Why are American-style options worth more than European-style options?

I realize I can exercise American-style options anytime before the expire, but I can only exercise European-style options during their "exercise period" (usually right when they expire, but no earlier).

So it makes sense that an American option is worth at least as much as a European option.

But why is it worth more? If I exercise my American option early, I may make more money than waiting until expiration, but I also may make less. Mathematically, there's no advantage, since I'm equally likely to make as much money by waiting for expiration.

Mathematically speaking, is there ever a good reason to exercise an American option early?

I realize people don't always behave logically, but even the formulas that valuate options show that American options are worth more.

EDIT (answering comments):

  • Many of the comments people made would apply to lookback options (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lookback_option), but not to American options.

  • American options can do everything European options can and more. I understand that, and that means American options can't be worth any LESS than European options, but I'm still not clear on how you would mathematically calculate this extra value.

  • @Aaronaught: "The difference between an American and European option is the difference between getting N chances to get it right (N being the number of days 'til expiration) and getting just one chance. It should be easy to see why you're more likely to profit with the former, even if you can't accurately predict price movement."

REPLY: I don't think you really get N chances. Once you exercise the option, that's it, no more chances. And, if you decide not to exercise the option today, and the underlying's price falls, you can't go back in time and exercise it yesterday.

  • @jdsweet: Think of it this way, if you traveled back through time one month - with perfect knowledge of AAPL's stock price over that period - which happens to peak viciously then return to its old price at the end of the period - wouldn't you pay more for an American option?

REPLY: Well, no. I'd simply buy a cheaper European option that expires right at the spike. Or, I'd buy a European option that expires later, and sell it when the spike occurs. American options don't give you precognition, so you're still guessing as to when to sell/exercise.

  • @jdsweet: "one of the more common reasons people exercise (as opposed to sell) an American option before expiration is if an unexpected dividend (larger than remaining time value of the option) was just announced that's going to be paid before the option contract expires"

REPLY: This makes sense. I'm actually trading FOREX options, so there is no dividend. In that scenario, are European and American options worth the same?

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    You read too much Black-Scholes. Don't forget it is an idealization and that even within that idealization, the equivalence of American and European options only holds for call options, not put options. – Raskolnikov Dec 16 '10 at 11:00
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    I don't think you understand what exercising an option means. You say: "Once you exercise the option, that's it, no more chances." Well, yeah, but when you exercise an in-the-money option then you just bought the shares at a discounted price (or sold them at an inflated price), so you've already profited. It doesn't matter what happens to the share price afterward; you've still added to your capital. You could close your stock position immediately after exercising the option and have an immediate cash profit if you wanted. – Aaronaught Dec 16 '10 at 21:01
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    And as for your reply to jdsweet - yes, it's true, you can sell the European option itself, I pointed that out explicitly, but there still has to be a buyer, and if he doesn't sell it, then he's out the money. American options at least have the potential to be exercised in-the-money even the share price eventually drops to below the strike. A European option can never be exercised if that happens. Maybe you will have been lucky and sold it at the right time, but the option itself will have expired worthless. – Aaronaught Dec 16 '10 at 21:05
  • @barrycarter You seem to be implying that the purchaser of an option believes that the share price will change throughout the period up to expiry. However, the purchaser of an American option may believe that, at some point between now and the exercise date, the price will change. Remember that once the option is exercised, the investor no longer has any risk. It is true that they could continue to hold the option to see if the price continues in the same direction, but then the cost of doing so would be the risk that the price change would reverse. American options allow you to get out early. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Jul 13 '16 at 12:39
  • @Grade'Eh'Bacon OK, but the value of a European option will normally never be below the in-money price anyway. If you want to get out early, you can't exercise the option, but you can certainly sell it for more than its in-money value. – barrycarter Jul 13 '16 at 18:18

According to the book of Hull, american and european calls on non-dividend paying stocks should have the same value. American puts, however, should be equals to, or more valuable than, european puts.

The reason for this is the time value of money. In a put, you get the option to sell a stock at a given strike price. If you exercise this option at t=0, you receive the strike price at t=0 and can invest it at the risk-free rate. Lets imagine the rf rate is 10% and the strike price is 10$. this means at t=1, you would get 11.0517$. If, on the other hand, you did'nt exercise the option early, at t=1 you would simply receive the strike price (10$). Basically, the strike price, which is your payoff for a put option, doesn't earn interest.

