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A Beginner's Guide to Options Trading

By Inyoung Hwang · October 06, 2023 · 11 minute read

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A Beginner's Guide to Options Trading


Editor's Note: Options are not suitable for all investors. Options involve risks, including substantial risk of loss and the possibility an investor may lose the entire amount invested in a short period of time. Please see the Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options.

An option is a financial instrument whose value is tied to an underlying asset; this is known as a derivative. Instead of buying an asset, such as company stock, outright, an options contract allows the investor to potentially profit from price changes in the underlying asset without actually owning it.

Because options contracts may be much cheaper to come by than the underlying asset, trading options can offer investors leverage that may result in significant gains if the market moves in the right direction. But options are very risky, and also can result in steep losses. That’s why investors must meet certain criteria with their brokerage firm before being able to trade options.

What Is Options Trading?

Knowing how options trading works requires understanding what an option is, and what the advantages, disadvantages, and risks of options trading may be.

What Are Options?

Buying an option is simply purchasing a contract that represents the right but not the obligation to buy or sell a security at a fixed price by a specified date.

•   The options buyer (or holder) has the right, but not the obligation to buy or sell a certain asset, like shares of stock, at a certain price by a specific date (the expiration date of the contract). Buyers pay a premium for each options contract; this is the total price of the option.

•   The options seller (or writer), who is on the opposite side of the trade, has the obligation to buy or sell the underlying asset at the agreed-upon price, aka the strike price, if the options holder exercises their contract.

Options buyers and sellers may use options if they think an asset’s price will go up (or down), to offset risk elsewhere in their portfolio, or to increase the profitability of existing positions. There are many different options-trading strategies.


💡 Quick Tip: Options can be a cost-efficient way to place certain trades, because you typically purchase options contracts, not the underlying security. That said, options trading can be risky, and best done by those who are not entirely new to investing.

Why Are Options Called Derivatives?

An option is considered a derivative instrument because it is based on the underlying asset: An options holder doesn’t purchase the asset, just the options contract. That way, they can make trades based on anticipated price movements of the underlying asset, without having to own the asset itself.

In stock options, one options contract typically represents 100 shares.

Other types of derivatives include futures, swaps, and forwards. Options that exist for futures contracts, such as the S&P 500 index or oil futures, are also popular derivatives.

What is the difference between trading using margin vs. options? Having a margin account does offer investors leverage for other trades (e.g. trading stocks). But while a brokerage may require you to have a margin account in order to trade options, you can’t purchase options contracts using margin. That said, an options seller (writer) might be able to use margin to sell options contracts.

Recommended: What Are Derivatives?

What Are Puts and Calls?

There are two main types of options: calls vs. puts.

Call Options 101

When purchased, call options give the options holder the right to buy an asset.

Here’s how a call option might work. The options buyer purchases a call option tied to Stock A with a strike price of $40 and expiration three months from now. Stock A is currently trading at $35 per share.

If Stock A appreciates to a value higher than $40 per share, the option holder may choose to exercise the contract, or sell their option for a premium. If the value of Stock A goes up, the value of the call option should, all else being equal, also go up.

The opposite would also be true. If shares of Stock A go down, the value of the call should, all else being equal, go down.

If the options holder wanted to exercise their call option, with American-style options they have until the expiration date to do so (with European-style options, the option must be exercised on the expiration date). When they exercise, they can buy 100 shares at the strike price.

Put Options 101

Meanwhile, put options give holders the right to sell an asset at a specified price by a certain date.

Here’s how a put trade might work. A trader buys a put option tied to Stock B with a strike price of $45 and expiration three months from now. Stock B is currently trading at $50 per share.

If the price of Stock B falls to $44, below the strike price, the options holder can exercise the put. Alternatively, the value of the option would likely also rise in this scenario, as owners of Stock B might look to lock in profits and sell shares before the stock falls further. A scenario like that may give the option holder the choice of selling the option itself for a profit.

What Is the Put-Call Ratio?

A stock’s put-call ratio is the number of put options traded in the market relative to calls. It is one measure that investors look at to determine sentiment toward the shares. A high put-call ratio indicates bearish market sentiment, whereas a low one signals more bullish views.


💡 Quick Tip: It’s smart to invest in a range of assets so that you’re not overly reliant on any one company or market to do well. For example, by investing in different sectors you can add diversification to your portfolio, which may help mitigate some risk factors over time.

Options Trading Terminology

•   The strike price is the price at which the option holder can exercise the contract. If the holder decides to exercise the option, the seller is obligated to fulfill the contract.

•   With American-style options the expiration is the date by which the contract needs to be exercised. The closer an option is to its expiration, the lower the value of the contract. That is what’s called the time value.

•   Premiums reflect the value of an option; it’s the current market price for that option contract.

•   Call options are considered in the money, when the shares of the underlying stock trade above the strike price. Put options are in the money when the underlying shares are trading below the strike price.

•   Options are at the money when the strike price is equal to the price of the asset in the market. Contracts that are at the money tend to see more volume or trading activity, as holders look to exercise the options.

•   Options are out of the money when the underlying security’s price is below the strike price of a call option, or above the strike price of a put option. For example, if shares of Stock C are trading at $50 each and the call option’s strike price is $60, the contracts are out of the money.

For an out-of-the-money put option, the shares of Stock C may be trading at $60, while the put’s strike price is $50, so therefore, not yet exercisable.

Recommended: Popular Options Trading Terminology to Know

“The Greeks” in Options Trading

Traders use a range of Greek letters to gauge the value of options. Here are some of the Greeks to know:

•   Delta measures the impact of the price of the underlying asset on the option’s value.

•   Beta measures how much a single stock moves relative to the overall stock market.

•   Gamma tracks the sensitivity of an option’s Delta.

