring out of the money." With a short Call spread, the Delta of the Call you are selling is the complement of the probability of it expiring out of the money. For example, if you look at the Greeks of the short option (the Call you are selling in the spread) and the Delta is .26, the complement would be .74 (.26+.74=1). Converting that complement to a percentage indicates that your short Call (and thus your Call spread) has a 74% probability of expiring out of the money. As a shortcut, just use the value of Delta as the "probability of expiring in of the money" so you're looking to sell options with approximately a .3 Delta.

Facet No. 2 - While most trading books advise you to let your winners run and manage your losers, TastyTrade's research shows that, given the "defined risk" nature of option spread trades, you should do just the opposite. Manage winners, not losers, meaning if you get a decent profit (50% to 75% of max profit) close the trade but give losers time to turn around, which is why you choose around 45 days to expiration. (How many times have you gotten out of a losing trade only to discover it would have been a winner if you had just stayed in it? And, mysteriously, we always seem to exit the trade at the exact worst price point as if the underlying was just waiting for us to get out before turning around.)

Facet No. 3 - Above all else, TRADE SMALL AND TRADE OFTEN.
TRADE SMALL using single-contract spreads on dollar-wide strikes so your losing trades don't lose you that much.
TRADE OFTEN so the higher number of occurrences gets the "law of large numbers" mathematical theory to work in your favor. Have a lot of trades on at any given time as your account balance allows making sure not to have more than half your account value at risk.
Your long-run odds of success are much better if you routinely risk $70 on each of ten trades rather than $700 on one trade.
For example, you sell $1-wide Call spreads that expire in 45 days collecting 30 cents ($30) which gives you 70 cents ($70) of risk on each trade. Having half of a $2,000 account at risk means you can have $1,000/$70 or 14 trades on at a time. When your "P/L Open" (profit since opening the trade) is up $15 to $25 close the position and go on to the next trade. Note that this illustrates the "defined risk" aspect of options spreads. In the absolute worst-case scenario, no matter what the price of the underlying stock, ETF or index goes to, your max loss is limited to $70 on the trade.

Real World:  As I write this the market has been going down so the VIX has gone up to 21 (higher volatility makes option prices go up so you collect more money when you sell options). In ThinkorSwim I ran a scan of the "Penny Increment Options" group (to ensure liquidity) for options that have a Current IV Percentile (a volatility indicator) of 50 or higher and whose underlying stocks closed between $15 and $50 (for dollar-increment strikes). Micron Technology (ticker MU) comes up in the scan results with a Current IV Percentile of 59 and a closing price near $28. Checking MU's option chain I see the 30 Call option that expires 40 days from today has a 68% probability of expiring out of the money and I can sell the 40-day-out 30/31 Call spread for 29 cents ($29) giving me 71 cents ($71) in risk. Given that the semiconductor sector has fallen out of favor lately, and the fact that the market has been weak overall, I like my chances that MU won't get back above $30 in the next 40 days. And if it does snap back in the near term, I'll have nearly 40 days for it to fade back down.
Note that we're not talking about big-money trading here. In order to make big money you have to take big risks and it's just a matter of time before traders who take big risks blow out their accounts. Starting out we're talking about making $15 to $30 on a winning trade. But with these small wins comes small risk which allows you to stay in the game long enough (read "years") to figure out how to trade consistently. If you can't consistently make money trading a $2,000 account you're not going to have any long-term success trading a $100,000 account. You'll just lose more.

This helps illustrate why liquidity is important (using the Penny Increment Options group as noted above). If the options on a particular underlying don't have a lot of people trading them they'll have a wide bid/ask differential. When you initially sell a Call spread you'd be more likely to have to sell at the (lower) bid price because there are not many buyers. And when you go to buy the position back to close it there won't be many sellers so you'd be more likely to have to pay the (higher) ask price. This selling low and buying high is called "slippage" and it is caused by illiquid options. If you sell a spread for $3 less than the mid-price and buy it back at $3 more than the mid-price you've lost $6 which is 30% of the 20 or so bucks you were hoping to make on the trade. So only sell spreads if the individual options have narrow bid/ask differentials (typically 1 to 4 cents).

