Binary options are a simple way to trade price fluctuations in multiple global markets, but a trader needs to understand the risks and rewards of these often-misunderstood instruments. Binary options are different from traditional options. If traded, one will find these options have different payouts, fees and risks, not to mention an entirely different liquidity structure and investment process. (For related reading, see: A Guide To Trading Binary Options In The U.S.)

Binary options traded outside the U.S. are also typically structured differently than binaries available on U.S. exchanges. When considering speculating or hedging, binary options are an alternative, but only if the trader fully understands the two potential outcomes of these “exotic options.” In June 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission warned investors about the potential risks of investing in binary options and charged a Cyprus-based company with selling them illegally to U.S. investors.

What Are Binary Options?

Binary options are classed as exotic options, yet binaries are extremely simple to use and understand functionally. The most common binary option is a “high-low” option. Providing access to stocks, indices, commodities and foreign exchange, a high-low binary option is also called a fixed-return option. This is because the option has an expiry date/time and also what is called a strike price. If a trader wagers correctly on the market’s direction and the price at the time of expiry is on the correct side of the strike price, the trader is paid a fixed return regardless of how much the instrument moved. A trader who wagers incorrectly on the market’s direction loses her/his investment.
If a trader believes the market is rising, she/he would purchase a “call.” If the trader believes the market is falling, she/he would buy a “put.” For a call to make money, the price must be above the strike price at the expiry time. For a put to make money, the price must be below the strike price at the expiry time. The strike price, expiry, payout and risk are all disclosed at the trade’s outset. For most high-low binary options outside the U.S., the strike price is the current price or rate of the underlying financial product, such as the S&P 500 index, EUR/USD currency pair or a particular stock. Therefore, the trader is wagering whether the future price at expiry will be higher or lower than the current price.

Foreign Versus U.S. Binary Options

Binary options outside the U.S. typically have a fixed payout and risk, and are offered by individual brokers, not on an exchange. These brokers make their money from the percentage discrepancy between what they pay out on winning trades and what they collect from losing trades. While there are exceptions, these binary options are meant to be held until expiry in an “all or nothing” payout structure. Most foreign binary options brokers are not legally allowed to solicit U.S. residents for trading purposes, unless that broker is registered with a U.S. regulatory body such as the SEC or Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

Starting in 2008, some options exchanges such as the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) began listing binary options for U.S. residents. The SEC regulates the CBOE, which offers investors increased protection compared to over-the-counter markets. Nadex is also a binary options exchange in the U.S., subject to oversight by the CFTC. These options can be traded at any time at a rate based on market forces. The rate fluctuates between one and 100 based on the probability of an option finishing in or out of the money. At all times there is full transparency, so a trader can exit with the profit or loss they see on their screen in each moment. They can also enter at any time as the rate fluctuates, thus being able to make trades based on varying risk-to-reward scenarios. The maximum gain and loss is still known if the trader decides to hold until expiry. Since these options trade through an exchange, each trade requires a willing buyer and seller. The exchanges make money from an exchange fee – to match buyers and sellers – and not from a binary options trade loser.

High-Low Binary Option Example

Assume your analysis indicates that the S&P 500 is going to rally for the rest of the afternoon, although you’re not sure by how much. You decide to buy a (binary) call option on the S&P 500 index. Suppose the index is currently at 1,800, so by buying a call option you’re wagering the price at expiry will be above 1,800. Since binary options are available on all sorts of time frames – from minutes to months away – you choose an expiry time (or date) that aligns with your analysis. You choose an option with an 1,800 strike price that expires 30 minutes from now. The option pays you 70% if the S&P 500 is above 1,800 at expiry (30 minutes from now); if the S&P 500 is below 1,800 in 30 minutes, you’ll lose your investment.
You can invest almost any amount, although this will vary from broker to broker. Often there is a minimum such as $10 and a maximum such as $10,000 (check with the broker for specific investment amounts).

Continuing with the example, you invest $100 in the call that expires in 30 minutes. The S&P 500 price at expiry determines whether you make or lose money. The price at expiry may be the last quoted price, or the (bid+ask)/2. Each broker specifies their own expiry price rules.

In this case, assume the last quote on the S&P 500 before expiry was 1,802. Therefore, you make a $70 profit (or 70% of $100) and maintain your original $100 investment. Had the price finished below 1,800, you would lose your $100 investment. If the price had expired exactly on the strike price, it is common for the trader to receive her/his money back with no profit or loss, although each broker may have different rules as it is an over-the-counter (OTC) market. The broker transfers profits and losses into and out of the trader’s account automatically.
Read more: What You Need to Know About Binary Options | Investopedia
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