When Is a Call Option in the Money?

A call option is in the money (ITM) when the underlying security's current market price is higher than the call option's strike price. The call option is in the money because the call option buyer has the right to buy the stock below its current trading price. When an option gives the buyer the right to buy the underlying security below the current market price, then that right has intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of a call option equals the difference between the underlying security's current market price and the strike price.

A call option gives the buyer or holder the right, but not the obligation, to buy the underlying security at a predetermined strike price on or before the expiration date. "In the money" describes the moneyness of an option. Moneyness explains the relationship between a financial derivative's strike price and the underlying security's price.

Key Takeaways

  • A call option is in the money (ITM) when the underlying security's current market price is higher than the call option's strike price.
  • Being in the money gives a call option intrinsic value.
  • Once a call option goes into the money, it is possible to exercise the option to buy a security for less than the current market price.
  • As a practical matter, options are rarely exercised before expiration because doing so destroys their remaining extrinsic value.

A Simple Example

For instance, suppose a trader buys one call option on ABC with a strike price of $35 with an expiration date one month from today. If ABC's stock trades above $35, the call option is in the money. Suppose ABC's stock is trading at $38 the day before the call option expires. Then the call option is in the money by $3 ($38 - $35). The trader can exercise the call option and buy 100 shares of ABC for $35 and sell the shares for $38 in the open market. The trader will have a profit of $300 (100 x ($38-$35)).

Advantages of in the Money Call Options

When a call option goes into the money, the value of the option increases for many investors. Out-of-the-money (OTM) call options are highly speculative because they only have extrinsic value.

Once a call option goes into the money, it is possible to exercise the option to buy a security for less than the current market price. That makes it possible to make money off the option regardless of current options market conditions, which can be crucial.

Parts of the options market can be illiquid at times. Calls on thinly traded stocks and calls that are far out of the money may be difficult to sell at the prices implied by the Black Scholes model. That is why it is so beneficial for a call to go into the money. In fact, at-the-money (ATM) options are usually the most liquid and frequently traded in part because they capture the transformation of out-of-the-money options into in-the-money options.

As a practical matter, options are rarely exercised before expiration because doing so destroys their remaining extrinsic value. The main exception is very deep in the money options, where the extrinsic value makes up a tiny fraction of total value. Exercising call options becomes more practical as expiration approaches and time decay increases dramatically.

A Game for Professionals

On the whole, the game of options going into the money and being exercised is best left to professionals. Someone must eventually exercise all options, yet it usually doesn't make sense to do so until near the expiration day. That means frantic trading on triple witching days when many options and futures contracts expire.

Small investors should usually plan on selling their options long before expiration rather than exercising them.

Most individual investors lack the knowledge, self-discipline, and even the money to actually exercise call options. Of these, the lack of money is the most serious problem. Suppose an investor purchases a call option that is 13% out of the money and expires in one year for 3% of the value of the underlying stock. If the stock goes up by 22% in the next year, the value of the investment will have tripled (22 - 13 = 9, which is triple the original 3). That sounds good, but there is a potential hitch.

Suppose the investor put $3,000 of $100,000 into the call option described above. If the rest was in cash earning 0%, the 3% risked is now 9%, for a total gain of 6%. What the investor really has at this point is the right to buy stocks worth $122,000 for $113,000. Unfortunately, the investor only has $97,000 in cash. That is not enough to exercise the call option, so a trip to the market makers is necessary.