So why do you want an IV Rank (Current IV Percentile) above 50? That indicates that volatility (in the price of the underlying) is higher than normal and you're playing for a "reversion to the mean." The higher the volatility the higher the options prices are (due to Vega) so you collect more when selling Call spreads. The value of the options you sell will not dwindle away due only to eroding time value (Theta), but also due to falling (reverting) volatility (Vega). So selling options when volatility is high gets you two of the options greeks (Theta and Vega) working in your favor instead of just Theta alone.

MATH - The Other Reason To Manage Winners

If the mathematics of options dictates that you have a 70% chance of making $30 on a $1-wide spread trade then the other side of that trade is that you have a 30% chance of losing $70. This math also dictates that the loss from one losing trade will wipe out the gains from 2+ winning trades. As a result, if you let all your trades go to expiration you'll be lucky to end up breaking even over the long term. Trading options by the numbers is, at best, a zero-sum game. Throw in commissions and over time you'll end up losing money trading options if you let everything go to expiration.

That's why you have to manage your winners. You have to get your percentage of winning trades above 70%. And because you'll be closing trades at less than max profit you'll have to get your winning percentage significantly above 70%. Now you see why anyone who says trading options is easy is delusional, and why it takes years to become a consistently successful options trader.

Another "edge" available to you as a retail trader is time. Time is probably the most under-appreciated and under-utilized asset in trading and taking advantage of it will serve you well. Be patient and wait for factors to line up in your favor before you put a trade on. Above we showed that a $2,000 account would allow you to have 14 trades on at a time. However, there's nothing dictating when you have to put those trades on (other than an IV Rank over 50). The price of most underlyings (stocks, ETF, indexes) fluctuate with the market. If you want to sell a Call spread, do so on a day when the underlying's price is up more than usual, maybe due to a good earnings report or an analyst upgrade. In the above MU scenario, the 30 Call had a 68% probability of expiring worthless when I sold the 30/31 Call spread. If I had waited a few days when MU's stock price popped up over $28.50, I could've sold the 31/32 Call spread for about the same amount and would've had an even higher probability of my Call spread expiring worthless. Above we said that you want to sell Call spreads with "around 45 days to expiration" so if the price of an underlying is down when an option is around 45 days to expiration, give it some time to see if it jumps back up.

Time is also a great asset for dealing with losing trades. You may be tempted to bail out of a losing trade so you can reallocate the funds to a different trade but remember that most price action is cyclical and if you have time before expiration use it to your advantage. This particularly applies to undefined-risk trades. The losses associated with a really bad day in an undefined-risk trade can have you wanting to just cut your losses and stop the pain but if you do that you may very well be getting out near the bottom. If the losses are due to conditions that are at an extreme or don't occur very often, exercise some patience and give things time to turn around, rolling an undefined-risk trade if necessary to give yourself even more time.

Undefined-Risk Trades For Experienced Traders

For experienced options traders, TastyTrade's methodologies for undefined-risk strategies such as strangles, ratio spreads and naked Put selling aren't much different than their defined-risk methodologies. You still trade small and trade often, you still sell options which are around 45 DTE (Days To Expiration), you still look for underlyings with a high IV Rank and options with tight bid/ask spreads, and you still manage winning trades. The difference is you also manage losing trades. At around 21 DTE, if your opinion of the underlying hasn't changed, you can roll a trade out to give yourself more time to be right. If you opinion of the underlying has changed, you can close the trade for a loss. Regardless, you want to act around the 21-day mark because their research shows that when an option has less than 21 days of life remaining its Gamma risk (the sensitivity of an option's price to price moves in the underlying stock or ETF) begins to accelerate and a small loss can turn into a large one very quickly. (This Gamma risk is what makes trading short-duration "Weeklys" options so risky.) They also recommend setting stops at 2X the credit received. Their Web site contains archives of past programs that cover managing undefined-risk trades.