Another way to look at this is that an option is composed of two elements: The "insurance" element and the time value of the option. The insurance element is what you pay in order to have the option to buy a stock at a certain price. For put options, it is equals to the payout= max(K-S, 0) where K=Strike Price and St= Stock price. The time value of the option can be thought of as a risk-premium. It's difference between the value of the option and the insurance element.

If the benefits of exercising a put option early (i.e- earning the risk free rate on the proceeds) outweighs the time value of the put option, it should be exercised early.

Yet another way to look at this is by looking at the upper bounds of put options. For a european put, today's value of the option can never be worth more than the present value of the strike price discounted at the risk-free rate. If this rule isn't respected, there would be an arbitrage opportunity by simply investing at the risk-free rate. For an american put, since it can be exercised at any time, the maximum value it can take today is simply equals to the strike price. Therefore, since the PV of the strike price is smaller than the strike price, the american put can have a bigger value.

Bear in mind this is for a non-dividend paying stock. As previously mentioned, if a stock pays a dividend it might also be optimal to exercise just before these are paid.

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I'm sorry, but your math is wrong. You are not equally likely to make as much money by waiting for expiration.

Share prices are moving constantly in both directions. Very rarely does any stock go either straight up or straight down. Consider a stock with a share price of $12 today. Perhaps that stock is a bad buy, and in 1 month's time it will be down to $10. But the market hasn't quite wised up to this yet, and over the next week it rallies up to $15.

If you bought a European option (let's say an at-the-money call, expiring in 1 month, at $12 on our start date), then you lost. Your option expired worthless.

If you bought an American option, you could have exercised it when the share price was at $15 and made a nice profit.

Keep in mind we are talking about exactly the same stock, with exactly the same history, over exactly the same time period. The only difference is the option contract. The American option could have made you money, if you exercised it at any time during the rally, but not the European option - you would have been forced to hold onto it for a month and finally let it expire worthless.

(Of course that's not strictly true, since the European option itself can be sold while it is in the money - but eventually, somebody is going to end up holding the bag, nobody can exercise it until expiration.)

The difference between an American and European option is the difference between getting N chances to get it right (N being the number of days 'til expiration) and getting just one chance. It should be easy to see why you're more likely to profit with the former, even if you can't accurately predict price movement.

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  • I think the OP is over-complicating with the idea that the purchaser of an American option would never sell early, under the belief that the price would continue in the same direction, up to the date of exercise. That may be true, if the option was purchased with the same mindset as a European option. Clearly the purchaser of the European option has chosen the exact date of exercise in advance, based on whatever logic was relevant to them. However the purchaser of the American option has different motives - ex: s/he believes an event will happen over the next month, at an unknown date. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Jul 13 '16 at 12:51
  • I can't believe this answer has 11 upvotes! If we are in agreement that a European option is always worth at least as much as its in-the-money value, then exercising an American option early would gain you LESS profit than selling a European option. You don't get N chances with an American option. Once you've exercised it, you get 0 chances. You might be thinking of binary options, where one-touch options (American style) ARE more valuable than price-at-expiry (European style), but that doesn't apply to vanilla options. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:04
  • @Grade'Eh'Bacon What you're saying doesn't make sense. The purchaser of a European option knows he can sell it for more than the in-the-money value at any time before the expiration date. So, even if the option purchaser believed an event (causing a price increase to a specific point) would occur, he would be equally well served by either type of option. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:07
  • @barrycarter You are assuming that everyone who would buy an American option, would also buy a European option (and vice versa). Assume someone would only buy an American option, because s/he believed that an event would happen within a 2 week window, but didn't know when it would happen. This person would not buy a European option. Therefore, the market for European options is (maybe only slightly) smaller than the market for American options. As demand decreases, so does price. This applies to the initial sales market as well as the resale market. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Jul 14 '16 at 20:36
  • chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/42508/black-scholing might be faster to resolve this. I plan to be there until at least 2105 UTC – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:37

OK, my fault for not doing more research. Wikipedia explains this well:


Basically, there are some cases where it's advantageous to exercise an American option early.

For non-gold currency options, this is only when the carrying cost (interest rate differential aka swap rate or rollover rate) is high.

The slight probability that this may occur makes an American option worth slightly more.

