Investing with options— an advanced trader will tell you— is all about customization. Rewards can be high — but so can the risk— and your choices are plenty. But getting started isn’t easy, and there is potential for costly mistakes. Here’s a brief overview of option trading that cuts through the jargon and gets right to the core of this versatile way to invest.
Decide whether you think a commodity will sell for more or for less at some designated time in the future, then buy either a “put” or a “call” option. For example, you think that corn will cost more three months from now than it does now, so you will buy a “call” option on 100 bushels of corn which, in effect, locks in the cost of that commodity. Before the option expires, hopefully the price will go up, so your option will be worth more. Conversely, you will buy a “put” option if you think the price of the commodity will be less than it is today.
Combinations are trades constructed with both a call and a put. There is a special type of combination known as a “synthetic.” The point of a synthetic is to create an options position that behaves like an underlying asset, but without actually controlling the asset. Why not just buy the stock? Maybe some legal or regulatory reason restricts you from owning it. But you may be allowed to create a synthetic position using options.
Call writers and put writers (sellers), however, are obligated to buy or sell if the option expires in-the-money (more on that below). This means that a seller may be required to make good on a promise to buy or sell. It also implies that option sellers have exposure to more, and in some cases, unlimited, risks. This means writers can lose much more than the price of the options premium.
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.