For those new to trading options, don't set a goal of "making money" or growing your account size or however else you want to phrase it. When you're just learning to trade options, expecting to make money is wishful thinking and you're setting unreasonable expectations which just sets you up for failure. Set a goal of Not Losing Money instead. Even for experienced options traders there are many instances where getting out of an options trade flat is a win. Not losing money, i.e. capital preservation, is the key to longevity. Don't be tempted to sell the closer-to-the-money option because you'll collect more of a credit or a closer-to-expiration option because you'll get to trade more frequently. Focus, instead, on the best way to make each trade a success as outlined above, even if that results in a scratch.

In the past you could open up a TD Ameritrade account through TastyTrade and get a lower options trading commission. It was an arrangement that grew out of the non-compete clause that was part of the sale of ThinkOrSwim to TD Ameritrade. However, that non-compete clause expired in January of 2017 so in that month Sosnoff and company launched a new brokerage firm called TastyWorks. (What else would you expect from one of the creators of ThinkOrSwim.)

The TastyWorks software includes applications that can run locally on your Mac or PC as well as mobile device versions. There's also a browser-based version. With each version you can watch the TastyTrade programming right in the application.
Comparison Shop - With everyone offering low-to-no commissions on stock, ETF and options trades you need to decide what sort of services you'll need when choosing a brokerage firm. Being a self-directed investor with no use for a financial advisor is fine when you're young. But I can personally vouch for the excellent service you receive from TD Ameritrade once you approach retirement. I received unsolicited offers of assistance from an advisor in my local TD Ameritrade office. He helped me with rollovers, fixed-income opportunities and in-person advisory and planning sessions that saved me a LOT of money when I was transitioning my portfolio into retirement mode, all at no cost to me (thanks Craig V!). Smaller firms simply don't have the resources to provide this type of service. (Unfortunately, the level of service I received as TD Ameritrade customer does seem to have diminished since Charles Schwab took over.) In addition, look closely at all of the fees a brokerage firm lists. For example, TastyWorks will charge you $200 to transfer your account assets if you die (their "Transfer On Death Account Transfer Fee"). You may also find, as I do, that you prefer the complexity of TD Ameritrade's ThinkOrSwim application over the TastyWorks app.
Even with all of the training videos and zero commissions and the free trading platforms don't expect to be a successful options trader any time soon. Those are just tools and just as it takes a craftsman years to learn how to get the most from his tools it takes years to find your trading style, to find what strategies and what underlyings work best for you. Be patient and trade and try different strategies and trade and try different underlyings and trade and trade and trade. Learn how the different options strategies act at different volatility levels (high and low IV Ranks) and see how the different underlyings (indexs vs. ETFs vs. stocks) act under different market conditions. TastyTrade says that "Trading is a skill that can be developed." It's not an innate talent that only some people are born with. And just as no one can climb into a cockpit for the first time and fly across the country, no one can open a brokerage account and fire up a trading platform and be a consistently successful trader. The technology makes it easy to get involved, but what you're involved in is very complex. Pace yourself and be prepared to give it a good three to five years.

A good second strategy to try after you've traded a fair number of vertical Call spreads
is the calendar spread. Calendars have slow price moves (low Gamma), typically will only cost
you a small debit, and even though they're a debit trade, they make money through time decay
just like vertical credit spreads do. While you want to sell verticals when volatilities are high
because it's a negative Vega strategy, you want to buy calendars when volatilities are low
because they have positive Vega (meaning you'll make more money if volatilities go back up).

Make no mistake, trading can get very disheartening at times, especially when the markets insist on moving up for long periods of time as they have been. (When you sell Call spreads you don't want the underlying to go up, and you sell Call spreads because they have higher prices and higher probabilities than comparable Put spreads.) You will have a lot of losing trades, especially in uptrending markets. That's normal, but that's why you "trade small." Hang in there and keep trading and, very slowly, light bulbs will start to come on and things will start clicking and eventually markets will start flattening and you'll gradually start to make money on a more consistent basis.

