Options can provide flexibility for investors at every level and help them manage risk.
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To see if options trading has a place in your portfolio, here are the basics of what options are, why investors use them and how to get started. An option is a contract to buy or sell a stock, usually shares of the stock per contract, at a pre-negotiated price and by a certain date. 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 options are useful for long-term buy-and-hold investors, too.
You also can limit your exposure to risk on stock positions you already have. If the share price does indeed tank, the option limits your losses, and the gains from selling help offset some of the financial hurt.
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.
Dayana Yochim is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website: Email: dyochim nerdwallet. Twitter: DayanaYochim. Options trading can be complicated. That education can come in many forms, including:. Reliable customer service should be a high priority, particularly for newer options traders. Consider what kind of contact you prefer. Live online chat?
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Phone support? Does the broker have a dedicated trading desk on call? What hours is it staffed? What about representatives who can answer questions about your account? Even before you apply for an account, reach out and ask some questions to see if the answers and response time are satisfactory.
Options trading platforms come in all shapes and sizes.
For example, many bonds are convertible into common stock at the buyer's option, or may be called bought back at specified prices at the issuer's option. Mortgage borrowers have long had the option to repay the loan early, which corresponds to a callable bond option. Options contracts have been known for decades. The Chicago Board Options Exchange was established in , which set up a regime using standardized forms and terms and trade through a guaranteed clearing house.
Trading activity and academic interest has increased since then. Today, many options are created in a standardized form and traded through clearing houses on regulated options exchanges , while other over-the-counter options are written as bilateral, customized contracts between a single buyer and seller, one or both of which may be a dealer or market-maker. Options are part of a larger class of financial instruments known as derivative products , or simply, derivatives.
A financial option is a contract between two counterparties with the terms of the option specified in a term sheet. Option contracts may be quite complicated; however, at minimum, they usually contain the following specifications: . Exchange-traded options also called "listed options" are a class of exchange-traded derivatives. Exchange-traded options have standardized contracts, and are settled through a clearing house with fulfillment guaranteed by the Options Clearing Corporation OCC. Since the contracts are standardized, accurate pricing models are often available.
Exchange-traded options include:  . Over-the-counter options OTC options, also called "dealer options" are traded between two private parties, and are not listed on an exchange. The terms of an OTC option are unrestricted and may be individually tailored to meet any business need. In general, the option writer is a well-capitalized institution in order to prevent the credit risk. Option types commonly traded over the counter include:.
By avoiding an exchange, users of OTC options can narrowly tailor the terms of the option contract to suit individual business requirements. In addition, OTC option transactions generally do not need to be advertised to the market and face little or no regulatory requirements. However, OTC counterparties must establish credit lines with each other, and conform to each other's clearing and settlement procedures.
With few exceptions,  there are no secondary markets for employee stock options. These must either be exercised by the original grantee or allowed to expire. The most common way to trade options is via standardized options contracts that are listed by various futures and options exchanges.
By publishing continuous, live markets for option prices, an exchange enables independent parties to engage in price discovery and execute transactions. As an intermediary to both sides of the transaction, the benefits the exchange provides to the transaction include:. These trades are described from the point of view of a speculator. If they are combined with other positions, they can also be used in hedging. An option contract in US markets usually represents shares of the underlying security. A trader who expects a stock's price to increase can buy a call option to purchase the stock at a fixed price " strike price " at a later date, rather than purchase the stock outright.
The cash outlay on the option is the premium. The trader would have no obligation to buy the stock, but only has the right to do so at or before the expiration date.
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The risk of loss would be limited to the premium paid, unlike the possible loss had the stock been bought outright. The holder of an American-style call option can sell his option holding at any time until the expiration date, and would consider doing so when the stock's spot price is above the exercise price, especially if he expects the price of the option to drop. By selling the option early in that situation, the trader can realise an immediate profit. Alternatively, he can exercise the option — for example, if there is no secondary market for the options — and then sell the stock, realising a profit.
A trader would make a profit if the spot price of the shares rises by more than the premium. For example, if the exercise price is and premium paid is 10, then if the spot price of rises to only the transaction is break-even; an increase in stock price above produces a profit. If the stock price at expiration is lower than the exercise price, the holder of the options at that time will let the call contract expire and only lose the premium or the price paid on transfer.
A trader who expects a stock's price to decrease can buy a put option to sell the stock at a fixed price "strike price" at a later date. The trader will be under no obligation to sell the stock, but only has the right to do so at or before the expiration date. If the stock price at expiration is below the exercise price by more than the premium paid, he will make a profit. If the stock price at expiration is above the exercise price, he will let the put contract expire and only lose the premium paid.
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In the transaction, the premium also plays a major role as it enhances the break-even point. For example, if exercise price is , premium paid is 10, then a spot price of to 90 is not profitable. He would make a profit if the spot price is below It is important to note that one who exercises a put option, does not necessarily need to own the underlying asset.
Specifically, one does not need to own the underlying stock in order to sell it. The reason for this is that one can short sell that underlying stock. A trader who expects a stock's price to decrease can sell the stock short or instead sell, or "write", a call.
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The trader selling a call has an obligation to sell the stock to the call buyer at a fixed price "strike price". If the seller does not own the stock when the option is exercised, he is obligated to purchase the stock from the market at the then market price. If the stock price decreases, the seller of the call call writer will make a profit in the amount of the premium. If the stock price increases over the strike price by more than the amount of the premium, the seller will lose money, with the potential loss being unlimited. A trader who expects a stock's price to increase can buy the stock or instead sell, or "write", a put.
The trader selling a put has an obligation to buy the stock from the put buyer at a fixed price "strike price". If the stock price at expiration is above the strike price, the seller of the put put writer will make a profit in the amount of the premium. If the stock price at expiration is below the strike price by more than the amount of the premium, the trader will lose money, with the potential loss being up to the strike price minus the premium.
Combining any of the four basic kinds of option trades possibly with different exercise prices and maturities and the two basic kinds of stock trades long and short allows a variety of options strategies.
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Simple strategies usually combine only a few trades, while more complicated strategies can combine several. Strategies are often used to engineer a particular risk profile to movements in the underlying security. For example, buying a butterfly spread long one X1 call, short two X2 calls, and long one X3 call allows a trader to profit if the stock price on the expiration date is near the middle exercise price, X2, and does not expose the trader to a large loss.
Selling a straddle selling both a put and a call at the same exercise price would give a trader a greater profit than a butterfly if the final stock price is near the exercise price, but might result in a large loss. Similar to the straddle is the strangle which is also constructed by a call and a put, but whose strikes are different, reducing the net debit of the trade, but also reducing the risk of loss in the trade. One well-known strategy is the covered call , in which a trader buys a stock or holds a previously-purchased long stock position , and sells a call.
If the stock price rises above the exercise price, the call will be exercised and the trader will get a fixed profit. If the stock price falls, the call will not be exercised, and any loss incurred to the trader will be partially offset by the premium received from selling the call. Overall, the payoffs match the payoffs from selling a put. This relationship is known as put—call parity and offers insights for financial theory.
Another very common strategy is the protective put , in which a trader buys a stock or holds a previously-purchased long stock position , and buys a put. This strategy acts as an insurance when investing on the underlying stock, hedging the investor's potential loses, but also shrinking an otherwise larger profit, if just purchasing the stock without the put.
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