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A Guide to Trading Binary Options in the U.S.

Binary options are financial options that come with one of two payoff options: a fixed amount or nothing at all. That’s why they’re called binary options—because there is no other settlement possible. The premise behind a binary option is a simple yes or no proposition: Will an underlying asset be above a certain price at a certain time?

Traders place trades based on whether they believe the answer is yes or no, making it one of the simplest financial assets to trade. This simplicity has resulted in broad appeal among traders and newcomers to the financial markets. As simple as it may seem, traders should fully understand how binary options work, what markets and time frames they can trade with binary options, advantages, and disadvantages of these products, and which companies are legally authorized to provide binary options to U.S. residents.

Binary options traded outside the U.S. are 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.

Now that you know some of the basics, read on to find out more about binary options, how they operate, and how you can trade them in the United States.

U.S. Binary Options Explained

Binary options provide a way to trade markets with capped risk and capped profit potential, based on a yes or no proposition.

Let’s take the following question as an example: Will the price of gold be above $1,250 at 1:30 p.m. today?

If you believe it will be, you buy the binary option. If you think gold will be below $1,250 at 1:30 p.m., then you sell this binary option. The price of a binary option is always between $0 and $100, and just like other financial markets, there is a bid and ask price.

The above binary may be trading at $42.50 (bid) and $44.50 (offer) at 1 p.m. If you buy the binary option right then, you will pay $44.50. If you decide to sell right then, you’ll sell at $42.50.

Let’s assume you decide to buy at $44.50. If at 1:30 p.m. the price of gold is above $1,250, your option expires and it becomes worth $100. You make a profit of $100—$44.50 = $55.50 (minus fees). This is called being in the money. But if the price of gold is below $1,250 at 1:30 p.m., the option expires at $0. Therefore you lose the $44.50 invested. This called out of the money.

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The bid and offer fluctuate until the option expires. You can close your position at any time before expiry to lock in a profit or a reduce a loss, compared to letting it expire out of the money.

A Zero-Sum Game

Eventually, every option settles at $100 or $0—$100 if the binary option proposition is true and $0 if it turns out to be false. Thus, each binary option has a total value potential of $100, and it is a zero-sum game—what you make, someone else loses, and what you lose, someone else makes.

Each trader must put up the capital for their side of the trade. In the examples above, you purchased an option at $44.50, and someone sold you that option. Your maximum risk is $44.50 if the option settles at $0, and so the trade costs you $44.50. The person who sold to you has a maximum risk of $55.50 if the option settles at $100—$100 – $44.50 = $55.50.

A trader may purchase multiple contracts if desired. Here’s another example:

  • NASDAQ US Tech 100 index > $3,784 (11 a.m.).

The current bid and offer are $74.00 and $80.00, respectively. If you think the index will be above $3,784 at 11 a.m., you buy the binary option at $80, or place a bid at a lower price and hope someone sells to you at that price. If you think the index will be below $3,784 at that time, you sell at $74.00, or place an offer above that price and hope someone buys it from you.

You decide to sell at $74.00, believing the index is going to fall below $3,784 (called the strike price) by 11 a.m. And if you really like the trade, you can sell (or buy) multiple contracts.

Figure 1 shows a trade to sell five contracts (size) at $74.00. The Nadex platform automatically calculates your maximum loss and gain when you create an order, called a ticket.

Nadex Trade Ticket with Max Profit and Max Loss (Figure 1)

Trading Forex with Binary Options

Binary options are an alternative way to play the foreign currency (forex) market for traders. Although they are a relatively expensive way to trade forex compared with the leveraged spot forex trading offered by a growing number of brokers, the fact that the maximum potential loss is capped and known in advance is a major advantage of binary options.

Defining Binary Options

Binary options have two outcomes: They settle either at a pre-determined value (generally $100) or at $0. This settlement value depends on whether the price of the asset underlying the binary option is trading above or below the strike price by expiration.

Binary options can be used to speculate on the outcomes of various situations: Will the S&P 500 rise above a certain level by tomorrow or next week? Will this week’s jobless claims be higher than the market expects? Or will the euro or yen decline against the U.S. dollar today?

