What Is a Currency Option?

A currency option (also known as a forex option) is a contract that gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a certain currency at a specified exchange rate on or before a specified date. For this right, a premium is paid to the seller.

Currency options are one of the most common ways for corporations, individuals or financial institutions to hedge against adverse movements in exchange rates.

Key Takeaways

  • Currency options give investors the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a particular currency at a pre-specific exchange rate before the option expires.
  • Currency options allow traders to hedge currency risk or to speculate on currency moves.
  • Currency options come in two main varieties, so-called vanilla options and over-the-counter SPOT options.
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Currency Option

The Basics of Currency Options

Investors can hedge against foreign currency risk by purchasing a currency put or call. Currency options are derivatives based on underlying currency pairs. Trading currency options involves a wide variety of strategies available for use in forex markets. The strategy a trader may employ depends largely on the kind of option they choose and the broker or platform through which it is offered. The characteristics of options in decentralized forex markets vary much more widely than options in the more centralized exchanges of stock and futures markets.

Traders like to use currency options trading for several reasons. They have a limit to their downside risk and may lose only the premium they paid to buy the options, but they have unlimited upside potential. Some traders will use FX options trading to hedge open positions they may hold in the forex cash market. As opposed to a futures market, the cash market, also called the physical and spot market, has the immediate settlement of transactions involving commodities and securities. Traders also like forex options trading because it gives them a chance to trade and profit on the prediction of the market's direction based on economic, political, or other news.

However, the premium charged on currency options trading contracts can be quite high. The premium depends on the strike price and expiration date. Also, once you buy an option contract, they cannot be re-traded or sold. Forex options trading is complex and has many moving parts making it difficult to determine their value. Risk include interest rate differentials (IRD), market volatility, the time horizon for expiration, and the current price of the currency pair.

Vanilla Options Basics

There are two main types of options, calls and puts.

  • Call options provide the holder the right (but not the obligation) to purchase an underlying asset at a specified price (the strike price), for a certain period of time. If the stock fails to meet the strike price before the expiration date, the option expires and becomes worthless. Investors buy calls when they think the share price of the underlying security will rise or sell a call if they think it will fall. Selling an option is also referred to as ''writing'' an option.
  • Put options give the holder the right to sell an underlying asset at a specified price (the strike price). The seller (or writer) of the put option is obligated to buy the stock at the strike price. Put options can be exercised at any time before the option expires. Investors buy puts if they think the share price of the underlying stock will fall, or sell one if they think it will rise. Put buyers - those who hold a "long" - put are either speculative buyers looking for leverage or "insurance" buyers who want to protect their long positions in a stock for the period of time covered by the option. Put sellers hold a "short" expecting the market to move upward (or at least stay stable) A worst-case scenario for a put seller is a downward market turn. The maximum profit is limited to the put premium received and is achieved when the price of the underlying is at or above the option's strike price at expiration. The maximum loss is unlimited for an uncovered put writer.

The trade will still involve being long one currency and short another currency pair. In essence, the buyer will state how much they would like to buy, the price they want to buy at, and the date for expiration. A seller will then respond with a quoted premium for the trade. Traditional options may have American or European style expirations. Both the put and call options give traders a right, but there is no obligation. If the current exchange rate puts the options out of the money (OTM), then they will expire worthlessly.

SPOT Options

An exotic option used to trade currencies include single payment options trading (SPOT) contracts. Spot options have a higher premium cost compared to traditional options, but they are easier to set and execute. A currency trader buys a SPOT option by inputting a desired scenario (e.g. "I think EUR/USD will have an exchange rate above 1.5205 15 days from now") and is quoted a premium. If the buyer purchases this option, the SPOT will automatically pay out if the scenario occurs. Essentially, the option is automatically converted to cash.

The SPOT is a financial product that has a more flexible contract structure than the traditional options. This strategy is an all-or-nothing type of trade, and they are also known as binary or digital options. The buyer will offer a scenario, such as EUR/USD will break 1.3000 in 12 days. They will receive premium quotes representing a payout based on the probability of the event taking place. If this event takes place, the buyer gets a profit. If the situation does not occur, the buyer will lose the premium they paid. SPOT contracts require a higher premium than traditional options contracts do. Also, SPOT contracts may be written to pay out if they reach a specific point, several specific points, or if it does not reach a particular point at all. Of course, premium requirements will be higher with specialized options structures.

Additional types of exotic options may attach the payoff to more than the value of the underlying instrument at maturity, including but not limited to characteristics such as at its value on specific moments in time such as an Asian option, a barrier option, a binary option, a digital option, or a lookback option.

Example of a Currency Option

Let's say an investor is bullish on the euro and believes it will increase against the U.S. dollar. The investor purchases a currency call option on the euro with a strike price of $115, since currency prices are quoted as 100 times the exchange rate. When the investor purchases the contract, the spot rate of the euro is equivalent to $110. Assume the euro's spot price at the expiration date is $118. Consequently, the currency option is said to have expired in the money. Therefore, the investor's profit is $300, or (100 * ($118 - $115)), less the premium paid for the currency call option.