Options on futures are similar to options on stocks, but with one major exception…Futures are the underlying instrument off which the options are priced (unlike equity options which have the stock as its underlying). As a function of being priced off of futures, it’s important to be aware of the differences between futures options and equity options.
Depending on the expiration cycle, some futures options expire to cash, while others expire to the underlying futures contract. Futures options will expire into cash when the options and futures expire in the same month. If the options and the future expire in different months, the options settle to the future. For example if we have FEB /ES Call that expires ITM, we end up with a MAR /ES Future. But, if a MAR Call expires ITM, it settles to cash.
It’s also important to know the basic contract specs for both the options and the future. For example, looking at the S&P futures options, the future is /ES, which is worth $50 per point. So if we are long an /ES call and its price goes from $4 to $5, we make $50, unlike the $100 we would make with an equity option. We need to keep in mind that when we trade futures options, the option prices track the future, not the cash index. Though, there is a mathematical relationship between the future and the index (with the exception of the VIX).
Options on futures may be a viable product to add to the trading arsenal, but it’s important to keep liquidity in mind when trading these products. Some options on futures are highly liquid and very tradable, but others are not as liquid, it depends on the underlying future. Therefore, we need to be aware of which futures have liquid options and which do not. The following futures have tradable options: /ZT, /ZF, /ZN, /ZB, /GC, /6E, /ZC, /ZS, /ZW, /NQ, /ES, /CL, and /NG.
Additionally, the smaller capital requirement involved is an advantage of trading options on futures as opposed to options on individual equities. If an investor does not have enough capital for a portfolio margin account, options on futures are actually a less expensive way of trading large indices such as the SPX, especially if the investor is interested in selling naked short positions.
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