The Best Trading Book

Trading In The Zone book
More info...
    Trading In The Zone was recommended by a presenter during one of the free Investools workshops and it was probably the most valuable piece of information I gained by attending. It is the best trading book I've ever read. It isn't about strategy selection or chosing underlyings or analyzing charts or anything else you find in 99% of the books on trading. It's about how our preconceived notions and the behaviors we were raised with can actually sabotage our success as traders. It will help you see why you're making the mistakes you're making. It will help you see the markets from new perspective, a prespective every trader needs in order to succeed. There's a reason it's still one of the most highly-ranked trading books on Amazon even though it was released 20 years ago. There's a reason that, of all of the thousands of trading books out there, the Investools presenter recommended this book.


Here's a TastyTrade video on how to defend a Call credit spread when the underlying moves against you.

TD Ameritrade's YouTube channel offers this popular introduction to options and the thinkorswim platform.

Here's a helpful site if you don't even know what an option is:
OptionsEducation.org - The Web site of the Options Industry Council featuring videos on options from fundamentals to advanced strategies.

Investools Review

First things first:
  1. Do I think Investools is a rip-off or scam ?  NO

  2. Do I think the Investor Foundation Workshop is a rip-off ?   Read on
Lets identify the players:
I want to state right off that I'm a more-than-satisfied TD Ameritrade customer. I think the fact that you can call for assistance 24/7 and get someone in the US or go to a local office and talk to someone in person is important. I am VERY happy that they give their customers the ThinkOrSwim platform to use for free and I really like their training Webcasts, many of which are conducted by Investools personnel.

In mid-2010 TDA e-mailed me about two free, consecutive, one-day workshops they were conducting in my area, the "Trading Strategies for Todays Market" workshop and the "Risk-Defined Options Strategies" workshop held Friday and Saturday respectively at local hotels. I fully expected to get a sales pitch for something at these free workshops. In this day of Webinars they're not going to pay for hotel conference room space and staff travel expenses just to be nice.

There were two basic sales pitches during these two free workshops:
Prior to attending the workshops I'd been studying options for some time and dabbled with a few trades but the fact is that you can have all the fancy options strategies in the world but if you don't base them on the correct underlying stock or index they're not going to work. You need to be able evaluate stocks and market trends for options plays. That's why I was happy to see the Investor Toolbox offered during the Investools sales pitch. Even better was the fact that it only cost $29/month to access it (which is cheap compared to most other similar offerings I've looked into).

But before you can access the Investor Toolbox you need to take their "Investor Foundation Workshop" for $299 to learn how to use it. Given that the $299 included 6 months access to the Toolbox ($174 value) I planned to sign up for it. However, given that I was going to be attending the second workshop the next day I just took the application home with me the first day so I could do some researching. Doing some Googling I was shocked to find out that the Investor Foundation Workshop used to cost $2,999! Whether the $299 and $2,999 versions of the workshops are the same, I have my doubts (see below).

When you sign up for the Investor Foundation Workshop you have the option of taking the course on line or live the following Friday and Saturday at a different hotel ballroom. What's not clearly pointed out is that you can do both. Sign up for the live class and, in my case, take the on-line version before the first live class session. When you fill out and hand in the application and your $299 fee you are given a login ID and password that you can use to access and play around with the Investor Toolbox and take the on-line version of the course.

The next morning I arrived for the second free (Options Strategies) workshop with check in hand and signed up for the $299 Investor Foundation Workshop. What I found "interesting" was that at the Options Strategies workshop they didn't offer the $299 option right away. They only offered a more expensive course targeting option traders (and prospective options traders). Only after they had gotten all the applications they were going to get for the more expensive course did they offer the cheaper Investor Foundation workshop. I thought that was kind of sleezy behavior.

All in all I think the two free seminars were well worth the time, although I would not recommend the Options Strategies workshop until one understands options because they move through the information quickly (to leave time for the sales pitches).

Investor Foundation Workshop

During the following week I went through most of the 7 steps using the on-line version of the Investor Foundation Workshop including taking the 10-question quizzes at the end of each step. The material is good, giving a good foundation in the use of the Investor Toolbox and covering some principals of fundamental and technical analysis. I was anxious to get to the live class to get an instructors slant on the material.

