How to Read the Ticker Symbols for Stock Options

Since 2010, when the Options Clearing Corporation (OCC) launched the Options Symbology Initiative (OSI), it has been possible to describe any U.S. stock option simply by reading the ticker symbol—no decoding necessary.

On the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Nasdaq, the current OCC-mandated code to identify stock options (so that they can be quoted and traded) is a standardized alpha-numeric format with defined fields for four important pieces of information: 1) the root symbol (what the underlying stock is); 2) the expiration date (when the option expires); 3) the call/put (buy/sell) indicator (whether the option is a call or a put); and 4) the strike price (what the pre-determined call/put price is).

Here is an overview of how to read the updated ticker symbols for stock options—and what made the OCC decide to overhaul the symbology.

Key Takeaways

  • Since 2010, when the Options Clearing Corporation (OCC) mandated a standardized alpha-numeric format, it has been possible to describe any U.S. stock option simply by reading the ticker symbol.
  • Ticker symbols contain four important details about the stock option: the underlying stock, the expiration date, the call/put indicator, and the strike price.
  • Since the new ticker symbols for stock options launched, the uniform and logical format has been credited with expediting both order execution/settlement and compliance reporting as well as reducing front-end and back-end processing errors.

The Rationale for Restructuring the Option Tickers

Prior to 2010, the old ticker symbols for stock options were notoriously confusing and illogical. For example, the old system allowed root symbols that were often quite different from the ticker for the stock itself and represented the strike price by one letter (instead of numbers).

Although the current OCC-mandated symbology for option tickers is up to 21 alpha-numeric characters long—and the antiquated code it replaced was only five letters—the new coding has been applauded by both investors and traders as far more intuitive and straightforward.

How to Read the Ticker for a Stock Option

In the following Nike example, even a novice investor knows at first glance that "NKE220624C00099000" is an option to buy (call) Nike stock at a strike price of $99 by June 24, 2022—because those four important details about a stock option are always represented right in the ticker symbol—always in the following format:

Root Symbol (six-character maximum): The first field is identical to the ticker symbol for the option’s underlying stock. For the Nike option, this field is NKE—just like the stock. Although there is only one stock ticker for Nike, there can be hundreds of options on the stock—all of which are identified by the same initial letters in the option ticker.

Expiration Date (six digits): The second part of an option ticker is three fields with the expiration date in year-month-day order: (yy)(mm)(dd). In the Nike example, 220624 right after the stock ticker means that the option expires on June 24, 2022.

Call/Put Indicator (one character): There are two types of options—calls and puts—and the third section of the ticker is one letter—either C or P—to indicate whether the option is a contract to call (buy) or to put (sell) a stock. In the Nike example, the C after the expiration date indicates that the option is a call.

Strike Price (eight digits): The fourth section of an option ticker is always eight digits to indicate the strike price—the set price at which the option can be bought (for call options) or sold (for put options). (The strike price can also be called the exercise price.) In the Nike example above, the eight digits are 00099000—which means that the strike price is $99. Reading the strike price in the option ticker requires a simple calculation: divide the eight digits by 1,000 or just move the decimal point three digits to the left. (For example, if the option ticker reads 00078500, the strike price is $78.50.)

Options vs. Stocks

Unlike a stock, which represents fractional ownership of a company, an option is a contract that grants the owner the right (but not the obligation) to buy or sell a stock by a specific date at a specific price.

Options are Derivatives: Also, options are derivatives, i.e., financial instruments that derive their value from an underlying asset. For example, a stock option derives its value from the underlying stock. Other types of options have different underlying assets, e.g., stock indexes, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), fixed income products, foreign currencies, and commodities.

CBOE, OCC, SEC, CFTC: Like stocks, options are traded electronically on exchanges. For example, most U.S. options are executed on the Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE)—the world's largest market for stock options—and go through the Options Clearing Corporation (OCC), the world’s largest equity-derivatives clearing organization. As a central clearinghouse for option contracts, the OCC is a SIFMU (systemically important financial market utility), which means that the OCC operates under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Call Option vs. Put Option

A call is a contract to buy a stock at a predetermined price, which means that—if the strike price is lower than the current market price of the stock—call options are profitable (the holder can buy for less than the market price). On the other hand—if the strike price is higher than the current market price of the stock—put options are profitable (the holder can sell for more than the market price).

