What are Real Options?

Real Options

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Real Options

Real options refer to choices or opportunities available to companies when making decisions about real-world investments, such as the option to expand, delay, or abandon a project. The concept derives from financial options in the stock market, where an option provides the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an asset at a certain price before a specified date.

In a business context, real options recognize the value of flexibility in decision-making, especially in environments characterized by uncertainty and volatility. By analogy with financial options, real options are embedded in capital investments and offer the possibility to adjust or pivot based on unforeseen events, changing circumstances, or emerging information.

Some common types of real options include:

  • Option to Delay: This is the right to postpone a decision. For instance, a company might secure a lease on a plot of land but delay the decision to build until market conditions are more favorable.
  • Option to Expand: If an initial project proves successful, a company might have the opportunity to invest further and scale up operations. For example, after launching a new product in one region, a company may decide to roll it out nationally or globally.
  • Option to Abandon: This allows a firm to halt a project and recover part of its investment if conditions turn unfavorable. For instance, if a new business venture is not performing as expected, the company might decide to shut it down and liquidate assets.
  • Option to Contract: The company can reduce the scale of operations. For example, during a recession, a hotel chain may close some of its floors or sections to save costs.
  • Option to Switch: This option gives flexibility to switch between different modes of operations. For example, a power plant might have the capability to switch between different fuel sources depending on price fluctuations.

Valuing Real Options:

Assessing the value of real options can be complex, as it involves forecasting potential future scenarios and their respective payoffs. Various techniques, borrowed from financial options pricing like the Black-Scholes model and binomial tree models, can be adapted to value real options. However, it’s important to note that while these techniques can be useful, real options often contain nuances that make them more challenging to evaluate compared to financial options.

In strategic planning and capital budgeting, understanding and integrating real options can be beneficial, as it allows managers to be adaptable and to make decisions that account for the inherent uncertainties of the business environment.

Example of Real Options

Let’s use the case of a pharmaceutical company, “PharmaFutures Inc.,” to illustrate the concept of real options.


PharmaFutures Inc. has discovered a new compound that may be effective in treating a rare disease. Clinical trials and FDA approval for new drugs are costly and time-consuming. The company faces uncertainty regarding both the compound’s effectiveness and the potential market size.

Real Options Available to PharmaFutures Inc.:

  • Option to Delay: Instead of diving straight into expensive Phase III clinical trials, the company might choose to conduct smaller, more focused studies. This allows PharmaFutures to gain a better understanding of the compound’s potential, postponing the larger investment until more information is available.
  • Option to Expand: Let’s say initial studies suggest the compound is effective for the rare disease. However, further research indicates it could also be used to treat a more common condition. PharmaFutures then has the option to expand its research and potentially tap into a larger market.
  • Option to Abandon: During the trials, if results indicate the drug is not effective or has severe side effects, PharmaFutures can decide to stop further research and cut its losses.
  • Option to Contract: If the drug is effective but only for a small subset of patients, PharmaFutures can choose to contract its launch plans, targeting only that specific group.
  • Option to Switch: During development, PharmaFutures might find that the compound, while not effective as a pill, works wonders as an injectable solution. They then have the option to switch their production and marketing focus.


Let’s assume the drug proves effective in treating both the rare disease and the more common condition. PharmaFutures, having recognized and managed its real options, can then decide to pursue full FDA approval, launch the drug for the rare disease first (option to expand later), or simultaneously develop treatments for both conditions.

By understanding its real options, PharmaFutures can make flexible, informed decisions at every step, optimizing its investment and potentially increasing its returns.

This example highlights the importance of recognizing and valuing real options in the business world, especially in industries characterized by high uncertainty and large capital investments. By doing so, companies can navigate uncertainty and make strategic decisions that maximize their potential payoff.

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