Investments in Binary Options

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Don’t Gamble On Binary Options

There are lots of ways to lose your money in this world but here’s one I hadn’t encountered before: binary option Web sites. They have become popular over the past few years with new ones appearing all the time: anyoption.com, bulloption.com, spotoption.com, binaryoption.com, etc. etc.

The sites appeal to the same type of people who play poker online. But they somehow have an aura of being more respectable because they represent themselves as offering a form of investing. Don’t kid yourself. These are gambling sites, pure and simple. It’s probably just a matter of time before regulators move in on them.

Until that happens, they seem to be doing great business. A Google search for binary option Web sites produced 870,000 hits with promotions like “earn up to 75 per cent every hour” and “81 per cent profit in one hour or less, trade all major markets”. You can buy these options, which are also known as all-or-nothing options, digital options, or Fixed Return Options (FROs), on stocks, commodities, indexes, foreign exchange, and other derivatives.

In fact, you can place a bet (which is what it really amounts to) on just about anything that is publicly traded, depending on which Web site you use (some offer a wider range of choices than others). Some sites provide free guides to binary option trading to get you started.

I was alerted to this phenomenon by a reader who sent me this email:

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“My dad has recently gotten involved with trading binary options online. The basic premise for the site he uses is at a specific time, say 1:25 p.m., you can put down perhaps $100 that XYZ stock will either increase or decrease in price within five minutesby 1:30 p.m. If you are wrong, you get $15 back. If you are right, you win about $70.

“I’ve proven to him that, mathematically, the site has an edge and you must be right 55% of the time in order for your bet to have a neutral expected value. I am also a professional online poker player by trade so I have an extensive understanding of probability, the online gambling markets, and how these sites work.

The problem is he feels he is at a great advantage, citing his ability to read a bunch of charts, follow news, etc. He is a smart man, a former lawyer, and has been following stocks for years, but I feel that he may be overestimating himself here. I’ve looked into online binary options trading a bit and it seems to me that the consensus is that very few people outside of professional traders can beat the trading sites consistently for good money. My dad is up $2,500 or so betting $100 and $50. The best I could do is to warn him about statistical variance affecting his perceived ability and that short-term volatility along with the inherent disadvantage will make consistent winning incredibly hard.

“I’m looking for a way to definitively convince him to stop and that his edge isn’t as great as it seems. I tried talking to him multiple times about the subject but I’m not as knowledgeable about the field and ultimately that becomes my shortcoming when trying to convince him why he shouldn’t continue to be involved with this. Any help would certainly be appreciated.”

I found this correspondence especially fascinating because the writer is a professional online poker player — a gambler by trade. Yet here he is trying to convince his dad that online gambling is a bad thing. I agree, it is. But it’s understandable if the father is skeptical about advice from a son who does the same sort of thing, albeit in a different form.

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But that’s for them to sort out. What intrigued me was to discover that binary option trading has become a kind of pseudo investing sub-culture. I went to the site our reader says his dad uses and did some research. It describes binary options as “an exciting new type of investment” — note the use of the word “investment”.

“When a binary option is purchased on our platform, a contract is created that gives the buyer (known here as the investor) the right to buy an underlying asset at a fixed price, within a specified time frame with us, the seller,” the Web site explains. The option must be held until maturity (even if that is five minutes away); unlike regular options it cannot be sold before then.

These sites promote themselves as offering controlled risk (you can’t lose more than a specified amount), low cost, big gains if you guess right, and ease of use — you can trade from home whenever markets are open and set up an account with a credit card.

So what arguments would I use to convince dad to quit? For starters, this sort of thing can quickly become addictive, especially to market junkies. Although the amounts bet may be small, the total can quickly add up if many trades are done in a day. It wouldn’t take long for things to get out of hand.

Second, no one, no matter how knowledgeable, can consistently predict what a stock or commodity will do within a short time frame. Will Apple (AAPL) shares go up or down in the next 10 minutes? Unless there has just been some major announcement from the company, there is no way to even guess at that.

Third, the house definitely has an edge. This particular Web site pays $71 for each successful $100 “trade.” If you lose, you get back $15. Let’s say you make 1,000 “trades” and win 545 of them. Your profit is $38,695. But your 455 losses will cost you $38,675. In other words, you must win 54.5% of the time just to break even.

Finally, these Web sites are unregulated. No securities commission is protecting people’s interests. This is a financial Wild West.

If people want to gamble, that’s their choice. But let’s not confuse that with investing. Binary options are a crapshoot, pure and simple.

What You Need To Know About Binary Options Outside the U.S

Binary options let traders profit from price fluctuations in multiple global markets but it’s important to understand the risks and rewards of these controversial and often-misunderstood financial instruments. Binary options bear little resemblance to traditional options, featuring different payouts, fees, and risks, as well as a unique liquidity structure and investment process.

