Probability and statistics, along with the basic calculus principles covered last Thursday, are foundational for the theory of pricing and managing risk with financial derivatives, which is what this course is all about. During tomorrow’s class meeting, we will discrete and continuous probability distributions, calculate parameters such as expected value, variance, standard deviation, covariance, and correlation, and apply these concepts to measure expected returns and risks for portfolios comprising risky assets. During Thursday’s class meeting, we will take a deeper dive into discrete and continuous probability distributions, in which the binomial and normal distributions will be showcased.

On Tuesday, February 1, we will introduce and describe the nature of financial derivatives, and motivate their study with examples of forwards, futures, and options. Derivatives are so named because they derive their values from one or more underlying assets. Underlying assets typically involve traded financial assets such as stocks, bonds, currencies, or other derivatives, but derivatives can derive value from pretty much anything. For example, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) offers exchange-traded weather futures and options contracts (see “Market Futures: Introduction To Weather Derivatives“). There are also so-called “prediction” markets in which derivatives based upon the outcome of political events are actively traded (see “Prediction Market“).

Besides introducing financial derivatives and discussing various institutional aspects of markets in which they are traded, we’ll consider various properties of forward and option contracts, since virtually all financial derivatives feature payoffs that are isomorphic to either or both schemes. For example, a futures contract is simply an exchange-traded version of a forward contract. Similarly, since swaps involve exchanges between counter-parties of payment streams over time, these instruments essentially represent a series of forward contracts. In the option space, besides traded stock options, many corporate securities feature “embedded” options; e.g., a convertible bond represents a combination of a non-convertible bond plus a call option on company stock. Similarly, when a company makes an investment, so-called “real” options to expand or abandon the investment at some future is often present.

Perhaps the most important (pre-Midterm 1) idea that we’ll introduce is the concept of a so-called “arbitrage-free” price for a financial derivative. While details will follow, the basic idea is that one can replicate the payoffs on a forward or option by forming a portfolio comprising the underlying asset and a riskless bond. This portfolio is called the “replicating” portfolio, since, by design, it replicates the payoffs on the forward or option. Since the forward or option and its replicating portfolio produce the same payoffs, then they must also have the same value. However, suppose the replicating portfolio (forward or option) is more expensive than the forward or option (replicating portfolio). If this occurs, then one can earn a riskless arbitrage profit by simply selling the replicating portfolio (forward or option) and buying the forward or option (replicating portfolio). However, competition will ensure that opportunities for riskless arbitrage profits vanish quickly. Thus the forward or option will be priced such that one cannot earn arbitrage profit from playing this game.