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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:
As shown above, a long options trade has unlimited profit potential, and limited risk, but a short options trade has limited profit potential and unlimited risk. However, this is not a complete risk analysis, and in reality, short options trades have no more risk than individual stock trades (and actually have less risk than buy and hold stock trades).
When you buy an option, the risk is limited to the premium that you pay. Selling an option is the equivalent of acting as the insurance company. When you sell an option, all you can earn is the premium that you initially receive. The potential for losses is unlimited. The best hedge for an option is another option on the same asset as options act similarly over time.
Many day traders who trade futures, also trade options, either on the same markets or on different markets. Options are similar to futures, in that they are often based upon the same underlying instruments, and have similar contract specifications, but options are traded quite differently. Options are available on futures markets, on stock indexes, and on individual stocks, and can be traded on their own using various strategies, or they can be combined with futures contracts or stocks and used as a form of trade insurance.
As an example, let's say an initial margin amount of $3,700 allows an investor to enter into a futures contract for 1,000 barrels of oil valued at $45,000—with oil priced at $45 per barrel. If the price of oil is trading at $60 at the contract's expiry, the investor has a $15 gain or a $15,000 profit. The trades would settle through the investor's brokerage account crediting the net difference of the two contracts. Most futures contracts will be cash settled, but some contracts will settle with the delivery of the underlying asset to a centralized processing warehouse.
Just as you can buy a stock because you think the price will go up or short a stock when you think its price is going to drop, an option allows you to bet on which direction you think the price of a stock will go. But instead of buying or shorting the asset outright, when you buy an option you’re buying a contract that allows — but doesn’t obligate — you to do a number of things, including:
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.