The Basics of Trading Options Contracts

By Joe Duarte

A financial option is a contractual agreement between two parties. Although some option contracts are over the counter, meaning they are between two parties without going through an exchange, standardized contracts known as listed options trade on exchanges. Option contracts give the owner rights and the seller obligations. Here are the key definitions and details:

  • Call option: A call option gives the owner (seller) the right (obligation) to buy (sell) a specific number of shares of the underlying stock at a specific price by a predetermined date. A call option gives you the opportunity to profit from price gains in the underlying stock at a fraction of the cost of owning the stock.

  • Put option: Put options give the owner (seller) the right (obligation) to sell (buy) a specific number of shares of the underlying stock at a specific price by a specific date. If you own put options on a stock that you own, and the price of the stock is falling, the put option is gaining in value, thus offsetting the losses on the stock and giving you an opportunity to make decisions about your stock ownership without panicking.

  • Rights of the owner of an options contract: A call option gives the owner the right to buy a specific number of shares of stock at a predetermined price. A put option gives its owner the right to sell a specific number of shares of stock at a predetermined price.

  • Obligations of an options seller: Sellers of call options have the obligation to sell a specific number of shares of the underlying stock at a predetermined price. Sellers of put options have the obligation to buy a specific amount of stock at a predetermined price.

In order to maximize your use of options, for both risk management and trading profits, make sure you understand the concepts put forth in each section fully before moving on. Focus on the option, consider how you might use it, and gauge the risk and reward associated with the option and the strategy. If you keep these factors in mind as you study each section, the concepts will be much easier to use as you move on to real time trading.

Use stock options for the following objectives:

  • To benefit from upside moves for less money

  • To profit from downside moves in stocks without the risk of short selling

  • To protect an individual stock position or an entire portfolio during periods of falling prices and market downturns

Always be aware of the risks of trading options. Here are two key concepts:

  • Option contracts have a limited life. Each contract has an expiration date. That means if the move you anticipate is close to the expiration date, you will lose our entire initial investment. You can figure out how these things happen by paper trading before you do it in real time.

    Paper trading lets you try different options for the underlying stock, accomplishing two things. One is that you can see what happens in real time. Seeing what ­happens, in turn, lets you figure out how to pick the best option and how to manage the position.

  • The wrong strategy can lead to disastrous results. If you take more risk than necessary, you will limit your rewards and expose yourself to unlimited losses. This is the same thing that would happen if you sold stocks short, which would defeat the purpose of trading options. Options and specific option strategies let you accomplish the same thing as selling stocks short (profiting from a decrease in prices of the underlying asset) at a fraction of the cost.