Who Adjusted My Options? And Other Corporate Action Questions

Corporate actions such as stock splits, special dividends, mergers and acquisitions are quite common, but what happens with unexpired options?

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https://tickertapecdn.tdameritrade.com/assets/images/pages/md/Measuring shoulders: Have your options been adjusted due to a corporate action?
5 min read

It seems like each month or so there's a major company announcement—a mega-merger, acquisition, stock split, or a special dividend—but these are just the big ones we hear about. In actuality, such events, commonly referred to as "corporate actions," occur pretty much every day, at companies big and small.

Typically, a corporate action will require adjustments to be made to the number of outstanding shares and/or the share price, and, depending on the type of action, the stock symbol may also change. The terms of listed option contracts, too, are often adjusted; depending on the specifics, certain option contract terms and obligations, such as the strike price, multiplier, or the terms of the deliverable, could be altered. And because these alterations often result in contract terms that fall outside the standard, 100-share contracts, they are often referred to as "non-standard options." 

The Math Remains the Same

Sound intimidating? It doesn't need to be. Remember, these adjustments are made in order to keep valuations and obligations intact after a corporate action. For example, suppose Company XYZ announces a 3-for-1 split as of a specific date (the "adjustment date"). Suppose you own 100 shares as of the adjustment date, and on that date the company stock is trading at $150 a share. After the split, you'd own 300 shares, each worth $50 a share. The shares are valued at $15,000, both before and after the split.

Suppose further that you had purchased a 75-strike put option that is set to expire after the adjustment date. Although the actual terms will be decided by a committee (see the next section below), after the adjustment is made, you'd likely hold 3 put option contracts, each with a strike price of 25. All other terms would likely remain the same. Once again, from a fundamental standpoint anyway, nothing has changed.  

In the world of option adjustments, even splits like the example above are relatively straightforward. Others, such as an odd-ratio split (like 5:4 or 3:2), or an acquisition involving fractional share transfer or cash-and-stock, can get complex. And oftentimes, strike prices won't be a round number, but rather rounded to the nearest penny. 

The Arbiters of Adjustment

In general, when a corporate action is announced, the company will notify the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC), which provides clearing and settlement services for U.S. securities transactions. DTCC determines how shares will trade pre-event.

The OCC, the central clearer for listed options in the U.S., then determines how these changes will be reflected in options. The OCC Securities Committee and an "adjustment panel," comprising two representatives from each exchange that lists that company's options, plus one OCC representative, decide whether an adjustment is called for, and how it should be structured. The decision is binding to all investors.

A detailed memo on each corporate action and any resulting adjustment determinations is posted to the OCC website. The options exchanges will usually issue adjustment memos on their websites as well. Although adjustments are determined on a case-by-case basis, each type of corporate action is typically adjusted per table 1 below. 

Market AdjustmentWhole Splits (2:1, 3:1, etc.)Odd Splits (3:2, 5:4, etc.)Cash DividendReverse SplitMerger or AcquisitionSpecial Stock DividendSpin-Off
No. of ContractsIncreased by split ratioRemains the sameRemains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
Strike priceReduced by split ratioReduced by split ratio
Remains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
Reduced by split ratio
Remains the same
Share priceReduced by split ratio
Reduced by split ratio
Reduced by dividend
Increased by split ratio
Remains the sameReduced by dividendRemains the same
MultiplierRemains the same
Might changeRemains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
Remains the same
DeliverableNo changeMight changeNo changeReducedMight changeCash in lieuMight change
TABLE 1: TYPICAL ADJUSTMENTS FOR EACH TYPE OF CORPORATE ACTION. Although these are typical adjustments, investors should confirm via the OCC website. Actual contract adjustments will be detailed in a memo at www.theocc.com> Market Data > Information Memos.

No Free Lunch in Adjusted Options

You'll generally find no free money just sitting there after an adjustment. Today's ultra-fast, ultra-sophisticated algorithmic trading systems calculate theoretical values of adjusted options and squeeze out any pricing inefficiencies in the blink of an eye.

If you see an option that appears priced too good to be true, it may be unwise to jump in without doing your homework. It's probably best to do your some more research; you're likely missing something.

And if you find yourself with a position in non-standard options due to an adjustment, should you liquidate? There's no right or wrong answer—remember, the fundamentals don't change; the terms are adjusted to keep the fundamentals intact. However, some nonstandard options can have less liquidity and wider-than-normal bid-ask spreads. So, at minimum, it may not make sense to establish new positions once options are adjusted.

Have My Options Been Adjusted?

The best way to know for certain that you have an adjusted options position is to check the OCC website for any memos related to the company in question. But there are a few warning signs as to whether an option has been adjusted:

  • It looks mispriced. Take a look at the entire option chain, and if an entire class of options look to be too cheap or too expensive—say, if synthetics don't line up, or if in-the-money options look to be offered below their intrinsic value, there may have been an adjustment. And for more on synthetics and put-call parity, please refer to this options synthetics primer.
  • Different symbols for the same strike price. Sometimes an adjusted non-standard contract sits adjacent to a standard contract. Look at the chain and note whether all the symbols are identical. You might even see two options with the same strike and expiration date, but with different bids and offers.
  • Abbreviations and tags. On the TD Ameritrade website, nonstandard options in an options chain will have the letters "NS" next to the option price. In the thinkorswim® platform from TD Ameritrade, an option chain will display any different symbols or deliverables. 

And if you're still not sure, it's best to contact your broker. TD Ameritrade clients can contact a specialist for help, or email support@thinkorswim.com.

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