Binary options let traders profit from price fluctuations in multiple global markets but it’s important to understand the risks and rewards of these controversial and often-misunderstood financial instruments. Binary options bear little resemblance to traditional options, featuring different payouts, fees and risks, as well as a unique liquidity structure and investment process.
What Are Binary Options?
Binary options are deceptively simple to understand, making them a popular choice for low-skilled traders. The most commonly traded instrument is a high-low or fixed-return option that provides access to stocks, indices, commodities and foreign exchange. These options have a clearly stated expiration date, time and strike price. If a trader wagers correctly on the market’s direction and price at the time of expiration, he or she is paid a fixed return regardless of how much the instrument has moved since the transaction, while an incorrect wager loses the original investment.
The binary options trader buys a call when bullish on a stock, index, commodity or currency pair, or a put on those instruments when bearish. For a call to make money, the market must trade above the strike price at the expiration time. For a put to make money, the market must trade below the strike price at the expiration time. The strike price, expiration date, payout and risk are disclosed by the broker when the trade is first established. For most high-low binary options traded outside the U.S., the strike price is the current price or rate of the underlying financial product. Therefore, the trader is wagering whether the price on the expiration date will be higher or lower than the current price.
High-Low Binary Option Example
Your analysis indicates the Standard & Poor’s 500 index will rally for the rest of the trading day and you to buy an index call option. It’s currently trading at 1,800 so you’re wagering the index’s price at expiration will be above that number. Since binary options are available for many time frames – from minutes to months away – you choose an expiration time or date that supports your analysis. You choose an option that expires in 30 minutes, paying out 70% plus your original stake if the S&P 500 is above 1,800 at that time or you lose the entire stake if the S&P 500 is below 1,800. Minimum and maximum investments vary from broker to broker.
Say you invest $100 in the call that expires in 30 minutes. The S&P 500 price at expiration determines whether you make or lose money. The price at expiration may be the last quoted price, or the (bid+ask)/2. Each binary options broker outlines their own expiration price rules. In this case, assume the last quote on the S&P 500 before expiration was 1,802. Therefore, you make a $70 profit (or 70% of $100) and maintain your original $100 investment. If the price finished below 1,800, you would lose your original $100 investment. If the price expires exactly on the strike price, it is common for the trader to receive her/his money back with no profit or loss, although brokers may have different rules. The profit and/or original investment is automatically added to the trader’s account when the position is closed.
As competition in the binary options space heats up, brokers are offering additional products that boast 50% to 500% payouts. While product structures and requirements may change, risk and reward is always known at the trade’s outset, allowing the trader to potentially make more on a position than they lose. Of course, an option offering a 500% payout will be structured in such a way that the probability of winning the payout is very low.
The Upside and Downside
Risk and reward are known in advance, offering a major advantage. There are only two outcomes: Win a fixed amount or lose a fixed amount, and there are generally no commissions or fees. They’re simple to use and there’s only one decision to make: Is the underlying asset going up or down? In addition, there are also no liquidity concerns because the trader doesn’t own the underlying asset and brokers can offer innumerable strike prices and expiration times/dates, which is an attractive feature. The trader can also access multiple asset classes anytime a market is open somewhere in the world.
On the downside, the reward is always less than the risk when playing high-low binary options. As a result, the trader must be right a high percentage of the time to cover inevitable losses. While payout and risk will fluctuate from broker to broker and instrument to instrument, one thing remains constant: Losing trades will cost the trader more than she/he can make on winning trades. Other types of binary options may provide payouts where the reward is potentially greater than the risk but the percentage of winning trades will be lower.