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    It is worth noting that the reason for this is that, at any time you can buy/sell shares to hedge off the worth of the option (in effect freezing the value). But in order to do that you must have the capital to made the trade, hence the carry cost. – Aron Apr 23 '14 at 7:03
  • @Aron Thanks for this comment, it was very enlightening. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Jul 14 '16 at 20:51

An option is an instrument that gives you the "right" (but not the obligation) to do something (if you are long).

An American option gives you more "rights" (to exercise on more days) than a European option.

The more "rights," the greater the (theoretical) value of the option, all other things being equal, of course. That's just how options work.

You could point to an ex post result, and and say that's not the case. But it is true ex ante.

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  • But, since you can always sell a European option for more than the in-money value, the additional right gives you nothing. It has no value. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:09
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    @barryarter: You can sell an American option for more than in-money value, also, and for more than the European option. The reason is that the American option can be exercised on more days. It is just wrong to say that "the additional right gives you nothing. It has no value." If that were really the case, options wouldn't exist. – Tom Au Jul 14 '16 at 20:17
  • @Tom_Au OK, but why does the American option sell for more? In other words, how does having the right to exercise on a day of your choice help you since you can always sell the European on the same day? – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:19
  • @barrycarter: The European option can be exercised only on one day, the maturity date. The American option can be excercised on every (business) day between today and the maturity date; for a 90-"day" option, that could be 60-65 business days. You have more chances (days) to "get lucky" with an American option than with a European option. – Tom Au Jul 14 '16 at 20:21
  • @Tom_Au Yes, but it doesn't help. You can always sell the European option for more than the profit of exercising the American option. No benefit. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:24

Differences in liquidity explain why American-style options are generally worth more than their European-style counterparts. As far as I can tell, no one mentioned liquidity in their answer to this question, they just introduced needlessly complex math and logic while ignoring basic economic principles. That's not to say the previous answers are all wrong - they just deal with periphery factors instead of the central cause.

Liquidity is a key determinant of pricing/valuation in financial markets. Liquidity simply describes the ease with which an asset can be bought and sold (converted to cash). Without going into the reasons why, treasury bills are one of the most liquid securities - they can be bought or sold almost instantly at any time for an exact price. The near-perfect liquidity of treasuries is one of the major reasons why the price (yield) of a t-bill will always be higher (lower yield) than that of an otherwise identical corporate or municipal bond. Stated in general terms, a relatively liquid asset is always worth more than an relatively illiquid asset, all else being equal.

The value of liquidity is easy to understand - we experience it everyday in real life. If you're buying a house or car, the ability to resell it if needed is an important component of the decision. It's the same for investors - most people would prefer an asset that they can quickly and easily liquidate if the need for cash arises.

It's no different with options. American-style options allow the holder to exercise (liquidate) at any time, whereas the buyer of a European option has his cash tied up until a specific date. Obviously, it rarely makes sense to exercise an option early in terms of net returns, but sometimes an investor has a desperate need for cash and this need outweighs the reduction in net profits from early exercise.

It could be argued that this liquidity advantage is eliminated by the fact that you can trade (sell) either type of option without restriction before expiration, thus closing the long position. This is a valid point, but it ignores the fact that there's always a buyer on the other side of an option trade, meaning the long position, and the right/restriction of early exercise, is never eliminated, it simply changes hands. It follows that the American-style liquidity advantage increases an options market value regardless of one's position (call/put or short/long).

Without putting an exact number on it, the general interest rate (time value of money) could be used to approximate the additional cost of an American-style option over a similar European-style contract.

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    Exactly. No one has a crystal ball. The ability to exercise an option early gives liquidity and liquidity has value. – quid Mar 1 '16 at 23:16
  • @quid No it doesn't. You can still sell the European option early. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:10
  • @barrycarter, European options may only be exercised at expiration. – quid Jul 14 '16 at 20:13
  • SELL, not exercise. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:13
  • @quid chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/42508/black-scholing might be faster and I plan to be there for at least 30m or so. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:34

If you're into math, do this thought experiment:

Consider the outcome X of a random walk process (a stock doesn't behave this way, but for understanding the question you asked, this is useful):

On the first day, X=some integer X1. On each subsequent day, X goes up or down by 1 with probability 1/2.

Let's think of buying a call option on X. A European option with a strike price of S that expires on day N, if held until that day and then exercised if profitable, would yield a value Y = min(X[N]-S, 0). This has an expected value E[Y] that you could actually calculate. (should be related to the binomial distribution, but my probability & statistics hat isn't working too well today) The market value V[k] of that option on day #k, where 1 < k < N, should be V[k] = E[Y]|X[k], which you can also actually calculate. On day #N, V[N] = Y. (the value is known)

An American option, if held until day #k and then exercised if profitable, would yield a value Y[k] = min(X[k]-S, 0).

