Binary options are financial options that come with one of two payoff options if the contract is held until expiration: a fixed amount or nothing at all. That's why they're called binary options—because there is no other settlement possible. The premise behind a binary option is a simple yes or no proposition: Will an underlying asset be above a certain price at a certain time?
Traders place trades based on whether they believe the answer is yes or no, making it one of the simplest financial assets to trade. This simplicity has resulted in broad appeal among traders and newcomers to the financial markets. As simple as it may seem, traders should fully understand how binary options work, what markets and time frames they can trade with binary options, the advantages, and the disadvantages of these products, and which companies are legally authorized to provide binary options to U.S. residents.
Binary options traded outside the U.S. are typically structured differently than binaries available on U.S. exchanges. When considering speculating or hedging, binary options are an alternative—but only if the trader fully understands the two potential outcomes of these exotic options.
- Binary options are based on a yes or no proposition and come with either a payout of a fixed amount or nothing at all, if held until expiration.
- These options come with the possibility of capped risk or capped potential and are traded on the Nadex.
- Bid and ask prices are set by traders themselves as they assess whether the probability set forth is true or not.
- Each Nadex contract traded costs $1 to enter and $1 to exit.
Understanding U.S. Binary Options
Binary options provide a way to trade markets with capped risk and capped profit potential, based on a yes or no proposition.
Let's take the following question as an example: Will the price of gold be above $1,830 at 1:30 p.m. today?
If you believe it will be, you buy the binary option. If you think gold will be at or below $1,830 at 1:30 p.m., then you sell this binary option. The price of a binary option is always between $0 and $100, and just like other financial markets, there is a bid and ask price.
The above binary may be trading at $42.50 (bid) and $44.50 (offer) at 1 p.m. If you buy the binary option right then, you will pay $44.50, excluding fees. If you decide to sell right then, you'll sell at $42.50, excluding fees.
Let's assume you decide to buy at $44.50. If at 1:30 p.m. the price of gold is above $1,830, your option expires and it becomes worth $100. You make a profit of $100—$44.50 = $55.50 (minus fees). This is called being in the money. But if the price of gold is below $1,830 at 1:30 p.m., the option expires at $0. Therefore you lose the $44.50 invested, plus the fees. This called out of the money.
The bid and offer fluctuate until the option expires. You can close your position at any time before expiry to lock in a profit or a reduce a loss, compared to letting it expire out of the money.
A Zero-Sum Game
Eventually, every option settles at $100 or $0—$100 if the binary option proposition is true and $0 if it turns out to be false. Thus, each binary option has a total value potential of $100, and it is a zero-sum game—what you make, someone else loses, and what you lose, someone else makes.
Each trader must put up the capital for their side of the trade. In the examples above, you purchased an option at $44.50, and someone sold you that option. Your maximum risk is $44.50 if the option settles at $0, and so the trade costs you $44.50, excluding fees. The person who sold to you has a maximum risk of $55.50 if the option settles at $100—$100 - $44.50 = $55.50, excluding fees.
A trader may purchase multiple contracts if desired. Here's another example:
- S&P US 500 index > 4405.2 (4:15 p.m.).
The current bid and offer are $18.00 and $24.00, respectively. If you think the index will be above 4405.2 at 4:15 p.m., you buy the binary option at $24, or place a bid at a lower price and hope someone sells to you at that price. If you think the index will be below 4405.2 at that time, you sell at $18, or place an offer above that price and hope someone buys it from you.
You decide to buy at 24, believing the index is going to be above 4405.02 (called the strike price) by 4:15 p.m. And if you really like the trade, you can sell (or buy) multiple contracts.
Figure 1 shows a trade to buy one contract (size) at $24. The Nadex platform automatically calculates your maximum loss and gain, maximum ROI, and probability in-the-money (ITM) when you create an order, called a ticket.
Nadex Trade Ticket with Max Profit, Max Loss, and Probability ITM
The maximum profit on this ticket is $76 and the maximum loss is $24, excluding fees.
Determination of the Bid and Ask
The bid and ask are determined by traders themselves as they assess the probability of the proposition being true or not. In simple terms, if the bid and ask on a binary option is at 85 and 89, respectively, then traders on the buy-side are assuming a very high probability that the outcome of the binary option will be yes, and the option will expire worth $100 for buyers. If the bid and ask are near 50, traders are unsure if the binary will expire at $0 or $100—it's relatively even odds.
If the bid and ask are at 10 and 15, respectively, it indicates traders on the sell-side think there is a high likelihood the option outcome will be no, and expire worth $100 for sellers. The buyers in this area are willing to take the small risk for a big gain. While those selling are willing to take a small—but very likely—profit for a large risk (relative to their gain).
Where to Trade Binary Options
Binary options trade on the Nadex exchange, the first legal U.S. exchange focused on binary options. Nadex, or the North American Derivatives Exchange, provides its own browser-based binary options trading platform which traders can access via demo account or live account. The trading platform provides real-time charts along with direct market access to current binary option prices.