•   Theta is the sensitivity of the option to time.

•   Vega is the sensitivity of the option to implied volatility.

•   Rho is the sensitivity of the option to interest rates.

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How to Trade Options

The market for stock options is typically open from 9:30am to 4pm ET, Monday through Friday, while futures options can usually be traded almost 24 hours.

This is how you may get started trading options:

1. Pick a Platform

Log into your investment account with your chosen brokerage.

2. Get Approved

Your brokerage may base your approval on your trading experience. Trading options is riskier than trading stocks because losses can be steeper. That’s why not all investors should trade options.

3. Place Your Trade

Decide on an underlying asset and options strategy and place your trade.

4. Manage Your Position

Monitor your position to know whether your options are in, at or out of the money.

Basic Options Trading Strategies

Options offer a way for holders to express their views of an asset’s price through a trade. But traders may also use options to hedge or offset risk from other assets that they own. Here are some important options trading strategies to know:

Long Put, Long Call

In simple terms, if the buyer purchases an option — be it a put or a call — they are ‘long’. A long put or long call position means the holder owns a put or call option.

•   A holder with a long call strategy effectively locks in a lower purchase price for the underlying asset in case it increases in value.

•   A holder with a long put strategy effectively locks in a higher sales price for the underlying asset in case it decreases in value.

Covered and Uncovered Calls

If an options writer sells call options on a stock or other underlying security they also own outright, the options are referred to as covered calls. The selling of options helps the writer generate an additional stream of income while committing to sell the shares they own for the predetermined price if the option is exercised.

Uncovered calls, or naked calls, also exist, when options writers sell call options without owning the underlying asset. However, this is a much riskier trade since the exercising of the option would oblige the options seller to buy the underlying asset in the open market, in order to sell the stock to the option buyer.

Note that the seller wants the option to stay out of the money so that they can keep the premium (which is how the seller makes money).

Spreads

Option spread trades involve buying and selling an equal number of options for the same underlying asset but at different strikes or expirations.

A bull spread is a strategy in which a trader expects the price of the underlying asset to appreciate.

A bearish spread is a strategy in which a trader expects a decline in the price of the underlying asset.

Horizontal spreads involve buying and selling options with the same strike prices but different expiration dates. Vertical spreads are created through the simultaneous buying and selling of options with the same expiration dates but different strike prices.

Straddles and Strangles

Strangles and straddles in options trading allow traders to profit from a move in the price of the underlying asset, rather than the direction of the move.

In a straddle, a trader buys both calls and puts with the same strike prices and expiration dates. The options buyer would pocket a profit if the asset price posts a big move, regardless of whether it rises or falls.

In a strangle, the holder also buys both calls and puts but with different strike prices.

Pros & Cons of Options Trading

Like any other type of investment, or investment strategy, trading options comes with certain advantages and disadvantages that investors should consider before going down this road.

Pros of Options Trading

•   Options trading is complex and involves risks, but for experienced investors who understand the fundamentals of the contracts and how to trade them, options can be a useful tool to make investments while putting up a smaller amount of money upfront.

•   The practice of selling options to collect income can also be a way for writers who are seeking income to collect premiums consistently. This was a popular strategy particularly in the years leading up to 2020 as the stock market tended to be quiet and interest rates were low.

•   Options can also be a useful way to protect a portfolio. Some investors offset risk with options. For instance, buying a put option while also owning the underlying stock allows the options holder to lock in a selling price, for a specified period of time, in case the security declines in value, thereby limiting potential losses.

Cons of Options Trading

•   A key risk in trading options is that losses can be outsized relative to the cost of the contract. When an option is exercised, the seller of the option is obligated to buy or sell the underlying asset, even if the market is moving against them.

•   While premium costs are generally low, they can still add up. The cost of options premiums can eat away at an investor’s profits. For instance, while an investor may net a profit from a stock holding, if they used options to purchase the shares, they’d have to subtract the cost of the premiums when calculating the stock profit.

•   Because options expire within a specific time window, there is only a short period of time for an investor’s thesis to play out. Securities like stocks don’t have expiration dates.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Options Trading

Pros

Cons

Additional income Potential outsized losses
Hedging portfolio risk Premiums can add up
Less money upfront than owning an asset outright Limited time for trades to play out

The Takeaway

Options are derivative contracts on an underlying asset (an options contract for a certain stock is typically worth 100 shares). Options are complex, high-risk instruments, and investors need to understand how they work in order to avoid steep losses.

When an investor buys a call option, it gives them the right but not the obligation to buy the underlying asset by the expiration date. When an investor buys a put option, it gives them the right but not the obligation to sell the underlying asset by the expiration date.

The contracts work differently for options sellers/writers.

The seller or writer of a call option has the obligation to sell the underlying asset at the agreed strike price to the options holder, if the holder chooses to exercise the option on or before the expiration.

The seller of a put option has the obligation to buy the shares of the underlying asset from the put option holder at the agreed strike price.

Qualified investors who are ready to try their hand at options trading, despite the risks involved, might consider checking out SoFi’s options trading platform. The platform’s user-friendly design allows investors to trade through the mobile app or web platform, and get important metrics like breakeven percentage, maximum profit/loss, and more with the click of a button.

Plus, SoFi offers educational resources — including a step-by-step in-app guide — to help you learn more about options trading. Trading options involves high-risk strategies, and should be undertaken by experienced investors.

Invest with as little as $5 with a SoFi Active Investing account.


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Options involve risks, including substantial risk of loss and the possibility an investor may lose the entire amount invested in a short period of time. Before an investor begins trading options they should familiarize themselves with the Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options . Tax considerations with options transactions are unique, investors should consult with their tax advisor to understand the impact to their taxes.
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Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.

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