Zero-Sum Game: Of course, this means that options trading is a zero-sum game—one trader’s gain is equivalent to another trader’s loss, so the net change in wealth is zero.

Risk vs. Reward: Another important point is that, with both call options and put options, the buyer never risks losing more money than the initial premium they paid—no matter how much the price of the underlying stock fluctuates. If the option holder can either buy or sell at a profit—as in one of the two scenarios described above—the profit potential is significant.

History of Ticker Symbols for Stock Options

Launched in 2006 by the OCC and a consortium of industry players from brokerages, exchanges, and clearinghouses, the Option Symbology Initiative (OSI) was a multi-year effort to create better ticker symbols for stock options by completely revising the data format. To understand the rationale for such a massive, industry-wide overhaul of stock option ticker symbols in 2010, here is a brief history lesson.

The old five-alpha symbols—known as the OPRA (Options Price Reporting Authority) codes—were established in the 1970s and 1980s, when the options industry was significantly smaller and less complex. (OPRA is a registered securities information processor that aggregates and disseminates data feeds of price quotations for options contracts to financial firms, brokers, and traders in the U.S.)

From 1973 (when options trading officially launched) to 2010 (when the OCC mandated the current 21-character naming convention), options trading grew from a simple market with similar contracts into a complex market with diverse products and global reach. As the options market grew at a record pace, the exchanges began to develop sophisticated new options that the five-alpha codes simply could not capture.

To compound that deficiency with confusion—as soon as the exchanges introduced four-character and five-character stock tickers—the options market started inventing their own tickers to represent underlying stocks. This meant that, not only was the root symbol on the option ticker often different from the ticker for the underlying stock, but there could also be several versions of the root symbol on option tickers. When mergers, stock splits, and other corporate events happened, the problem got even worse.

Impact of the Option Symbology Initiative (OSI)

To bring the naming convention up to speed in the booming options market, the OCC’s Option Symbology Initiative (OSI) replaced the inadequate, confusing five-character OPRA codes with a uniform 21-character protocol to identify all listed option contracts transmitted between the exchanges, the clearinghouses, and all other constituents.

The most significant improvements introduced by the 21-character OSI identifiers are uniformity, clarity, and logic: the ticker symbols for stock options are now always six data elements with specified field sizes in a specified order. (There are six data elements in the options ticker—but only four pieces of information—because the expiration date has three fields: year, month, and day.)

In 2010, the exhaustive overhaul of stock option ticker symbols was compared to Y2K—a coding problem with computerized systems that was expected to cause havoc as the year changed from 1999 to 2000. However, although the options naming conversion captured few headlines, it was a case of “no news is good news.”

In fact, the uniform, logical OSI identifiers not only expedited order execution/settlement and compliance reporting but also reduced front-end and back-end processing errors. Perhaps most significantly, the new ticker symbols were credited with supporting the growth of the industry by making options trading far easier to execute and much more accessible to average investors.

Why Is Options Trading a Zero-Sum Game?

In options trading, one trader’s gain is equivalent to another trader’s loss, with a net change in wealth of zero—which makes it a zero-sum game.

What Is the Difference Between an Option and a Stock?

An option is a contract that grants the owner the right (but not the obligation) to buy or sell a stock by a specific date at a specific price; a stock represents fractional ownership of a company,

What Is the Difference Between a Call Option and a Put Option?

A call option is a contract to buy a stock at a predetermined price by a specific date; a put option is a contract to sell a stock at a predetermined price by a specific date.


Article Sources
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  1. Options Clearing Corporation. “Options Symbology Initiative (OSI) Overview.”

  2. Wall Street Journal. “Symbol Switch: The Fat Lady Sings for the OPRA.”

  3. Wall Street & Technology. “New Options Symbology Phased In.”

  4. Yahoo Finance. “NIKE, Inc. (NKE).”

  5. Options Clearing Corporation. “What Is OCC?

  6. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Investor Bulletin: An Introduction to Options.”

  7. Thomson Reuters. “Options Symbology Initiative Frequently Asked Questions.”

  8. Thomson Reuters. “Options Trading to Simplify with New Symbols: OCC.”

  9. Interactive Brokers. “Option Symbology Initiative.”

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