Exercising your options

The key things to know about managing options, including exercise, assignment, and roll.

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Managing an options trade is quite different from that of a stock trade. Essentially, there are 4 things you can do if you own options: hold them, exercise them, roll the contract, or let them expire. If you sell options, you can also be assigned.

If you are an active investor trading options with some percentage of your overall investment funds, here’s how you can evaluate the available choices for an options trade.

Holding your options

During the life of an options contract you’ve purchased, you can simply hold them (i.e., take no action). Suppose you own call options (which grant the right, but not the obligation, to buy a specified amount of an underlying stock at a specified strike price up and until a specified expiration date) and you believe the underlying stock price will rise within the time remaining until expiration. In this scenario, you would hold the option so that they increase in value over time.

The primary benefits of this approach include potential appreciation of the option (based on the underlying stock rising and/or an increase in expected volatility for the underlying stock), as well as delaying additional cost of buying the stock or any tax implications after you exercise the options.

Exercising your options

To exercise an option means to take action on the right to buy or sell the underlying position in an options contract at the predetermined strike price, at or before expiration. The order to exercise your options depends on the position you have. For example, if you bought to open call options, you would exercise the same call options by contacting your brokerage company and giving your instructions to exercise the call options (to buy the underlying stock at the strike price).

There are a variety of reasons why you might choose to exercise options before they expire (assuming they are in the money, which means they have value). In addition to wanting to capture realized gains on your options, you may want to exercise:

  1. To get the dividend. In this scenario, the time value (the value of an options contract that is attributed to the time until expiration, where the time value on every options contract is $0 at expiration) may be less than the dividend payable to the owner (as of the ex-dividend date) of the underlying security.
  2. At or before expiration to own the stock. If you are bullish and you own calls on the underlying stock, you may want to exercise the options contract to own the stock immediately.
  3. To help offset a short/long position. You might use options to offset losses from an existing position. For example, you own XYZ stock as well as put options on XYZ stock that has decreased in value. You might exercise the put options (which would result in delivery of the underlying shares) to capture those gains to help offset the unrealized loss for the stock you already own.
 

Be aware that closing out an options position triggers a taxable event, so you would want to consider the tax implications and the timing of closing a trade on your specific situation. You should consult your tax advisor if you have additional questions.

In sum, there are many scenarios that might cause you to want to exercise your options before expiration, and they depend primarily on your outlook for the underlying stock and your objectives/risk constraints.

Rolling your options

Before expiration—and, more commonly, near the end of the contract—you can also choose to roll the contract. This involves closing out your existing options position (by selling to close a long position or buying to close a short position) that is about to expire and simultaneously purchasing a substantially similar options position, only with a later expiration date. You might want to roll out your position if you want to have the same options exposure after your contract is set to expire.

In a covered call position, for example, you can also roll up, roll down, or roll out. This involves closing out your existing short options position that is about to expire, and simultaneously selling another options position, typically with a later expiration date. While there are differences among these choices, the objective is the same: to obtain similar exposure to an existing position.

Assignment

If you sell an option, you have an obligation to sell stock if you are short a call, and an obligation to buy stock if you are short a put. The owner of call or put options has the right to assign the contract to the seller. This is known as assignment.

Assignment occurs when the buyer exercises an options contract on or before expiration, and the seller must fulfill the obligation by either buying or selling the underlying security at the exercise price. As a seller of options, you can be assigned at any time prior to expiration regardless of the underlying share price—meaning you might have to receive or deliver shares of the underlying stock.

Depending on your position, settlement can occur in a variety of ways. If you are assigned on a covered call, for example, the shares you own will be sold automatically.

Let the options expire

Remember, options have an expiration date. They either have intrinsic value (for calls, the stock is above the strike price, and for puts, the stock is below the strike price) or they will expire worthless. If the options have intrinsic value, you should plan to exercise at or before expiration, or anticipate having it automatically exercised at expiration if in the money. If they do not have intrinsic value, you can simply let your options expire. Of course, letting options expire can also have tax consequences.

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