What Is a Path Dependent Option?

A path dependent option is an exotic option that's value depends not only on the price of the underlying asset but the path that asset took during all or part of the life of the option. 

There are many types of path-dependent options including Asian, chooser, lookback, and barrier options.

Key Takeaways

  • A path dependent option has a payout that can vary based on the path the underlying asset's price takes over its life or at certain times during the option's life.
  • There are multiple types of path dependent options, broken down into soft and hard dependent options.
  • Some path dependent option types include barrier and Asian options.

Understanding a Path Dependent Option

All options give the holder the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an underlying asset at a specific price, called the strike, before or at the expiration date. Options define the strike price and expiration date at the onset of the contract. Typically the price the underlying asset is trading at is compared to the strike price to determine profitability. But in a path dependent option, what price is used to determine profitability can vary. Profitability may be based on an average price, or a high or low price, for example.

There are two varieties of path dependent options. One type, called a soft path dependent option, bases its value on a single price event that occurred during the life of the option. It could be the highest or lowest traded price of the underlying asset or it could be a triggering event such as the underlying touching a specific price. Option types in this group include barrier options, lookback options, and chooser options.

The other type, called a hard path dependent option, takes into account the entire trading history of the underlying asset. Some options take the average price, sampled at specific intervals. Option types in this group include Asian options, which are also known as average options.

Introduction to Path Dependent Option Varieties

Here is a brief rundown on several types of path-dependent options.

Barrier Options

This category includes many sub-varieties, but for all of them, the payoff depends on whether or not the underlying asset reaches or exceeds a predetermined price. A barrier option can be a knock-out option, meaning it can expire worthless if the underlying exceeds a certain price. It can also be a knock-in option, meaning it has no value until the underlying reaches a certain price. Barriers can be below the strike price, above it, or both.

Lookback Options

Also known as hindsight options, lookback options allow the holder the advantage of knowing history when determining when to exercise their option. This type of option reduces uncertainties associated with the timing of market entry and reduces the chances the option will expire worthless. Lookback options are expensive to execute, so these advantages come at a cost.

Russian Options

A Russian is type of lookback option that does not have an expiration so the life of the option is whatever the holder chooses it to be. They are also known as reduced regret options.

Chooser Options

This type of option allows the holder to decide whether it is a call or put prior to the expiration date. Chooser options usually have the same exercise price and expiration date regardless of what decision the holder ultimately makes. Because they don't specify that the movement in the underlying asset be positive or negative, chooser options provide investors a great deal of flexibility and tend to be more expensive than conventional options.

Asian Options

Here, the payoff depends on the average price of the underlying asset over a certain period of time as opposed to standard options where the payoff depends on the price of the underlying asset at a specific point in time (sale or maturity). These options allow the buyer to purchase (or sell) the underlying asset at the average price instead of the spot price.

Example of a Path Dependent Option on a Stock

Assume that an investor wants to buy an average strike option on a stock, also called an Asian option. They may do this because they want their profitability based on the average price over a set period of time, and not a single price at a given point in time or at expiry.

Assume the investor wants to buy a 30-day call option, where the settlement price is determined by the average of the 21 trading day (closing prices) in that particular month.

The strike price is $50. The underlying stock is currently trading at $49.50. The option costs $1. If the investor buys 100 contracts, the cost is $10,000 (100 contracts x $1 x 100 shares per contract).

In order for the call buyer to make money, the average price of the next 21 trading days (closing prices) will need to be above $51. If the average price is between $50.01 and $50.99 they will have a partial loss. $51 is the breakeven point. If the average price is below $50 they will lose the full $10,000 they wagered.

The option is considered path-dependent because the payoff will depend on the price history of the stock. The price of the underlying stock on the day the option is sold or exercised has only a 1/21 impact on the average price that is used for settlement. In a vanilla option, the underlying price at expiry fully determines the value of the option.