Stock options provide advanced investors with additional opportunities for potentially rewarding returns. But stock options do possess risks that require an in-depth understanding of how they work. This article provides a basic overview of stock options.
Before You Start
- Pull out all paperwork describing your workplace benefits coverage to learn whether your employer grants stock options to employees.
- Review the expiration dates on any stock options you currently own.
- Review the buy/sell prices for your stock options.
Options on stocks and stock indexes are derivative instruments. Stock investors may use stock options to hedge against a price decline, to lock in a future purchase price, or to speculate on the future price of a stock. Employees may also receive stock options through an employee compensation plan. For employees, stock options represent the potential for growth in value and the possibility that the increase in value will be taxed at a favorable capital-gains tax rate.
A stock option is essentially a contract that gives one party the right to purchase or sell a stated number of shares of a stock at a specified price. The price at which the shares may be purchased or sold is known as the strike or exercise price. The right to exercise lasts for a stated period of time, which may be months or years, until the expiration date. If not exercised on or before the expiration date, the option expires.
The Basics of Stock Options
Options come in two forms: calls and puts. A call option gives the option purchaser the right to buy the underlying stock. A put option gives the option purchaser the right to sell the underlying stock.
A call option is valuable to the extent that the exercise price is below the market value of the underlying stock. For example, if a stock is trading at $100 per share and you hold a call option entitling you to buy the stock at $72 per share, your option has an immediate value to you of $100 - $72 = $28, before taking into account any tax consequences or transaction fees.
A put option is the mirror image of a call option. A put option becomes more valuable as the price of the stock moves below the exercise price. For example, if you have purchased a put option with a strike price of $90 and the stock price moves to $80, you may choose to exercise the option and sell the underlying stock at $90 for an immediate unrealized per share gain of $90 - $80 = $10.
With both calls and puts, the purchaser of the option has the right to exercise, while the option seller is obligated to respond if the option is exercised. The option purchaser pays an upfront fee known as the premium to the option seller in return for the right of exercise. The option buyer has a known investment risk -- if the option expires unexercised, the purchaser of the option recognizes the premium paid as a loss. Conversely, the option seller undertakes potentially unlimited market risk in return for the premium received.
Option contracts are traded on regulated markets, and their values may fluctuate throughout the trading day. The price of an option at any given time is based on several factors, including the current price of the underlying stock, the price volatility of the underlying stock, the time to maturity, and interest rates.
Components of an Option's Value
Intrinsic value -- the intrinsic value of the option is the difference between the exercise price and the price of the underlying security. An option is "in the money" when the intrinsic value is positive.
Volatility -- part of an option's value reflects the volatility of the underlying security. If a stock price is highly volatile, there is a relatively greater chance that the option will be "in the money" at expiration, and therefore, the option will carry a higher premium than an option on a less a volatile stock.
Time value -- the more time remaining until the expiration date of the option, the greater the potential for a significant change to occur in the price of the underlying security and the greater the value of the option. Time value diminishes as the expiration date of the option approaches.
Interest rates -- the option premium is a cash payment that can be invested by the option seller to generate interest income. Higher interest rates present opportunities for potentially greater earnings on the option premium.
Intrinsic value, volatility, and time value can significantly affect an option's market value. An option with an exercise price above the current market value of the underlying security may still have considerable potential value.
For example, if you hold a call option with an exercise price of $72 and the current share price is $65, your option would generate a loss if it were exercised today. However, as stated above, option contracts typically are valid for months or years, until the stated expiration date. The time value of the call option is the potential that the share price will rise over time and eventually exceed the option exercise price.
Employee stock options are call options granted by an employer as part of an employee compensation plan. There are two main types of employee stock options: incentive stock options and nonqualified stock options. Incentive stock options offer special income tax benefits to the employee.
Employee Stock Options
An incentive stock option (ISO) must meet a number of criteria to qualify for favorable tax treatment. As long as the shares acquired through an ISO are held for at least one year following exercise and are not disposed of until at least two years after the option is granted, the difference between the option price and the sale price is taxed as a long-term gain. The tax is applied at the sale of the stock. If you don't meet the one-year holding-period requirement, the transaction is considered a "disqualifying disposition" and your gains are taxed as ordinary income.
A nonqualified stock option (NSO) is an option that doesn't meet the ISO criteria. Gains on NSOs are taxed as ordinary income at the time of exercise.
Options are leveraged investments that can offer significant potential advantages and risks. As part of an overall investment strategy, put and call options may offer opportunities to temporarily alter the risk/return characteristics of a portfolio. Before investing in options, it is important to thoroughly understand the potential risks and benefits. You should consult a qualified tax advisor as to how option transactions may affect your tax situation. If you are an employee and have received stock options as employee compensation, you will want to carefully consider how exercise of your options may affect your cash flow and tax liability.
Consider Option Strategies Carefully
- An option is a contract entitling the option purchaser to buy or sell the underlying stock at the stated exercise price. A call option gives the holder the right to buy the underlying stock; a put option gives the holder the right to sell the underlying stock.
- The option purchaser's risk on the option is limited to the premium paid; the option seller's risk on the option is potentially unlimited.
- A call option is valuable to the extent that the exercise price is below the market value of the underlying stock at the time you choose to exercise the option by buying shares. The time value of the option is the potential that the share price will rise over time and eventually exceed the option exercise price.
- Employee stock options may be tax-qualified incentive stock options (ISOs) or nonqualified stock options (NSOs). If shares acquired through an ISO are held for at least one year following exercise and are not disposed of until at least two years after the option is granted, the difference between the option price and the sale price is taxed as a long-term gain. If you don't meet the one-year holding-period requirement, the transaction is considered a disqualifying disposition and your gains are taxed as ordinary income.
- Before implementing an investment strategy using options or before entering into any equity arrangements with an employer, consult your tax advisor.
- Check the current share prices of the stocks associated with your stock options.
- Confirm that you've met holding-period requirements before using employee stock options in order to qualify for more favorable tax treatment.
- Conduct a comprehensive investment portfolio review to make sure that your options are part of a well-diversified overall asset allocation.
- Consider meeting with a tax advisor or financial professional to understand how your options could affect your tax and investment strategies.