For example, say gold is trading at $1,195 per troy ounce currently and you are confident that it will be trading above $1,200 later that day. Assume you can buy a binary option on gold trading at or above $1,200 by that day’s close, and this option is trading at $57 (bid)/$60 (offer). You buy the option at $60. If gold closes at or above $1,200, as you had expected, your payout will be $100, which means that your gross gain (before commissions) is $40 or 66.7%. On the other hand, if gold closes below $1,200, you would lose your $60 investment, for a 100% loss.

Binary Option Buyers and Sellers

For the buyer of a binary option, the cost is the price at which the option is trading. For the seller of a binary option, the cost is the difference between 100 and the option price and 100.

From the buyer’s perspective, the price of a binary option can be regarded as the probability that the trade will be successful. Therefore, the higher the binary option price, the greater the perceived probability of the asset price rising above the strike. From the seller’s perspective, the probability is 100 minus the option price.

All binary option contracts are fully collateralized, which means that both sides of a specific contract – the buyer and seller – have to put up capital for their side of the trade. So if a contract is trading at 35, the buyer pays $35, and the seller pays $65 ($100 – $35). This is the maximum risk of the buyer and seller and equals $100 in all cases.

Thus the risk-reward profile for the buyer and seller in this instance can be stated as follows:

Buyer

  • Maximum risk = $35
  • Maximum reward = $65 ($100 – $35)

Seller

  • Maximum risk = $65
  • Maximum reward = $35 ($100 – $65)

Forex Markets

Binary options in forex are available from exchanges such as Nadex, which offers them on the most popular pairs such as USD-CAD, EUR-USD, and USD-JPY, as well as on a number of other widely-traded currency pairs. These options are offered with expirations ranging from intraday to daily and weekly. The tick size on spot forex binaries from Nadex is 1, and the tick value is $1.

The intraday forex binary options offered by Nadex expire hourly, while the daily ones expire at certain set times throughout the day. The weekly binary options expire at 3 P.M. on Friday.

For forex contracts, Nadex calculates the expiration value by taking the midpoint prices of the last 25 trades in the forex market, eliminates the highest five and lowest five prices, and then takes the arithmetic average of the remaining 15 prices.

Examples of Binary Options in Forex

Let’s use the EUR-USD currency pair to demonstrate how binary options can be used to trade forex. We use a weekly option that will expire at 3 P.M. on Friday, or four days from now (or Monday). Assume the current exchange rate is EUR 1 = USD 1.2440.

Consider the following scenarios:

1. You believe the euro is unlikely to weaken by Friday and should stay above 1.2425. The binary option EUR/USD>1.2425 is quoted at 49.00/55.00. You buy 10 contracts for a total of $550 (excluding commissions). At 3 P.M. on Friday, the euro is trading at USD 1.2450. Your binary option settles at 100, giving you a payout of $1,000. Your gross gain (before taking commissions into account) is $450, or approximately 82%. However, if the euro had closed below 1.2425, you would lose your entire $550 investment, for a 100% loss.

2. You are bearish on the euro and believe it could decline by Friday, say to USD 1.2375. The binary option EUR/USD>1.2375 is quoted at 60.00/66.00. Since you are bearish on the euro, you would sell this option. Your initial cost to sell each binary option contract is, therefore, $40 ($100 – $60). Assume you sell 10 contracts, and receive a total of $400. At 3 P.M. on Friday, let’s say the euro is trading at 1.2400.

Since the euro closed above the strike price of $1.2375 by expiration, you would lose the full $400 or 100% of your investment. What if the euro had closed below 1.2375, as you had expected? In that case, the contract would settle at $100, and you would receive a total of $1,000 for your 10 contracts, for a gain of $600 or 150%.

Additional Basic Strategies

You do not have to wait until contract expiration to realize a gain on your binary option contract. For instance, let’s say by Thursday the euro is trading in the spot market at 1.2455, but you are concerned about the possibility of a decline in the currency if U.S. economic data to be released on Friday are very positive. In this case, your binary option contract (EUR/USD>1.2425), which was quoted at 49.00/55.00 at the time of your purchase, is now at 75/80. Therefore, you could sell the 10 option contracts you had purchased at $55 each, for $75, and book a total profit of $200 (or 36%).