Binary options traded outside the U.S. are also structured differently than those available on U.S. exchanges. They offer a viable alternative when speculating or hedging but only if the trader fully understands the two potential and opposing outcomes. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) summed up regulator skepticism about these exotic instruments, advising investors “to be particularly wary of non-U.S. companies that offer binary options trading platforms. These include trading applications with names that often imply an easy path to riches.” 

What Are Binary Options?

Binary options are deceptively simple to understand, making them a popular choice for low-skilled traders. The most commonly traded instrument is a high-low or fixed-return option that provides access to stocks, indices, commodities and foreign exchange. These options have a clearly stated expiration date, time and strike price. If a trader wagers correctly on the market’s direction and price at the time of expiration, he or she is paid a fixed return regardless of how much the instrument has moved since the transaction, while an incorrect wager loses the original investment.

The binary options trader buys a call when bullish on a stock, index, commodity or currency pair, or a put on those instruments when bearish. For a call to make money, the market must trade above the strike price at the expiration time. For a put to make money, the market must trade below the strike price at the expiration time. The strike price, expiration date, payout, and risk are disclosed by the broker when the trade is first established. For most high-low binary options traded outside the U.S., the strike price is the current price or rate of the underlying financial product. Therefore, the trader is wagering whether the price on the expiration date will be higher or lower than the current price.

Binary Options Outside the US

Foreign Versus U.S. Binary Options

Non-U.S. binary options typically have a fixed payout and risk, and are offered by individual brokers rather than directly on an exchange. These brokers profit on the difference between what they pay out on winning trades and what they collect on losing trades. While there are exceptions, these instruments are supposed to be held until expiration in an “all or nothing” payout structure. Foreign brokers are not legally allowed to solicit U.S. residents unless registered with a U.S. regulatory body such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) began listing binary options for U.S. residents in 2008.   The SEC regulates the CBOE, which offers investors increased protection compared to over-the-counter markets. Chicago-based Nadex also runs a binary options exchange for U.S. residents, subject to oversight by the CFTC. These options can be traded at any time, with the rate fluctuating between one and 100, based on the current probability of the position finishing in or out of the money. There is full transparency at all times and the trader can take the profit or loss they see on their screen prior to expiration. They can also enter as the rate fluctuates, taking advantage of varying risk-to-reward scenarios, or hold until expiration and close the position with the maximum gain or loss documented at the time of entry. Each trade requires a willing buyer and seller because U.S. binary options trade through an exchange, which makes money through a fee that matches counter-parties.

High-Low Binary Option Example

Your analysis indicates the Standard & Poor’s 500 index will rally for the rest of the trading day and you to buy an index call option. It’s currently trading at 1,800 so you’re wagering the index’s price at expiration will be above that number. Since binary options are available for many time frames—from minutes to months away—you choose an expiration time or date that supports your analysis. You choose an option that expires in 30 minutes, paying out 70% plus your original stake if the S&P 500 is above 1,800 at that time or you lose the entire stake if the S&P 500 is below 1,800. Minimum and maximum investments vary from broker to broker.

Say you invest $100 in the call that expires in 30 minutes. The S&P 500 price at expiration determines whether you make or lose money. The price at expiration may be the last quoted price, or the (bid + ask)/2. Each binary options broker outlines their own expiration price rules. In this case, assume the last quote on the S&P 500 before expiration was 1,802. Therefore, you make a $70 profit (or 70% of $100) and maintain your original $100 investment. If the price finished below 1,800, you would lose your original $100 investment. If the price expires exactly on the strike price, it is common for the trader to receive her/his money back with no profit or loss, although brokers may have different rules. The profit and/or original investment is automatically added to the trader’s account when the position is closed.

Other Types of Binary Options

The example above is for a typical high-low binary option—the most common type of binary option—outside the U.S. International brokers will typically offer several other types of binaries as well. These include “one-touch” options, where the traded instrument needs to touch the strike price just once before expiration to make money. There is a target above and below the current price, so traders can pick which target they believe will be hit before the expiration date/time. Meanwhile, a “range” binary option allows traders to select a price range the asset will trade within until expiration. A payout is received if price stays within the range, while the investment is lost if it exits the range.

As competition in the binary options space heats up, brokers are offering additional products that boast 50% to 500% payouts. While product structures and requirements may change, risk and reward is always known at the trade’s outset, allowing the trader to potentially make more on a position than they lose. Of course, an option offering a 500% payout will be structured in such a way that the probability of winning the payout is very low.

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, some foreign brokers allow traders to exit positions before expiration, but most do not. Exiting a trade before expiration typically results in a lower payout (specified by broker) or small loss, but the trader won’t lose his or her entire investment.

