The Importance of Time Value in Options Trading

Most investors and traders new to options markets prefer to buy calls and puts because of their limited risk and unlimited profit potential. Buying puts or calls is typically a way for investors and traders to speculate with only a fraction of their capital. But these straight option buyers miss many of the best features of stock and commodity options, such as the opportunity to turn time-value decay (the reduction in value of an options contract as it reaches its expiration date) into potential profits.

When establishing a position, option sellers collect time-value premiums paid by option buyers. Rather than losing out because of time decay, the option seller can benefit from the passage of time, and time-value decay becomes money in the bank even if the underlying asset is stationary.

Before explaining the importance of time value with respect to option pricing, this article takes a detailed look at the phenomenon of time value and time-value decay. First, we'll look at some basic options concepts that apply to the concept of time value.

Key Takeaways

  • Options contracts grant rights to options holders to buy or sell the underlying security at or before some point in the future.
  • The price of an options contract, known as its premium, is essentially linked to the probability that the option will expire in-the-money (with positive value).
  • As the time to expiration approaches, the chances of a large enough swing in the underlying's price to bring the contract in-the-money diminishes, along with the premium.
  • This is known as time-decay, whereby all else equal, an option's price will decline over time.

Options and Strike Price

Depending on where the underlying asset is in relation to the option strike price, the option can be in, out, or at the money. At-the-money (ATM) means the strike price of the option is equal to the current price of the underlying stock or commodity. When the price of a commodity or stock is the same as the strike price (also known as the exercise price) it has zero intrinsic value, but it also has the maximum level of time value compared to that of all the other option strike prices for the same month. The table below provides a table of possible positions of the underlying asset in relation to an option's strike price.

The Relationship of the Underlying to the Strike Price
  Put Call
In-the-money option The price of the underlying is less than the strike price of the option. The price of the underlying is greater than the strike price of the option.
Out-of-the-money option The price of the underlying is greater than the strike price of the option. The price of the underlying is less than the strike price of the option.
At-the-money option The price of the underlying is equal to the strike price of the option. The price of the underlying is equal to the strike price of the option.
Note: Underlying refers to the asset (i.e. stock or commodity) upon which an option trades.

This table shows that when a put option is in-the-money (ITM), the underlying price is less than the option strike price. For a call option, in the money means that the underlying price is greater than the option strike price. For example, if we have an S&P 500 call with a strike price of 1,100 (an example we will use to illustrate time value below), and if the underlying stock index at expiration closes at 1,150, the option will have expired 50 points in the money (1,150 - 1,100 = 50).

In the case of a put option at the same strike price of 1100 and the underlying asset at 1050, the option at expiration also would be 50 points in the money (1,100 - 1,050 = 50). For out-of-the-money (OTM) options, the reverse applies. That is, to be out of the money, the put's strike would be less than the underlying price, and the call's strike would be greater than the underlying price. Finally, both put and call options would be at the money when the underlying asset expires at the strike price. While we are referring here to the position of the option at expiration, the same rules apply at any time before the options expire.

Time Value of Money

With these basic relationships in mind, we take a closer look at time value and the rate of time-value decay (represented by theta, from the Greek alphabet). If we ignore volatility, for now, the time-value component of an option, also known as extrinsic value, is a function of two variables: (1) time remaining until expiration and (2) the closeness of the option strike price to the money. All other things remaining the same (or no changes in the underlying asset and volatility levels), the longer the time to expiration, the more value the option will have in the form of time value.

But this level is also affected by how close to the money the option is. For example, two call options with the same calendar month expiration (both having the same time remaining in the contract life) but different strike prices will have different levels of extrinsic value (time value). This is because one will be closer to the money than the other.

The table below illustrates this concept and indicates when time value would be higher or lower and whether there will be any intrinsic value (which arises when the option gets in the money) in the price of the option. As the table indicates, deep in-the-money options and deep out-of-the-money options have little time value. Intrinsic value increases the more in-the-money the option becomes. And at-the-money options have the maximum level of time value but no intrinsic value. Time value is at its highest level when an option is at the money because the potential for intrinsic value to begin to rise is greatest at this point.

Intrinsic Value vs. Time Value
  In-the-money Out-of-the money At-the-money
Put/Call Time-value decreases as an option gets deeper in the money; intrinsic value increases. Time-value decreases as an option gets deeper out of the money; intrinsic value is zero. Time-value is at a maximum when an option is at the money; intrinsic value is zero.
Note: Intrinsic value arises when an option gets in the money.

