What is an Index Option?

Introduced in 1981, index options are call or put options on a financial index comprising many stocks.

How Does an Index Option Work?

Index options usually have a contract multiplier of $100, meaning that the price of an index option equals the quoted premium times $100. Unlike options in shares of stock or even commodities, it's not possible to physically deliver the underlying index to the purchaser of an index option. Thus, index options settle via cash payments.

Many times it is in an investor's best interest to lock in recent gains or to protect a portfolio of stocks from a decline beyond a certain price. One way to do this would be to purchase a put option contract on each of your various holdings (this would essentially allow you to 'lock in' a particular sale price on each stock, so even if the market crashed, your overall portfolio wouldn't suffer much). However, if you hold a large, diversified portfolio of stocks, then it is probably not cost-effective to insure each and every position in this manner.

As an alternative, investors might want to consider using index options to hedge the risk in their portfolios. Many different indices have options available, including the Nasdaq 100, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500. With some careful planning, investors should be able to offset a sharp decline in a portfolio by hedge their overall position with index options. Though it is impossible to forecast exactly how a portfolio will perform during a steep market sell-off, one can get fairly close to the actual result by determining which particular index to use as a proxy for the portfolio and then determining the correct number of options to use as a portfolio hedge.

Why Does an Index Option Matter?

Index options are essentially bets on the overall movement of the market or a basket of stocks. Hedgers and speculators can use them to get exposure to an entire market or entire sector in a single, quick transaction. And like other options, index options offer leverage and predetermined risk. After all, the most the index option trader can lose is the premium he or she paid to hold the options, and the upside can be incredible.

It is important to note that equity index options have special tax consequences: 60% of any gain on the sale of the option is taxed as a long-term capital gain; the other 40% is taxes as short-term capital gain income.