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.
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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.
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.
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.
For example, a plastics producer could use commodity futures to lock in a price for buying natural gas by-products needed for production at a date in the future. The price of natural gas—like all petroleum products—can fluctuate considerably, and since the producer requires the natural gas by-product for production, they are at risk of cost increases in the future.
All investors should know how to trade options and have a portion of their portfolio set aside for option trades. Not only do options provide great opportunities for leveraged plays; they can also help you earn larger profits with a smaller amount of cash outlay. What’s more, option strategies can help you hedge your portfolio and limit potential downside risk.
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However, for put options (right to sell), the opposite is true - with strike prices below the current share price being considered "out of the money" and vice versa. And, what's more important - any "out of the money" options (whether call or put options) are worthless at expiration (so you really want to have an "in the money" option when trading on the stock market).