For the moment, forget about selling the option on the market. (so, the choices are either exercise it on some day #k, or letting it expire)

Let's say it's day k=N-1.

If X[N-1] >= S+1 (in the money), then you have two choices: exercise today, or exercise tomorrow if profitable. The expected value is the same. (Both are equal to X[N-1]-S). So you might as well exercise it and make use of your money elsewhere.

If X[N-1] <= S-1 (out of the money), the expected value is 0, whether you exercise today, when you know it's worthless, or if you wait until tomorrow, when the best case is if X[N-1]=S-1 and X[N] goes up to S, so the option is still worthless.

But if X[N-1] = S (at the money), here's where it gets interesting. If you exercise today, it's worth 0. If wait until tomorrow, there's a 1/2 chance it's worth 0 (X[N]=S-1), and a 1/2 chance it's worth 1 (X[N]=S+1). Aha! So the expected value is 1/2. Therefore you should wait until tomorrow.

Now let's say it's day k=N-2.

Similar situation, but more choices: If X[N-2] >= S+2, you can either sell it today, in which case you know the value = X[N-2]-S, or you can wait until tomorrow, when the expected value is also X[N-2]-S. Again, you might as well exercise it now.

If X[N-2] <= S-2, you know the option is worthless.

If X[N-2] = S-1, it's worth 0 today, whereas if you wait until tomorrow, it's either worth an expected value of 1/2 if it goes up (X[N-1]=S), or 0 if it goes down, for a net expected value of 1/4, so you should wait.

If X[N-2] = S, it's worth 0 today, whereas tomorrow it's either worth an expected value of 1 if it goes up, or 0 if it goes down -> net expected value of 1/2, so you should wait.

If X[N-2] = S+1, it's worth 1 today, whereas tomorrow it's either worth an expected value of 2 if it goes up, or 1/2 if it goes down (X[N-1]=S) -> net expected value of 1.25, so you should wait.

If it's day k=N-3, and X[N-3] >= S+3 then E[Y] = X[N-3]-S and you should exercise it now; or if X[N-3] <= S-3 then E[Y]=0.

But if X[N-3] = S+2 then there's an expected value E[Y] of (3+1.25)/2 = 2.125 if you wait until tomorrow, vs. exercising it now with a value of 2; if X[N-3] = S+1 then E[Y] = (2+0.5)/2 = 1.25, vs. exercise value of 1; if X[N-3] = S then E[Y] = (1+0.5)/2 = 0.75 vs. exercise value of 0; if X[N-3] = S-1 then E[Y] = (0.5 + 0)/2 = 0.25, vs. exercise value of 0; if X[N-3] = S-2 then E[Y] = (0.25 + 0)/2 = 0.125, vs. exercise value of 0. (In all 5 cases, wait until tomorrow.)

You can keep this up; the recursion formula is E[Y]|X[k]=S+d = {(E[Y]|X[k+1]=S+d+1)/2 + (E[Y]|X[k+1]=S+d-1) for N-k > d > -(N-k), when you should wait and see} or {0 for d <= -(N-k), when it doesn't matter and the option is worthless} or {d for d >= N-k, when you should exercise the option now}.

The market value of the option on day #k should be the same as the expected value to someone who can either exercise it or wait.

It should be possible to show that the expected value of an American option on X is greater than the expected value of a European option on X. The intuitive reason is that if the option is in the money by a large enough amount that it is not possible to be out of the money, the option should be exercised early (or sold), something a European option doesn't allow, whereas if it is nearly at the money, the option should be held, whereas if it is out of the money by a large enough amount that it is not possible to be in the money, the option is definitely worthless.

As far as real securities go, they're not random walks (or at least, the probabilities are time-varying and more complex), but there should be analogous situations. And if there's ever a high probability a stock will go down, it's time to exercise/sell an in-the-money American option, whereas you can't do that with a European option.

edit: ...what do you know: the computation I gave above for the random walk isn't too different conceptually from the Binomial options pricing model.

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  • "For the moment, forget about selling the option on the market". OK, the moment's gone. If you include selling the option on the market, there's no advantage. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:13

An option gives you an option. That is, you aren't buying any security - you are simply buying an option to buy a security. The sole value of what you buy is the option to buy something.

