Traders Toolbox: Learning Options Part 4 of 4

In real estate, they say that the three most important things are location, location, and location. In options, the three most important things are volatility, volatility, and volatility. Often neglected by option rookies, volatility is the cornerstone of an option professional's trading strategy.
In its simplest form, expressed as the annualized percentage of the standard deviation, volatility measures how far a contract can be expected to swing from a mean price. A contract trading at 50 would have a volatility of 10% if it traded between 45 and 55 over a given period of time.

Historical volatility is just that: the volatility calculated (using closing prices) over a given period – 20 days, 20 weeks, one year, etc. Implied volatility is the volatility using current market prices. For example, using four primary option pricing inputs – futures price, settlement price, time until expiration and volatility – would result in a theoretical price.
By plugging in the current option price in place of the theoretical price and working backward, it would be possible to determine the volatility the current market is implying. (It is not mathematically possible to work backward and solve for implied volatility using an equation like the Black-Scholes model, but an approximation can be derived.)

Options on quick-moving, highly volatility contracts will demand a higher premium because of the increased possibility of such options being in-the-money. For example, an out-of-the-money option on a slow, non-volatile contract will have a lower premium than a comparable option on a volatile contact because there is a greater chance the volatile contract will shirt in price enough to put the currently out-of-the-money option in-the-money.

Astute options traders look at volatility figures to evaluate the potential of a trade, buying or selling options when volatility is exceptionally high or low. If a market is trading at historically low volatility levels, options premiums could be expected to rise as market volatility increases, presenting a buy opportunity. The revers is true for high volatility situations.

Traders Toolbox: Learning Options Part 2 of 4

Many people like options because they believe them to be less risky than futures. Options sometimes offer reduced risk, but usually at the cost of reduced profit potential.

One drawback of options is that a trader must consider market speed (volatility) as well as direction. Traders who buy or sell options outright to profit from up or down moves in the underlying market can find themselves fighting an uphill battle against volatility and time decay. With futures, if you're right about market direction, you'll win. With options, you can be right about the market and still lose.

If a market is trading at 200 and you buy a 210 call expecting a rally, you'll still lose on the trade if the market only rallies to 205 by expiration; your 210 call will be worthless. The same thing would happen even if the market rises as high as 220, but does so one week after expiration. In each case you would be right about market direction but would not profit.

The advantage of options is their flexibility. Because of the variety of strike prices and expiration dates a trader can choose, options naturally lend themselves to spreading strategies (simultaneously buying an selling different options), accommodating varying views of market direction and risk levels. Traders can design option strategies that will profit if the underlying market goes up or down, moves in either direction by a certain degree or remains unchanged.

Options also allow you to profit without predicting market direction because of time decay and fluctuation in volatility that increase and decrease premium. For example, a trader might sell as out-of-the-money call on a relatively volatile futures contract he thinks will fall. Over then next two months, however, the market does not fall, but gradually moves higher, trading in a narrow range (but still below his strike price). The trader was wrong about market direction, but finds the combination of decreased volatility and time decay has eroded the value of his option to the point that he can buy it back at a profit (or perhaps hold it until expiration).

Part 3 Will Be Posted On November 14th, 2008. So come back soon!