The Upside and Downside

Risk and reward are known in advance, offering a major advantage. There are only two outcomes: Win a fixed amount or lose a fixed amount, and there are generally no commissions or fees. They’re simple to use and there’s only one decision to make: Is the underlying asset going up or down? In addition, there are also no liquidity concerns because the trader doesn’t own the underlying asset and brokers can offer innumerable strike prices and expiration times/dates, which is an attractive feature. The trader can also access multiple asset classes anytime a market is open somewhere in the world.

On the downside, the reward is always less than the risk when playing high-low binary options. As a result, the trader must be right a high percentage of the time to cover inevitable losses. While payout and risk will fluctuate from broker to broker and instrument to instrument, one thing remains constant: Losing trades will cost the trader more than she/he can make on winning trades. Other types of binary options may provide payouts where the reward is potentially greater than the risk but the percentage of winning trades will be lower.

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Choose an asset and expiration time

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How it works

Binary Options is a financial instrument used to make profit by predicting an asset’s price movement (currencies, shares, commodities). In order to receive profit, a trader makes a prediction regarding the direction of the underlying asset’s price movement. If the prediction is correct, the trader receives profit. If it is not, the trader takes losses. Traders can also close the trade early if they realize that the prediction is not correct. In this case, a part of the contract cost is refunded.

Purchase a CALL option if you think that the price of the chosen asset will be higher than at the moment of its expiration time.​

  • If your prediction is correct, you will receive profit.
  • If the price remains the same, you don’t take losses and don’t receive any profit.
  • If the current price is lower than the price at the moment the option was bought, you take losses.

Investments in Binary Options

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Much of the binary options market operates through Internet-based trading platforms that are not necessarily complying with applicable U.S. regulatory requirements and may be engaging in illegal activity. Investors should be aware of fraudulent promotion schemes involving binary options and binary options trading platforms.

What is a Binary Option?

A binary option is a type of options contract in which the payout depends entirely on the outcome of a yes/no proposition and typically relates to whether the price of a particular asset will rise above or fall below a specified amount. Once the option is acquired, there is no further decision for the holder to make regarding the exercise of the binary option because binary options exercise automatically. Unlike other types of options, a binary option does not give the holder the right to buy or sell the specified asset. When the binary option expires, the option holder receives either a pre-determined amount of cash or nothing at all.

Investor Complaints Relating To Fraudulent Binary Options Trading Platforms

The SEC has received numerous complaints of fraud associated with websites that offer an opportunity to buy or trade binary options through Internet-based trading platforms. The complaints fall into at least three categories:

  1. Refusal to credit customer accounts or reimburse funds to customers

These complaints typically involve customers who have deposited money into their binary options trading account and who are then encouraged by “brokers” over the telephone to deposit additional funds into the customer account. When customers later attempt to withdraw their original deposit or the return they have been promised, the trading platforms allegedly cancel customers’ withdrawal requests, refuse to credit their accounts, or ignore their telephone calls and emails.

  1. Identity theft

These complaints allege that certain Internet-based binary options trading platforms may be collecting customer information (including copies of customers’ credit cards, passports, and driver’s licenses) for unspecified uses. Do not provide personal data.

  1. Manipulation of software to generate losing trades

These complaints allege that the Internet-based binary options trading platforms manipulate the trading software to distort binary options prices and payouts. For example, when a customer’s trade is “winning,” the countdown to expiration is extended arbitrarily until the trade becomes a loss.

Beware of Overstated Investment Returns for Binary Options

Additionally, some binary options Internet-based trading platforms may overstate the average return on investment by advertising a higher average return on investment than a customer should expect, given the payout structure.

For example, a customer may be asked to pay $50 for a binary option contract that promises a 50% return if the stock price of XYZ company is above $5 per share when the option expires. Assuming a 50/50 chance of winning, the payout structure has been designed in such a way that the expected return on investment is actually negative, resulting in a net loss to the customer. This is because the consequence if the option expires out of the money (approximately a 100% loss) significantly outweighs the payout if the option expires in the money (approximately a 50% gain). In this example, an investor could expect — on average — to lose money.

Always Check the Background of a Firm or Financial Professional

Before investing, check out the background, including registration or license status, of any firm or financial professional you are considering dealing with through the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure (IAPD) database, available on Investor.gov, and the National Futures Association Background Affiliation Status Information Center’s BASIC Search. If you cannot verify that they are registered, don’t trade with them, don’t give them any money, and don’t share your personal information with them.

Additional Information

The Office of Investor Education and Advocacy has provided this information as a service to investors. It is neither a legal interpretation nor a statement of SEC policy. If you have questions concerning the meaning or application of a particular law or rule, please consult with an attorney who specializes in securities law.

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