Binary options trade on the Nadex—the North American Derivatives Exchange.
Binary options are also available through the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE). Traders with an options-approved brokerage account can trade CBOE binary options through their traditional trading account. Not all brokers provide binary options trading, however.
Fees for Binary Options
Each Nadex contract traded costs $1 to enter and $1 to exit.
If you hold your trade until settlement and finish in the money, the fee to exit is assessed to you at expiry. But if you hold the trade until settlement, but finish out of the money, no settlement fee is assessed.
CBOE binary options are traded through various option brokers. Each charges its own commission fee.
Pick Your Binary Market
Multiple asset classes are tradable via binary option. Nadex offers trading in major indices such as the Dow 30 (Wall Street 30), the S&P 500 (US 500), Nasdaq 100 (US TECH 100), and Russell 2000 (US Smallcap 2000). Global indices for the United Kingdom (FTSE 100), Germany (Germany 40), China (China 50), and Japan (Japan 225) are also available.
Trades can be placed on forex pairs: EUR/USD, GBP/USD, USD/JPY, EUR/JPY, AUD/USD, USD/CAD, GBP/JPY, USD/CHF, EUR/GBP, AUD/JPY, as well as USD/MXN.
Nadex offers commodity binary options related to the price of crude oil, natural gas, gold, and silver.
Trading news events are also possible with event binary options. Buy or sell options based on whether the Federal Reserve will increase or decrease rates, or whether jobless claims and nonfarm payrolls will come in above or below consensus estimates.
Pick Your Option Time Frame
A trader may choose from Nadex binary options (in the above asset classes) that expire intraday, daily, or weekly.
Intraday options provide an opportunity for day traders, even in quiet market conditions, to attain an established return if they are correct in choosing the direction of the market over that time frame.
Daily options expire at the end of the trading day and are useful for day traders or those looking to hedge other stock, forex, or commodity holdings against that day's movements.
Weekly options expire at the end of the trading week and are thus traded by swing traders throughout the week, and also by day traders as the options' expiry approaches on Friday afternoon.
Event-based contracts expire after the official news release associated with the event, and so all types of traders take positions well in advance of—and right up to the expiry.
Any perceived volatility in the underlying market also tends to carry over to the way binary options are priced.
Consider the following example. Will the EUR/USD be above 1.1815 with 1½ hours left until expiration, while the spot EUR/USD currency pair trades at 1.1825? When there is a day with low volatility, the spot EUR/USD may have very little expectations of movement and the cost to buy or sell a contract may be in the $90 range. The EUR/USD is already 10 pips in the money, while the underlying market is expected to be flat. So the likelihood that the buyer receives a $100 payout is high.
But if the EUR/USD moves around a lot in a volatile trading session, the cost to buy or sell the contract will get pushed closer to $50 as the probability of the underlying market price staying over the 1.1815 strike is lower due to the potential for a larger market move.
Pros and Cons of Binary Options
Unlike the actual stock or forex markets where price gaps or slippage can occur, the risk of binary options is capped. It's not possible to lose more than the cost of the trade, including fees.
Better-than-average returns are also possible in very quiet markets. If a stock index or forex pair is barely moving, it's hard to profit, but with a binary option, the payout is known. If you buy a binary option at $20, it will either settle at $100 or $0, making you $80 on your $20 investment or losing you $20. This is a 4:1 reward to risk ratio, an opportunity that is unlikely to be found in the actual market underlying the binary option.
The flip side of this is that your gain is always capped. No matter how much the stock or forex pair moves in your favor, the most a binary option can be worth is $100. Purchasing multiple options contracts is one way to potentially profit more from an expected price move.
Since binary options are worth a maximum of $100, that makes them accessible to traders even with limited trading capital, as traditional stock day trading limits do not apply. You can open a live account for free. There is no minimum deposit required.
Binary options are a derivative based on an underlying asset, which you do not own. You're thus not entitled to voting rights or dividends that you'd be eligible to receive if you owned an actual stock.
Risks are capped.
Better than average returns.
Payouts are known.
Gains are capped.
Derivative-based can be volatile.
Limited choice of binary options available in U.S.
The Bottom Line
Binary options are based on a yes or no proposition. Your profit and loss potential are determined by your buy or sale price, and whether the option expires worth $100 or $0. Risk and reward are both capped, and you can exit options at any time before expiry to lock in a profit or reduce a loss.
Binary options within the U.S are traded via the Nadex and CBOE exchanges. Foreign companies soliciting U.S. residents to trade their form of binary options are usually operating illegally. Binary options trading has a low barrier to entry, but just because something is simple doesn't mean it'll be easy to make money with. There is always someone else on the other side of the trade who thinks they're correct and you're wrong.
Only trade with capital you can afford to lose, and trade a demo account to become completely comfortable with how binary options work before trading with real capital.