An American option offers more flexibility - i.e. it offers you more options on buying the stock. Since you have more options, the cost of the option is higher.

Of course, a good example makes sense why this is the case. Consider the VIX. Options on the VIX are European style. Sometimes the VIX spikes like crazy - tripling in value in days. It usually comes back down pretty quick though - within a couple of weeks. So far out options on the VIX aren't worth just a whole lot more, because the VIX will probably be back to normal. However, if the person could have excercised them right when it got to the top, they would have made a fortune many times what their option was worth. Since they are Euroopean style, though, they would have to wait till their option was redeemable, right when the VIX would be about back to normal. In this case, an American style option would be far more valuable - especially for something that is difficult to predict, like the VIX.

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The value of an option has 2 components, the extrinsic or time value element and the intrinsic value from the difference in the strike price and the underlying asset price. With either an American or European option the intrinsic value of a call option can be 'locked in' any time by selling the same amount of the underlying asset (whether that be a stock, a future etc).

Further, the time value of any option can be monitised by delta hedging the option, i.e. buying or selling an amount of the underlying asset weighted by the measure of certainty (delta) of the option being in the money at expiry.

Instead, the extra value of the American option comes from the financial benefit of being able to realise the value of the underlying asset early. For a dividend paying stock this will predominantly be the dividend. But for non-dividend paying stocks or futures, the buyer of an in-the-money option can realise their intrinsic gains on the option early and earn interest on the profits today. But what they sacrifice is the timevalue of the option.

However when an option becomes very in the money and the delta approaches 1 or -1, the discounting of the intrinsic value (i.e. the extra amount a future cash flow is worth each day as we draw closer to payment) becomes larger than the 'theta' or time value decay of the option. Then it becomes optimal to early exercise, abandon the optionality and realise the monetary gains upfront.

For a non-dividend paying stock, the value of the American call option is actually the same as the European. The spot price of the stock will be lower than the forward price at expiry discounted by the risk free rate (or your cost of funding). This will exactly offset the monetary gain by exercising early and banking the proceeds. However for an option on a future, the value today of the underlying asset (the future) is the same as at expiry and its possible to fully realise the interest earned on the money received today. Hence the American call option is worth more. For both examples the American put option is worth more, slightly more so for the stock. As the stock's spot price is lower than the forward price, the owner of the put option realises a higher (undiscounted) intrinsic profit from selling the stock at the higher strike price today than waiting till expiry, as well as realising the interest earned.

Liquidity may influence the perceived value of being able to exercise early but its not a tangible factor that is added to the commonly used maths of the option valuation, and isn't really a consideration for most of the assets that have tradeable option markets.

It's also important to remember at any point in the life of the option, you don't know the future price path. You're only modelling the distribution of probable outcomes. What subsequently happens after you early exercise an American option no longer has any bearing on its value; this is now zero! Whether the stock subsequently crashes in price is irrelevent. What is relevant is that when you early exercise a call you 'give up' all potential upside protected by the limit to your downside from the strike price.

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Think of it this way, if you traveled back through time one month - with perfect knowledge of AAPL's stock price over that period - which happens to peak viciously then return to its old price at the end of the period - wouldn't you pay more for an American option?

Another way to think about options is as an insurance policy. Wouldn't you pay more for a policy that covered fire and earthquake losses as opposed to just losses from earthquakes?

Lastly - and perhaps most directly - one of the more common reasons people exercise (as opposed to sell) an American option before expiration is if an unexpected dividend (larger than remaining time value of the option) was just announced that's going to be paid before the option contract expires. Because only actual stockholders get the dividends, not options holders. A holder of an American option has the ability to exercise in time to grab that dividend - a European option holder doesn't have that ability.

Less flexibility (what you're paying for really) = lower option premium.

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  • OK, but how do you mathematically calculate that value? And is it really an advantage? Early exercise is equally likely to lose money as it is to gain money, no? – barrycarter Dec 16 '10 at 3:29
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    @barry: It's equally likely if you exercise it at a totally random time, yes. Think about it, though: If you assume that the share price fluctuates up and down, you are more likely to be in the money at some point over the lifetime of the contract then you are on the exact date of expiration. – Aaronaught Dec 16 '10 at 3:38
  • @Aaronaught And, when it is, you can sell the European option for more than the value of exercising the American option. No advantage. – barrycarter Jul 14 '16 at 20:11

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