How Do Options Work?

2013-04-18 | All Things Financial Planning Blog

The Economics of FearWhat if you had had a hunch that Microsoft stock would skyrocket when it introduced Windows 8? Would you have risked purchasing Microsoft stock on just a hunch? Or what if you owned a hundred shares of Apple but wanted to protect yourself from the stock’s recent declines? Well you can do both through options. An option is a standardized contract to either buy or sell a stock at a pre-determined price within a specific date. The key word is option; if you buy an option contract, you have the option, not the obligation, to exercise your contract if it makes financial sense for you at that future date. Option trading has been around for thousands of years and is widely used by many people to either protect the value of an existing investment or speculate on the future movement of an asset. There are two types of option contracts: calls and puts. A call option gives the owner the option to buy a stock at a set price in the future, whereas a put option gives the owner the option to sell a stock at a set price in the future. Let’s see how each one works.

Example of a Put Option:

A put option grants you the right to sell a stock at a set price. An investor buys a put option if she feels the price of a stock is going to decline and wants to lock-in a particular price. Let’s look at a specific example: It is March, and you own 100 shares of Apple stock (symbol: AAPL) that you bought for $400. You think that the price of Apple will decline from its current price of $457 in the coming months and you want to protect your gains. Each option controls 100 shares of the underlying stock, so 1 put option would give you the protection you seek. You could buy a $450 put option that expires in 3 months (May). If the price of Apple goes below $450 between now and May, you can exercise your option and sell your shares at $450. If the price of Apple doesn’t get that low, then you would keep your shares and simply let your option expire.

Example of a Call Option:

A call option grants you the right to buy a stock at a specific price. You would buy a call option if you think the price of a stock will rise within a given time and you wanted to benefit from the expected rise. Continuing with our Apple example, assume you don’t own the stock, but you think that Apple stock will rise in the next couple of months. You could buy an option that expires in May that allows you to buy Apple stock at $500. If the price of Apple rises above $500, you could exercise your call option and buy the stock at $500. Again, if the price of Apple does not rise by the May expiration date, you simply let your option expire.

As you can imagine, options can be useful for certain investors who are interested in: protecting a large gain; benefiting from a stock’s rise/fall without actually owning the stock; and in some cases, diversifying. While there are only two types of options (calls and puts), there are a multitude of strategies an investor can employ by combining calls and puts.

Though it may seem that options as part of your portfolio is a no-brainer, this article is simply an introduction to options. It is important to understand that options are quite complicated and can be rather risky. Options should only be used by experienced investors who really understand the mechanics of options – note, there is no easy money in trading options. Some people brag about making a lot of money in options, but be careful because option prices move very quickly, and while you can quickly make a lot of money, you can also easily lose a lot of money in just a single day.

Ara OghoorianAra Oghoorian, CFP®, CFA
Founder and President
ACap Asset Management
Los Angeles, CA

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