1. Why are options under the spotlight?
The options market in the U.S. has exploded this year. Trading volumes of single-stock options exceeded those of regular shares for the first time during July, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. strategists. Options became hugely popular with retail investors seeking to ride the technology share rally. That’s had some peculiar effects on markets, such as reversing the usual relationship between options and stock prices, which typically move in opposite directions but have been rising together. An unusually volatile Nasdaq 100 Index — it fell 4.9% or more in three straight trading sessions in early September — also hinted at the outsize influence of options.
2. How do options work?
An option is a financial contract that gives the holder the right to buy (a call option) or sell (a put option) an underlying security at a predetermined price. A contract typically references 100 shares, meaning that for a relatively small sum an investor gets exposure to a lot of stock. For example, to buy an option on Apple stock rising over the next week might cost a few hundred dollars compared to more than $10,000 to purchase 100 shares. Given how Apple shares rose for 19 of the 23 weeks from the final week of March, it’s easy to see why options became a favored trade.
3. How exactly are options moving markets?
One theory is that the explosion in demand for options fed into gains in the stocks. That’s because the people offering the contracts (options dealers) typically offset losses or gains on their positions by trading in the underlying stock. When the price of the share moves, they’re forced to adjust their hedges. For example, if a dealer sold