Options are available as either a Call or a Put, depending on whether they give the right to buy, or the right to sell. Call options give the holder the right to buy the underlying commodity, and Put options give the right to sell the underlying commodity. The buying or selling right only takes effect when the option is exercised, which can happen on the expiration date (European options), or at any time up until the expiration date (US options).
Puts are more or less the mirror image of calls. The put buyer expects the price to go down. Therefore, he pays a premium in the hope that the futures price will drop. If it does, he has two choices: (1) He can close out his long put position at a profit since it will be more valuable; or (2) he can exercise and obtain a profitable short position in the futures contract since the strike price will be higher than the prevailing futures price.
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.
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 buying a call option, the strike price of an option for a stock, for example, will be determined based on the current price of that stock. For example, if a share of a given stock (like Amazon (AMZN) ) is $1,748, any strike price (price of the call option) that is above that share price is considered to be "out of the money." Conversely, if the strike price is under the current share price of the stock, it's considered "in the money."
As an example, let's say a farmer is expecting to produce 1,000,000 bushels of soybeans in the next 12 months. Typically, soybean futures contracts include the quantity of 5,000 bushels. The farmer's break-even point on a bushel of soybeans is $10 per bushel meaning $10 is the minimum price needed to cover the costs of producing the soybeans. The farmer sees that a one-year futures contract for soybeans is currently priced at $15 per bushel.
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."
Spreads use two or more options positions of the same class. They combine having a market opinion (speculation) with limiting losses (hedging). Spreads often limit potential upside as well. Yet these strategies can still be desirable since they usually cost less when compared to a single options leg. Vertical spreads involve selling one option to buy another. Generally, the second option is the same type and same expiration, but a different strike.
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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.
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.