Friday arrived and I got there early to get a spot in the front and before lunch I was disillusioned. How was the live version of the Investor Foundation Workshop? In a word:


I expect to get a sales pitch at a free workshop. But to get one after another after another at a workshop that I paid money to attend is incredibly sleezy. And I do mean one after another after another. I would conservatively estimate that 40% of the workshop time was filled with out-right sales pitches for more advanced Investools offerings (going up to $23,000) and, in some cases, the same TDA sales pitches given the at the free workshops the week earlier.

When Investools sends you an e-mail reminder about the workshop they include a link to a PDF of the course syllabus. According to the syllabus, 5 of the 7 steps in Investools "formula" are to be covered the first day. This isn't unbalanced given that more time is spent on technical analysis (Step 6). In my class we only got through Step 3 the first day due to all the sales pitches. Even worse was the fact that, because all the sales pitches left less time for the course material, the instructor moved so fast you couldn't get a question in edge-wise. This was perhaps the most disappointing thing to me. The whole point of a live classroom is interaction with an instructor. This was more like watching a video.

Above I said that 40% of the class time was filled with "out-right sales pitches". Another 15 to 20% was lost to a more subliminal sales tactic. The instructor would say he's going to cover something a little more "advanced" just for a few minutes like he was giving us some extra stuff. What he would present is some advanced, multi-legged options trade or some advanced chart pattern and show how you could use them to make money and then start talking about how much you need the Investools advanced technical analysis course or their advanced options course. Even "breakout sessions" were nothing more than telling you how much you need their advanced training.

The result? You pay $299 for a two-day course in which only 5 to 6 hours total is actually devoted to presenting course material. In my case the instructor whipped through Steps 4 through 7 the second day so quickly that I would've been totally lost had I not taken the on-line version first. I think the instructor was aware of this as he did take time to take more questions the second day.

Perhaps the most disgusting thing is the missed opportunities. They say starting out the first day that the single most important thing is having a trading plan. But they're so busy trying to get you to buy something they never go into it further or help you develop one (but you're instructed to work on one in nearly every step of the on-line course). Of the 10 biggest mistakes investors make, 7 of them were never even covered in my live course. It seems to me that these two topics would be the most critical to the investors who would be taking this course.

Given that you pay $299 whether you attend the live sessions or not, the only cost of attending them (over doing the on-line version only) is your time. Whether it's worth it is something only you can decide. There is a benefit to a live setting. Others may ask questions that never occurred to you. You may even want to hear a sales pitch about their advanced course offerings. But the relentless nature of the sales pitches taking away from valuable class time is a sleezy way to treat paying students. Near the end of the second day they even offered a scaled-down "apprentice" program to try and squeeze out a few more registrations out of those who hadn't signed up for any advanced training, again taking away from course material presentation time.

I don't know if this is how the Investor Foundation Workshop was always presented, but if I had paid the $2,999 instead of $299 I would have asked for my money back. Hopefully TD Ameritrade will at least reduce the sleeziness of these workshops. The heavy-handed nature of these sales tactics did just the opposite, it turned me off of further Investools training. If they had presented it once, maybe twice (once each day for 15 to 30 minutes), in a professional manner instead of acting like used car salesman maybe I would've signed up for further training. Given that most self-directed retail investors are educated professionals I was surprised by their short-sighted unprofessional tactics.

It's truly a shame they chose to present Investools training in this manner because, after watching TDA training videos conducted by Investools instructors and coaches, it's obvious they care about what they do and are good at it. And if watching training videos and following TastyTrade (see below) isn't enough for you and you're looking for one-on-one coaching then Investools is a good alternative.

The Investor Foundation Workshop aside, I do enjoy the Investor Toolbox. It filled a stock screening hole for me and at $29/month I will likely be with them for quite some time to come. And there's no need to use the Prophet Charts on the Investools Web site to do any technical analysis because you can use the TOS (ThinkOrSwim) platform to do that (if you're a TD Ameritrade customer). With recent upgrades to TOS, even the Investools Market Forecast Graph and Phase 1 and Phase 2 information is available in Prophet Charts in TOS.

If you do find yourself signing up for the live Investor Foundation Workshop, do yourself a huge favor and go through the on-line version of the course before the live version starts. In going through the on line version you may come up with questions that you can ask the instructor (during breaks).

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