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What is options trading?
Options trading is when you buy or sell an underlying asset at a pre-negotiated price by a certain future date.
Trading stock options can be complex — even more so than stock trading. When you buy a stock, you just decide how many shares you want, and your broker fills the order at the prevailing market price or a limit price you set. Options trading requires an understanding of advanced strategies, and the process for opening an options trading account includes a few more steps than opening a typical investment account.
» Is options trading better than stocks? Learn about the differences between stocks and options
In 2022, the stock market has seen its share of highs and lows amid concerns about inflation, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and rising oil prices. When the market is volatile, options trading often increases, says Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives with the Schwab Center for Financial Research.
“You can use options to speculate and to gamble, but the reality is ... the best use of options is to protect your downside,” he says. "Options are one way to generate income when the markets aren’t going up.”
According to the Options Clearing Corporation, there were 939 million options contracts traded in March 2022, up 4.5% compared with March 2021. It was second-highest trading month on record.
» Need to back up a bit? Read our full explainer on what options are
How to trade options in four steps
1. Open an options trading account
Before you can start trading options, you’ll have to prove you know what you’re doing. Compared with opening a brokerage account for stock trading, opening an options trading account requires larger amounts of capital. And, given the complexity of predicting multiple moving parts, brokers need to know a bit more about a potential investor before giving them a permission slip to start trading options. Wendy Moyers, a certified financial planner at Chevy Chase Trust in Bethesda, Maryland, says people who know the market well, and have time to watch it, are better suited to options trading than busy, beginner investors.
"It’s definitely more complicated, and you have to be on top of it all throughout the trading day," she says.
Brokerage firms screen potential options traders to assess their trading experience, their understanding of the risks and their financial preparedness. These details will be documented in an options trading agreement used to request approval from your prospective broker.
» Ready to get started? See our list of the best brokers for options trading
You’ll need to provide your:
Investment objectives. This usually includes income, growth, capital preservation or speculation.
Trading experience. The broker will want to know your knowledge of investing, how long you’ve been trading stocks or options, how many trades you make per year and the size of your trades.
Personal financial information. Have on hand your liquid net worth (or investments easily sold for cash), annual income, total net worth and employment information.
The types of options you want to trade. For instance, calls, puts or spreads. And whether they are covered or naked. The seller or writer of options has an obligation to deliver the underlying stock if the option is exercised. If the writer also owns the underlying stock, the option position is covered. If the option position is left unprotected, it's naked.
Based on your answers, the broker typically assigns you an initial trading level based on the level of risk (typically 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest risk and 5 being the highest). This is your key to placing certain types of options trades.
Screening should go both ways. The broker you choose to trade options with is your most important investing partner. Finding the broker that offers the tools, research, guidance and support you need is especially important for investors who are new to options trading.
» Need some help? Learn how to choose an options broker
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2. Pick which options to buy or sell
As a refresher, a call option is a contract that gives you the right, but not the obligation, to buy a stock at a predetermined price — called the strike price — within a certain time period. (Learn all about call options.) A put option gives you the right, but not the obligation, to sell shares at a stated price before the contract expires. (Learn all about put options.)
Which direction you expect the underlying stock to move determines what type of options contract you might take on:
If you think the stock price will move up: buy a call option, sell a put option.
If you think the stock price will stay stable: sell a call option or sell a put option.
If you think the stock price will go down: buy a put option, sell a call option.
Frederick says to think of options like an insurance policy: You don’t get car insurance hoping that you crash your car. You get car insurance because no matter how careful you are, sometimes crashes happen.
"You buy options hoping you don’t need them,” he says.
This is just a very basic overview. For a look at more advanced techniques, check out our options trading strategies guide.
3. Predict the option strike price
When buying an option, it remains valuable only if the stock price closes the option’s expiration period “in the money.” That means either above or below the strike price. (For call options, it’s above the strike; for put options, it’s below the strike.) You’ll want to buy an option with a strike price that reflects where you predict the stock will be during the option’s lifetime.
For example, if you think the share price of a company currently trading for $100 is going to rise to $120 by some future date, you’d buy a call option with a strike price less than $120 (ideally a strike price no higher than $120 minus the cost of the option, so that the option remains profitable at $120). If the stock does indeed rise above the strike price, your option is in the money.
Similarly, if you think the company’s share price is going to dip to $80, you’d buy a put option (giving you the right to sell shares) with a strike price above $80 (ideally a strike price no lower than $80 plus the cost of the option, so that the option remains profitable at $80). If the stock drops below the strike price, your option is in the money.
You can’t choose just any strike price. Option quotes, technically called an option chain or matrix, contain a range of available strike prices. The increments between strike prices are standardized across the industry — for example, $1, $2.50, $5, $10 — and are based on the stock price.
The price you pay for an option, called the premium, has two components: intrinsic value and time value. Intrinsic value is the difference between the strike price and the share price, if the stock price is above the strike. Time value is whatever is left, and factors in how volatile the stock is, the time to expiration and interest rates, among other elements. For example, suppose you have a $100 call option while the stock costs $110. Let’s assume the option’s premium is $15. The intrinsic value is $10 ($110 minus $100), while time value is $5.
This leads us to the final choice you need to make before buying an options contract.
4. Determine the option time frame
Every options contract has an expiration period that indicates the last day you can exercise the option. Here, too, you can’t just pull a date out of thin air. Your choices are limited to the ones offered when you call up an option chain.
There are two styles of options, American and European, which differ depending on when the options contract can be exercised. Holders of an American option can exercise at any point up to the expiry date whereas holders of European options can only exercise on the day of expiry. Since American options offer more flexibility for the option buyer (and more risk for the option seller), they usually cost more than their European counterparts.
Expiration dates can range from days to months to years. Daily and weekly options tend to be the riskiest and are reserved for seasoned option traders. For long-term investors, monthly and yearly expiration dates are preferable. Longer expirations give the stock more time to move and time for your investment thesis to play out. As such, the longer the expiration period, the more expensive the option.
A longer expiration is also useful because the option can retain time value, even if the stock trades below the strike price. An option’s time value decays as expiration approaches, and options buyers don’t want to watch their purchased options decline in value, potentially expiring worthless if the stock finishes below the strike price. If a trade has gone against them, they can usually still sell any time value remaining on the option — and this is more likely if the option contract is longer.
Why trade options?
"The pros are you could make a little bit extra money on investing in the short term," Moyers says. "The con is you could lose everything, depending on how you structure your options trading."
Once you have learned the strategies and you're willing to put the time in, there are several upsides to options trading, Frederick says. For instance, you can use a covered call to help you generate income in a sideways market.
Frederick says most covered calls are sold out of the money, which generates income immediately. If the stock falls slightly, goes sideways, or rises slightly, the options will expire worthless with no further obligation, he says. If the stock rises and is above the strike price when the options expire, the stock will be called away at a profit in addition to the income gained when the options were sold.
» Ready to learn more? Read 5 basic options trading strategies