Another vehicle for hedging interest-rate and stock market risk involves the use of options on financial instruments. Options are contracts that give the purchaser the option, or right, to buy or sell the underlying financial instrument at a specified price, called the exercise price or strike price, within a specific period of time (the term to expiration). The seller (sometimes called the writer) of the option is obligated to buy or sell the financial instrument to the purchaser if the owner of the option exercises the right to sell or buy. These option contract features are important enough to be emphasized: The owner or buyer of an option does not have to exercise the option; he or she can let the option expire without using it. Hence the owner of an option is not obligated to take any action, but rather has the right to exercise the contract if he or she so chooses. The seller of an option, by contrast, has no choice in the matter; he or she must buy or sell the financial instrument if the owner exercises the option.
Because the right to buy or sell a financial instrument at a specified price has value, the owner of an option is willing to pay an amount for it called a premium. There are two types of option contracts: American options can be exercised at any time up to the expiration date of the contract, and European options can be exercised only on the expiration date.
Option contracts are written on a number of financial instruments. Options on individual stocks are called stock options, and such options have existed for a long time. Option contracts on financial futures called financial futures options or, more commonly, futures options, were developed in 1982 and have become the most widely traded option contracts.
You might wonder why option contracts are more likely to be written on financial futures than on underlying debt instruments such as bonds or certificates of deposit. As you saw earlier in the chapter, at the expiration date, the price of the futures contract and of the deliverable debt instrument will be the same because of arbitrage. So it would seem that investors should be indifferent about having the option written on the debt instrument or on the futures contract. However, financial futures contracts have been so well designed that their markets are often more liquid than the markets in the underlying debt instruments. So investors would rather have the option contract written on the more liquid instrument—in this case, the futures contract. That explains why the most popular futures options are written on many of the same futures contracts listed in Table 1.
The regulation of option markets is split between the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which regulates stock options, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates futures options. Regulation focuses on ensuring that writers of options have enough capital to make good on their contractual obligations and on overseeing traders and exchanges to prevent fraud and ensure that the market is not being manipulated.