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All investors should know how to trade options and have a portion of their portfolio set aside for option trades. Not only do options provide great opportunities for leveraged plays; they can also help you earn larger profits with a smaller amount of cash outlay. What’s more, option strategies can help you hedge your portfolio and limit potential downside risk.
A call option is a contract that gives the investor the right to buy a certain amount of shares (typically 100 per contract) of a certain security or commodity at a specified price over a certain amount of time. For example, a call option would allow a trader to buy a certain amount of shares of either stocks, bonds, or even other instruments like ETFs or indexes at a future time (by the expiration of the contract).
What if, instead of a home, your asset was a stock or index investment? Similarly, if an investor wants insurance on his/her S&P 500 index portfolio, they can purchase put options. An investor may fear that a bear market is near and may be unwilling to lose more than 10% of their long position in the S&P 500 index. If the S&P 500 is currently trading at $2500, he/she can purchase a put option giving the right to sell the index at $2250, for example, at any point in the next two years.
When purchasing put options, you are expecting the price of the underlying security to go down over time (so, you're bearish on the stock). For example, if you are purchasing a put option on the S&P 500 index with a current value of $2,100 per share, you are being bearish about the stock market and are assuming the S&P 500 will decline in value over a given period of time (maybe to sit at $1,700). In this case, because you purchased the put option when the index was at $2,100 per share (assuming the strike price was at or in the money), you would be able to sell the option at that same price (not the new, lower price). This would equal a nice "cha-ching" for you as an investor.
Many day traders who trade futures, also trade options, either on the same markets or on different markets. Options are similar to futures, in that they are often based upon the same underlying instruments, and have similar contract specifications, but options are traded quite differently. Options are available on futures markets, on stock indexes, and on individual stocks, and can be traded on their own using various strategies, or they can be combined with futures contracts or stocks and used as a form of trade insurance.
Fluctuations in option prices can be explained by intrinsic value and extrinsic value, which is also known as time value. An option's premium is the combination of its intrinsic value and time value. Intrinsic value is the in-the-money amount of an options contract, which, for a call option, is the amount above the strike price that the stock is trading. Time value represents the added value an investor has to pay for an option above the intrinsic value. This is the extrinsic value or time value. So, the price of the option in our example can be thought of as the following:
However, options are not the same thing as stocks because they do not represent ownership in a company. And, although futures use contracts just like options do, options are considered lower risk due to the fact that you can withdraw (or walk away from) an options contract at any point. The price of the option (its premium) is thus a percentage of the underlying asset or security.