Unlike other investments where the risks may have no boundaries, options trading offers a defined risk to buyers. An option buyer absolutely cannot lose more than the price of the option, the premium. Because the right to buy or sell the underlying security at a specific price expires on a given date, the option will expire worthless if the conditions for profitable exercise or sale of the option contract are not met by the expiration date. An uncovered option seller (sometimes referred to as the uncovered writer of an option), on the other hand, may face unlimited risk.
Volatility also increases the price of an option. This is because uncertainty pushes the odds of an outcome higher. If the volatility of the underlying asset increases, larger price swings increase the possibilities of substantial moves both up and down. Greater price swings will increase the chances of an event occurring. Therefore, the greater the volatility, the greater the price of the option. Options trading and volatility are intrinsically linked to each other in this way.
An equity option allows investors to fix the price for a specific period of time at which an investor can purchase or sell 100 shares of an equity for a premium (price), which is only a percentage of what one would pay to own the equity outright. This allows option investors to leverage their investment power while increasing their potential reward from an equity’s price movements.
Because options prices can be modeled mathematically with a model such as the Black-Scholes, many of the risks associated with options can also be modeled and understood. This particular feature of options actually makes them arguably less risky than other asset classes, or at least allows the risks associated with options to be understood and evaluated. Individual risks have been assigned Greek letter names, and are sometimes referred to simply as "the Greeks."
Of course, many investors, especially new investors, are skittish about options. After all, no investor is required to trade this way, and the transactions can seem complicated. But once you know the pros and cons of this type of investing, it can be a powerful part of your strategy. No investors should be sitting on the sidelines simply because they don’t understand 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.
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:
Options belong to the larger group of securities known as derivatives. A derivative's price is dependent on or derived from the price of something else. As an example, wine is a derivative of grapes ketchup is a derivative of tomatoes, and a stock option is a derivative of a stock. Options are derivatives of financial securities—their value depends on the price of some other asset. Examples of derivatives include calls, puts, futures, forwards, swaps, and mortgage-backed securities, among others.
In order to trade options, you’ll need a broker. Check out our detailed roundup of the best brokers for options traders, so you can compare commission costs, minimums, and more, as well as our explainer on how to open a brokerage account. Or stay here and answer a few questions to get a personalized recommendation on the best broker for your needs.
In terms of valuing option contracts, it is essentially all about determining the probabilities of future price events. The more likely something is to occur, the more expensive an option would be that profits from that event. For instance, a call value goes up as the stock (underlying) goes up. This is the key to understanding the relative value of options.
Just like many successful investors, options traders have a clear understanding of their financial goals and desired position in the market. The way you approach and think about money, in general, will have a direct impact on how you trade options. The best thing you can do before you fund your account and start trading is to clearly define your investing goals.
Volatility: If an options market is highly volatile (i.e. if its daily price range is large), the premium will be higher, because the option has the potential to make more profit for the buyer. Conversely, if an options market is not volatile (i.e. if its daily price range is small), the premium will be lower. An options market's volatility is calculated using its long-term price range, its recent price range, and its expected price range before its expiration date, using various volatility pricing models.
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.
With straddles (long in this example), you as a trader are expecting the asset (like a stock) to be highly volatile, but don't know the direction in which it will go (up or down). When using a straddle strategy, you as the trader are buying a call and put option at the same strike price, underlying price and expiry date. This strategy is often used when a trader is expecting the stock of a particular company to plummet or skyrocket, usually following an event like an earnings report. For example, when a company like Apple (AAPL) is getting ready to release their third quarter earnings on July 31st, an options trader could use a straddle strategy to buy a call option to expire on that date at the current Apple stock price, and also buy a put option to expire on the same day for the same price.