When buying or selling options, the investor or trader has the right to exercise that option at any point up until the expiration date - so simply buying or selling an option doesn't mean you actually have to exercise it at the buy/sell point. Because of this system, options are considered derivative securities - which means their price is derived from something else (in this case, from the value of assets like the market, securities or other underlying instruments). For this reason, options are often considered less risky than stocks (if used correctly).
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.
Options on futures began trading in 1983. Today, puts and calls on agricultural, metal, and financial (foreign currency, interest-rate and stock index) futures are traded by open outcry in designated pits. These options pits are usually located near those where the underlying futures trade. Many of the features that apply to stock options apply to futures options.
For example, a plastics producer could use commodity futures to lock in a price for buying natural gas by-products needed for production at a date in the future. The price of natural gas—like all petroleum products—can fluctuate considerably, and since the producer requires the natural gas by-product for production, they are at risk of cost increases in the future.
Options are powerful because they can enhance an individual’s portfolio. They do this through added income, protection, and even leverage. Depending on the situation, there is usually an option scenario appropriate for an investor’s goal. A popular example would be using options as an effective hedge against a declining stock market to limit downside losses. Options can also be used to generate recurring income. Additionally, they are often used for speculative purposes such as wagering on the direction of a stock.
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.