Time Value Decay

In the figure below, we simulate time-value decay using three at-the-money S&P 500 call options, all with the same strikes but different contract expiration dates. This should make the above concepts more tangible. Through this presentation, we are making the assumption (for simplification) that implied volatility levels remain unchanged and the underlying asset is stationary. This helps us to isolate the behavior of time value. The importance of time value and time-value decay should thus become much clearer.

Taking our series of S&P 500 call options, all with an at-the-money strike price of 1,100, we can simulate how time value influences an option's price. Assume the date is Feb. 8. If we compare the prices of each option at a certain moment in time, each with different expiration dates (February, March, and April), the phenomenon of time-value decay becomes evident. We can witness how the passage of time changes the value of the options.

The figure below illustrates the premium for these at-the-money S&P 500 call options with the same strikes. With the underlying asset stationary, the February call option has five days remaining until expiry, the March call option has 33 days remaining, and the April call option has 68 days remaining.

As the figure below shows, the highest premium is at the 68-day interval (remember prices are from Feb. 8), declining from there as we move to the options that are closer to expiration (33 days and five days). Again, we are simply taking different prices at one point in time for an at-the-option strike (1100), and comparing them. The fewer days remaining translates into less time value. As you can see, the option premium declines from $38.90 to $25.70 when we move from the strike 68 days out to the strike that is only 33 days out.

Time-Value Decay
Image by Julie Bang © Investopedia 2019 

The next level of the premium, a decline of 14.7 points to $11, reflects just five days remaining before expiration for that particular option. During the last five days of that option, if it remains out of the money (the S&P 500 stock index below 1,100 at expiration), the option value will fall to zero, and this will take place in just five days. Each point is worth $250 on an S&P 500 option.

One important dynamic of time-value decay is that the rate is not constant. As expiration nears, the rate of time-value decay (theta) increases (not shown here). This means that the amount of time premium disappearing from the option's price per day is greater with each passing day.

The concept is looked at in another way in the figure below: The number of days required for a $1 (1 point) decline in premium on the option will decrease as expiry nears.

Rate of Time-Value Decay
Image by Julie Bang © Investopedia 2019 

This shows that at 68 days remaining until expiration, a $1 decline in premium takes 1.75 days. But at just 33 days remaining until expiration, the time required for a $1 loss in premium has fallen to 1.28 days. In the last month of the life of an option, theta increases sharply, and the days required for a one-point decline in premium falls rapidly.

At five days remaining until expiration, the option is losing one point in just less than half a day (0.45 days). If we look again at the Time-Value Decay figure, at five days remaining until expiration, this at-the-money S&P 500 call option has 11 points in premium. This means that the premium will decline by approximately 2.2 points per day. Of course, the rate increases even more in the final day of trading, which we do not show here.

How Is an Option's Time Decay Measured?

Options traders use the Greek value Theta (Θ) to measure time decay, and interpret it as the dollar change in an option's premium given one additional day to expiration, all else equal. Therefore, an option with a premium of $2.30 and a theta of $0.05 will be worth $2.25 the next day, assuming nothing else changes.

Which Options Have the Greatest Time Value?

At-the-money options have the greatest time value (and are also most sensitive to time decay, as measured by theta). Moreover, options approaching expiration see their time decay accelerate the fastest relative to those with longer expirations remaining.

Why Is Time Value of Options Also Called Extrinsic Value?

An option's premium is composed of two parts: intrinsic and extrinsic value. Intrinsic value is the amount of money the option contains if it were exercised immediately. For instance, a 30-strike call allows you to buy shares at $30, and if the stock is trading at $35, there has to be $5 of intrinsic value in that call. Extrinsic value is anything above the intrinsic value. So, if you instead owned the 40-strike call when the stock is trading at $35, it wouldn't be worth anything to exercise at the moment. But, there would still be a premium, or the extrinsic value, which is based on the chances that this option will pan out before expiration. This is based on the time value of the option, since the more time there remains, the more chances the stock will rise above $40.

The Bottom Line

While there are other pricing dimensions (such as delta, gamma, and implied volatility), a look at time-value decay is helpful to understand how options are priced.

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