Options on futures contracts are exactly what the name implies, they give traders "options". They are capable of being used in nearly every commodity market scenario and with variable risk and reward profiles. Too many traders fail to tap the true potential and flexibility of option spreads due to their seemingly complex nature; however, things aren't always as they appear. We strongly believe that you owe it to yourself to overcome your fear of trading commodity options and open your mind to the possibilities.
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.
Futures options can be a low-risk way to approach the futures markets. Many new traders start by trading futures options instead of straight futures contracts. There is less risk and volatility when buying options compared with futures contracts. Many professional traders only trade options. Before you can trade futures options, it is important to understand the basics.
Traders that are willing to accept considerable amounts of risk with the prospects of limited reward, can write (or sell) options, collecting the premium and taking advantage of the well-known belief that more options than not expire worthless. The premium collected by a commodity option seller is seen as a liability until the option is either offset (by buying it back), or it expires. This is because as long as the option position is open (the trader is short the commodity option), there is substantial risk exposure. Should the futures price trade beyond the strike price of the option, the risk is similar to holding a commodity futures contract outright.
In search of a promising commodity option trade, it is important to look at whether or not the options are priced fairly. Option prices fluctuate according to supply and demand in the underlying commodity market. At times, options on futures prices become inflated or undervalued relative to theoretical models such as Black and Scholes. For example, during the "crash" of 2008 the value of put options exploded as traders scrambled to buy insurance for their stock portfolios or simply wanted to wager that the equity market would go down forever. The increase in option premium was partly due to inflated volatility but increased demand for the instruments had a lot to do with it. Those that chose to purchase put options at inopportune times and at overvalued prices, likely didn't fair very well.
Options markets trade options contracts, with the smallest trading unit being one contract. Options contracts specify the trading parameters of the market, such as the type of option, the expiration or exercise date, the tick size, and the tick value. For example, the contract specifications for the ZG (Gold 100 Troy Ounce) options market are as follows:
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).