In finance, an option is a contract which gives the buyer (the owner or holder of the option) the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset or instrument at a specified strike price prior to or on a specified date, depending on the form of the option. The strike price may be set by reference to the spot price(market price) of the underlying security or commodity on the day an option is taken out, or it may be fixed at a discount or at a premium. The seller has the corresponding obligation to fulfill the transaction – to sell or buy – if the buyer (owner) “exercises” the option. An option that conveys to the owner the right to buy at a specific price is referred to as a call; an option that conveys the right of the owner to sell at a specific price is referred to as a put. Both are commonly traded, but the call option is more frequently discussed.
The seller may grant an option to a buyer as part of another transaction, such as a share issue or as part of an employee incentive scheme, otherwise a buyer would pay a premium to the seller for the option. A call option would normally be exercised only when the strike price is below the market value of the underlying asset, while a put option would normally be exercised only when the strike price is above the market value. When an option is exercised, the cost to the buyer of the asset acquired is the strike price plus the premium, if any. When the option expiration date passes without the option being exercised, the option expires and the buyer would forfeit the premium to the seller. In any case, the premium is income to the seller, and normally a capital loss to the buyer.
The owner of an option may on-sell the option to a third party in a secondary market, in either an over-the-counter transaction or on an options exchange, depending on the option. The market price of an American-style option normally closely follows that of the underlying stock being the difference between the market price of the stock and the strike price of the option. The actual market price of the option may vary depending on a number of factors, such as a significant option holder may need to sell the option as the expiry date is approaching and does not have the financial resources to exercise the option, or a buyer in the market is trying to amass a large option holding. The ownership of an option does not generally entitle the holder to any rights associated with the underlying asset, such as voting rights or any income from the underlying asset, such as a dividend.
Historical uses of options
Contracts similar to options have been used since ancient times. The first reputed option buyer was the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Thales of Miletus. On a certain occasion, it was predicted that the season’s olive harvest would be larger than usual, and during the off-season, he acquired the right to use a number of olive presses the following spring. When spring came and the olive harvest was larger than expected he exercised his options and then rented the presses out at a much higher price than he paid for his ‘option’.
The 1688 book Confusion of Confusions describes the trading of “opsies” on the Amsterdam stock exchange, explaining that “there will be only limited risks to you, while the gain may surpass all your imaginings and hopes.”
In London, puts and “refusals” (calls) first became well-known trading instruments in the 1690s during the reign of William and Mary. Privileges were options sold over the counter in nineteenth century America, with both puts and calls on shares offered by specialized dealers. Their exercise price was fixed at a rounded-off market price on the day or week that the option was bought, and the expiry date was generally three months after purchase. They were not traded in secondary markets.
In the real estate market, call options have long been used to assemble large parcels of land from separate owners; e.g., a developer pays for the right to buy several adjacent plots, but is not obligated to buy these plots and might not unless he can buy all the plots in the entire parcel. Film or theatrical producers often buy the right — but not the obligation — to dramatize a specific book or script.
Lines of credit give the potential borrower the right — but not the obligation — to borrow within a specified time period.
Many choices, or embedded options, have traditionally been included in bond contracts. 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.
Modern stock options
Options contracts have been known for decades. The Chicago Board Options Exchange was established in 1973, 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:
- whether the option holder has the right to buy (a call option) or the right to sell (a put option)
- the quantity and class of the underlying asset(s) (e.g., 100 shares of XYZ Co. B stock)
- the strike price, also known as the exercise price, which is the price at which the underlying transaction will occur upon exercise
- the expiration date, or expiry, which is the last date the option can be exercised
- the settlement terms, for instance whether the writer must deliver the actual asset on exercise, or may simply tender the equivalent cash amount
- the terms by which the option is quoted in the market to convert the quoted price into the actual premium – the total amount paid by the holder to the writer