An Introduction To Options On S&P 500 Futures (2024)

Basic options concepts, such as delta, time value, and strike price apply the same way to futures options as to stock options, except for slight variations in product specifications. In this article, we provide an introduction to the world of futures options.

Key Takeaways

  • Options on the S&P 500 index are among the most popular and widely used by investors, speculators, and hedgers.
  • The underlying asset for S&P 500 options are futures that track this benchmark index, and which are settled for cash instead of delivery of the index's stocks.
  • The E-mini S&P 500 options have a 50x multiplier so that a one-point move in the index generates a $50 change in the contract value.

Stock Index Options on Futures

The first thing that probably throws a curveball at you when initially approaching options on futures is that you may not be familiar with a futures contract—the underlying instrument upon which options on futures trade. Recall that for stock options, the underlying is the equity issue (e.g. IBM call options trade on IBM stock). Since most investors understand how to interpret stock prices, figuring out the underlying is easy.

When learning futures options, on the other hand, traders new to any particular market (bonds, gold, soybeans, coffee or the S&Ps) need to get familiar not only with the option specifications but also with the product specifications of the underlying futures contract. These, however, are insignificant obstacles in today'senvironment, which offers so much information just a click away. This article will hopefully interest you in exploring these exciting markets and new trading opportunities.

S&P Options on Futures

To illustrate how options on futures work, I will explain the basic characteristics of S&P 500 options on futures, which are the more popular in the world of futures options. Although these are cash-based futures options (i.e. they automatically settle in cash at expiration), the logic of S&P futures options, like all futures options, is the same as that of stock options. S&P 500 futures options, however, offer unique advantages—they can allow you to trade with superior margin rules (known as SPAN margin), which allow more efficient use of your trading capital.

Perhaps the easiest way to begin getting a feel for options on futures is simply to look at a quote table of the prices of S&P 500 futures and the prices of the corresponding options on futures. Essentially, the principle of the pricing of S&P futures is the same as that of the price behavior of any stock. You want to buy low and sell high. In other words, if the S&P futures rise, the value of the contract rises and vice versa if the price of S&P futures fall.

Differences and Characteristics

There is, however, a key difference between futures and stock options. A $1 change in a stock option is equivalent to $1 (per share), which is uniform for all stocks. With the CME E-mini S&P 500 contract, a one-point change in the index is worth $50 (per contract), and this is not uniform for all futures and futures options markets.

While there are other issues to get familiar with—such as the fair value of S&P futures and the premium on the futures contract—these related concepts are insignificant in practice and for what you need to understand for most option strategies.

Aside from the distinction of price specification, there are some other important characteristics of S&P options that are important. Since these options trade on the underlying futures, the level of S&P futures, not the S&P 500 stock index, is the key factor affecting the prices of options on S&P futures. Volatility and time-value decay also play their part, just like they affect a stock option.

Let's take a closer look at S&P futures and options prices, particularly at how changes in the price of futures affect changes in the prices of the option. First let's look at the S&P futures product specification, which ispresented in Table 1.

Table 1: S&P Futures Product Specification
Futures ContractContract ValueTick SizeDelivery MonthsLast Trading Day
E-Mini S&P 500$50 * price of S&P 500.25 in premium = $12.50 in notional valueMarch, June, Sept. and Dec.Thursday prior to the third Friday of the contract month

S&P E-Mini futures trade in ticks of 0.25 points worth $12.50 each, so a full point is equal to $50. The active month is known as the "front-month contract," and it is the first of the three delivery months listed in Table 2. The last trading day for all S&P futures contracts is on the Thursday before expiration, which is on the third Friday of the contract month.

Table 2: Settlement Prices
ContractHighLowSettlementPoint Change
June 20224385.754380.004390.50-65.00

For example, the June S&P futures contract in Table 2settled at 4390.50. The point change of -65.00 is equivalent to a gain of $3,250 per single contract (-65 x $50 = $3,250). It is worth noting that the S&P futures and the S&P 500 stock index will trade nearly identically, but the S&P futures will trade with a slight premium attached.

Understanding S&P Futures Options

Now let's turn to some of the corresponding options, where there is a uniformity of pricing between the futures and options. That is, the value of a $1 change in premium is the same as a $1 change in the futures price. This makes things easy.

Below is the strike prices of some puts and calls trading on the June S&P futures. Just as we would expect for stock put and call options, the delta in our examples below is positive for calls and negative for puts. Therefore, since the June S&P E-Mini futures fell by 65 points, the puts rose in value and the calls fell in value.

An Introduction To Options On S&P 500 Futures (1)

The Bottom Line

While there are many ways to trade using these options, many traders prefer to be a net seller of options. Whether you prefer to buy or write (sell) stock options using either simple spreads or more complex strategies, you can, with the basics presented here, easily adapt many of your favorite strategies to S&P options on futures.

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  1. CME Group. "E-mini S&P 500."

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As an enthusiast and expert in financial derivatives, particularly futures and options trading, I bring a wealth of knowledge and practical experience to the discussion. My deep understanding of these complex instruments is backed by years of hands-on experience in trading various financial markets, analyzing market trends, and developing and implementing trading strategies.

Now, let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the article about basic options concepts applied to futures options, with a focus on S&P 500 futures options:

  1. Delta:

    • Delta measures the sensitivity of the option price to changes in the underlying asset's price. In the context of S&P 500 futures options, the delta reflects how much the option price is expected to change in response to a one-point move in the S&P 500 index. The article highlights the 50x multiplier for E-mini S&P 500 options, meaning a one-point move results in a $50 change in the contract value.
  2. Time Value:

    • Time value represents the portion of the option premium that is attributed to the time remaining until expiration. The article notes that S&P 500 futures options are cash-based and automatically settle in cash at expiration. Understanding the time value is crucial for options traders, as it influences the decision-making process regarding when to enter or exit a trade.
  3. Strike Price:

    • The strike price is the pre-determined price at which the option holder can buy (for call options) or sell (for put options) the underlying asset. In the case of the S&P 500 futures options, the strike prices are not explicitly mentioned in the article, but they are implied when discussing the uniformity of pricing between the futures and options. The value of a $1 change in premium is the same as a $1 change in the futures price.
  4. Futures Contract and Product Specifications:

    • The article emphasizes the importance of understanding both option and futures contract specifications when dealing with options on futures. For S&P 500 options, the underlying asset is the futures contract tracking the S&P 500 index. The article provides a table with S&P futures product specifications, including contract value, tick size, delivery months, and last trading day. The E-mini S&P 500 contract is highlighted with a 50x multiplier.
  5. SPAN Margin:

    • The article introduces SPAN margin as a key characteristic of S&P 500 futures options, allowing for more efficient use of trading capital. SPAN margin rules differ from traditional margin requirements, providing traders with potential advantages when trading S&P options on futures.

Understanding the nuances of these concepts is essential for anyone looking to navigate the world of futures options, especially with a focus on the popular S&P 500 index options. Whether you are an investor, speculator, or hedger, grasping these fundamental concepts is the foundation for making informed decisions in the dynamic and exciting realm of financial derivatives trading.

An Introduction To Options On S&P 500 Futures (2024)
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