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Portfolio Management Strategies


Options Basics - How Options Work

Much like stocks, options can be used to take a position on the market in an effort to capitalize on an upward or downward market move. Unlike stocks, however, options can provide an investor the benefits of leverage over a position in an individual stock or basket of stocks reflecting the broad market. At the same time, options buyers also can take advantage of predetermined, limited risk. Conversely, options writers assume significant risk if they do not hedge their positions.

An option is a contract which gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a stock (or other security) for a specified price on or before a specific date. There are two types of options, a call (giving the right to buy the security), and a put (giving the right to sell the security). The person who purchases an option, whether it is a put or a call, is the option "buyer." Conversely, the person who originally sells the put or call is the option "seller."

Options are contracts in which the terms of the contract are standardized and give the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a particular asset (e.g., the underlying stock) at a fixed price (the strike price) for a specific period of time (until expiration). To the buyer, an equity call option normally represents the right to buy 100 shares of underlying stock, whereas an equity put option normally represents the right to sell 100 shares of underlying stock. The seller of an option is obligated to perform according to the terms of the options contract-selling the stock at the contracted price (the strike price) for a call seller, or purchasing it for a put seller-if the option is exercised by the buyer. All option contracts trade on U.S. securities exchanges are issued, guaranteed and cleared by the Options Clearing Corporation (OCC). OCC is a registered clearing corporation with the SEC and has received 'AAA' credit rating form Standard & Poor's Corporation. The 'AAA' credit rating corresponds to OCC's ability to fulfill its obligations as counter-party for options trades.

The price of an option is called its "premium." The potential loss to the buyer of an option can be no greater than the initial premium paid for the contract, regardless of the performance of the underlying stock. This allows an investor to control the amount of risk assumed. On the other hand, the seller of the option, in return for the premium received from the buyer, assumes the risk of being assigned if the contract is exercised. Assignment risks can be substantial, and with uncovered options may be unlimited.

In accordance with the standardized terms of their contracts, all options expire on a certain date, called the "expiration date." For conventional listed options, this can be up to nine months from the date the options are first listed for trading. There are longer-term option contracts, called LEAPS?, which can have expiration dates up to three years from the date of the listing. American-style options (the most commonly traded) and European-style options possess different regulations relating to expiration and the exercising of an option. An American-style option is an option contract that may be exercised (assigned) at any time between the date of purchase (sale) and the expiration date. Conversely, a European-style option (used primarily with cash-settled options) can only be exercised (assigned) during a specified period of time just prior to expiration.

Call Options

The buyer of an equity call option has purchased the right to buy 100 shares of the underlying stock at the stated exercise price. Thus, the buyer of one XYZ June 110 call option has the right to purchase 100 shares of XYZ at $110 up until June expiration. The buyer may do so by filing an exercise notice through his broker or trading firm to the Options Clearing Corporation prior to the expiration date of the option. All calls covering XYZ are referred to as an "option class." Each individual option with a distinctive trading month and strike price is an "option series." The XYZ June 110 calls would be an individual series.

Put Options

The buyer of an equity put option has purchased the right to sell the number of shares of the underlying stock at the contracted exercise price. Thus, the buyer of one ZYX June 50 put has the right to sell 100 shares of ZYX at $50 any time prior to the expiration date. In order to exercise the option and sell the underlying at the agreed upon exercise price, the buyer must file a proper exercise notice with the OCC through a broker before the date of expiration. All puts covering ZYX stock are referred to as an "option class." Each individual option with a distinctive trading month and strike price is an "option series." The ZYX June 50 puts would be an individual series.

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