Options Chain

Not all stocks have options listed for trading. There are some criterias that the public company will need to meet before their stock options can be listed for trading. To find out whether options are available for trading, the simplest way is to enter the stock ticker symbol to retrieve the stock quote information and find out if there is a corresponding options chain available. The availability of an options chain will mean that there are options being traded for that stock.

The options chain shows the available call and put strike prices for a specific underlying security and expiration month. Depending on the online brokerage service that you use, the interface may be slightly different but in general, the layout and available information should be very similar.

Below is the options chain interface from OptionsXpress. The most important information is shown right at the top and they are usually the underlying security, along with its latest market price, and the expiration month. This is common sense as you don't want to purchase an option only to realise that its for the wrong underlier or the wrong expiration month!

Calls and Puts

Calls are usually listed on the left hand side while puts are typically displayed on the right hand side. In-the-money options are usually highlighted to differentiate them from out-of-the-money options. If you wish to trade at-the-money or near-the-money options, they are positioned on either side of the horizontal 'border' created by the highlighting.

The Strike Price

Down the middle is the range of strike prices available for trading for the selected expiration month. The strike price intervals vary and depends on the price of the underlying. For lower priced stocks (usually $25 or less), intervals are at 2.5 points. Higher priced stocks have strike price intervals of 5 point (or 10 points for very expensive stocks priced at $200 or more).

Options Symbol

Option symbols are unique to every option contract and they denote the type of option, the underlying asset and the expiration month, provided you have a good understanding of options symbology. However, they are seldom used nowadays since with modern computer technology, these information are often presented to the trader in a user friendly interface - the options chain! While you can enter the symbol directly when placing an order, it is advisable to select the desired options using the options chain interface to minimize human error.

Last Done Price

The last done price reflects the latest transacted price for the specific option. As the most recent transaction may be hours or days ago, especially for thinly traded contracts, you should check the bid-ask price rather than the last done price to get a better picture of the current market value of the option you wish to trade.

Bid-Ask Spread

The bid and ask shows the price at which buyers are willing to pay and sellers are looking to receive for the particular option. The bid-ask spread is the difference between the bid and the ask and the size of the spread depends on the liquidity of the option. As a general rule, the lower the open interest, the wider the bid-ask spread. Furthermore, near the money options usually have higher open interest and hence better liquidity and narrower bid-ask spreads.

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