You can also put on a combination trade for lower risk/lower reward. Let’s consider the USD/JPY binary option to illustrate. Assume your view is that volatility in the yen – trading at 118.50 to the dollar – could increase significantly, and it could trade above 119.75 or decline below 117.25 by Friday. You, therefore, buy 10 binary option contracts (USD/JPY>119.75, trading at 29.50/35.50) and also sell 10 binary option contracts (USD/JPY>117.25, trading at 66.50/72.00). Therefore, you pay $35.50 to buy the USD/JPY>119.75 contracts, and $33.50 (i.e., $100 – $66.50) to sell the USD/JPY>117.25 contracts. Your total cost would be $690 ($355 + $335).

Three possible scenarios arise by option expiration at 3 P.M. on Friday:

  1. The yen is trading above 119.75. In this case, the USD/JPY>119.75 contract has a payout of $100, while the USD/JPY>117.25 contract expires worthless. Your total payout is $1,000, for a gain of $310 (or about 45%).
  2. The yen is trading below 117.25.In this case, the USD/JPY>117.25 contract has a payout of $100, while the USD/JPY>119.75 contract expires worthless. Your total payout is $1,000, for a gain of $310 (or about 45%).
  3. The yen is trading between 117.25 and 119.75: In this case, both contracts expire worthlessly and you lose the full $690 investment.

The Bottom Line

Binary options are a useful tool as part of a comprehensive forex trading strategy but have a couple of drawbacks in that the upside is limited even if the asset price spikes up, and a binary option is a derivative product with a finite lifespan (time to expiration).

However, binary options have a number of advantages that make them especially useful in the volatile world of forex. For starters, the risk is limited (even if the asset prices spikes up), the collateral required is quite low, and they can be used even in flat markets that are not volatile. These advantages make forex binary options worthy of consideration for the experienced currency trader.

How Much to Risk on Each Binary Options Trade

Glowimages/Creative RF/Getty Images

Binary options are an all-or-nothing option type where you risk a certain amount of capital, and you lose it or make a fixed return based on whether the price of the underlying asset is above or below (depending on which you pick) a specific price at a specific time. If you are right, you receive the prescribed payout. If you are wrong, the capital you wagered is lost.

That definition has expanded though. Back in 2009, the US-based Nadex exchange created options that allow traders to buy or sell an option at any time up until expiry. This creates a wide range of scenarios, as a trader can exit for less than the full loss or full profit.

No matter which binary options you trade—Nadex options or traditional binary options—”position size” is important. Your position size is how much you risk on a single trade. How much you risk shouldn’t be random, nor based on how convinced you are a specific trade will work out in your favor. View position size as a formula, and use it for every trade.

How much to risk on each binary options trade

How much you risk on a binary option trade should be a small percentage of your overall trading capital. How much you want to risk is up to you, but risking more 5% of your capital isn’t recommended. Professional traders typically risk 1% or less of their capital.

If you have a $1000 account, keep risk to $10 or $20 (1% or 2%) per binary options trade. Risk 5% ($50 in this case) is the absolute maximum and isn’t recommended. When you start trading you’ll want to make as much money as you can, as quickly as you can. Making some quick cash is why many people attempt trading. Avoid this impulse though. Risking a lot on each trade is more likely to empty your trading account than create a windfall. Most new traders don’t have a trading method they tested and practiced, and therefore have no idea if they are a good trader or not. Better to risk small amounts of capital on each binary options trade, to test your trading methods and hone your skill, and then gradually increase the amount you risk to 2% once consistent.

How to Determine Risk on a Binary Options Trade

Binary options have a maximum fixed risk. This lets you know in advance how much you could lose if the asset (called the “underlying,” which the binary option is based on) doesn’t do what you expect. For binary options, the risk is the amount you wager on each trade.

If wager $10 on a binary option trade, your maximum loss is $10. Some brokers offer a rebate on losing trades; 10% for example. If this is the case, your maximum is only $9, calculated as:

maximum loss + rebate = trade risk

-$10 + ($10 x 10%) = -$10 + $1 = -$9

Nadex binary options don’t have rebates on losing trades, but if you buy an option at 50, and it drops to 30, you can sell it for a partial loss, instead of waiting for it to drop to 0 (or move above 50, which would produce a profit). Ultimately though, at expiry, the Nadex option will be worth 100 or 0. Therefore, when determining your risk you must assume the worst case scenario.

Nadex binary options trade between 100 and 0. With each digit representing a $1 profit or loss. If you buy one option at 30 and it drops to 0, you have lost $30. If you sell one option at 50 and it goes to 100, you have lost $50. You can trade multiple contracts to increase the amount you make or lose. This is a tutorial on position size, not Nadex options.

Determining Position Size on a Binary Options Trade

You know how much you are will risking risk (percentage of account, converted to a dollar amount) and you know how much money you could lose in a binary options trade. Now, tie the two together to calculate the exact amount of money you can wager on a trade.

If you have a $3500 account, and you’re risking 2% per trade, the maximum you want to lose is $70. If the broker offers no rebate on losing trades (this is the norm), then only risk up to $70 on the trade.

In the “Amount” box on the binary options trading platform, input $70 (in this case). That means you are willing to risk $70 on the trade.

If the broker offers a rebate, for example, 10%, then you can increase your position size by the amount of the rebate. in this case 10%. Because of the rebate, you can risk $77 on a trade ($70 plus 10%). If you lose you will receive a $7 rebate, so your maximum loss is still only $70, which is in line with your 2% risk parameter.

For Nadex binary options you have an extra step because you can purchase an option at any price between 0 and 100, which affects how much you could lose. Assume you have a $5500 account and are willing to risk 2% per trade. That means you can lose up to $110 per trade and still be within your risk parameter. Don’t take a trade where you could lose more than $110.

Assume you want to trade a gold binary options contract, because you believe the price of gold will rise today. You can buy the option at 50. If you are right, and gold is higher than the strike price (price level of gold that determines if you are right or wrong) when the option expires, the option will be valued at 100. You make a $50 profit on each contract you buy. If gold is below the strike price when the option expires, its value is 0, and you lose $50 on each contract.

Therefore, your risk is $50 for each contract you trade. You are allowed to lose up to $110 per trade, so you can buy two contracts at $50. If you lose on the trade you will lose 2 x $50 = $100. This is below the $110 allowed. You can’t buy three contracts though because that exposes you to a $150 loss. A $150 loss is more than your established risk tolerance.

Considerations for Real World Trading

When you’re starting out, calculate your ideal position size for each trade. Even when actively day trading there is time before each trade to quickly determine how much to wager based on your percentage risk tolerance and the trade you are considering. This repetition will serve you well, and when you are losing money the dollar amount you can risk will drop (as the account value drops) and when you are winning the dollar amount you can risk will increase (as the account value increases). Note that your percentage at risk doesn’t change, but as your account value fluctuates the dollar amount that percentage represents does change.

As your account stabilizes you may trade the same amount on every trade, regardless of the fluctuations in your account. For example, the balance in my trading accounts stays the same. I withdraw profits at the end of each month, and any drops in the balance are usually quickly remedied by a few winning trades. Therefore, there isn’t the need to make tiny changes to my position size on every trade. If your account value stays around $5000 (because of profit withdrawals, or profits and losses balance each other out), and you risk 2% per trade, then risk $100 per trade. Don’t reduce or increase this amount by a few dollars every time your account fluctuates slightly above or below $5000.

The point of only risking 1% or 2% of the account is that you can lose 100 or 50 trades in a row before you are cleaned out. That’s a good level of safety. if you are using a researched, tested and practiced strategy.

Not constantly changing your position size for every minor fluctuation in account value also allows you to make quick trading decisions in fast moving market conditions. If you know you can risk $100 on a trade, you can just act, instead of calculating if you can actually risk $105 or only $95. In the long-run, it won’t matter too much.

Once you are creating a good income for yourself, and you are happy with your account size (withdrawing profits over that amount) then it is quite likely you will trade the same position all the time, and it will rarely change.

Final World on How Much to Risk on a Binary Options Trade

First, establish the percentage of your trading capital you are willing to risk on a single trade. Ideally, this should be 1% or 2%, with the absolute maximum being 5% (not recommended). For a normal binary options trade, this dollar amount gives you your maximum position size. For a Nadex option, also consider your maximum risk on the trade, and then calculate how many contracts you can take to stay within your risk limit.

In the beginning, calculate your position size on every trade. It’s a good skill to have. As your account balance stabilizes—as you improve as a trader—you may opt to use the same position size all the time, regardless of the minor fluctuations in account value from day to day.

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