Option Liquidity and Working Orders

Trade execution in options is just like an equity, with a Bid and Ask. But in options, the Bid/Ask can sometimes be wider and less liquid than an equity. Those factors can compound in multi-leg options trades, as the bid/ask of each leg combine to create an even wider overall bid/ask spread for the entire trade package.

In addition to a sometimes wider bid/ask spread than a single leg trader is accustomed to, on a multi-leg trade there may not be as much liquidity on the other side of the trade, and therefore some price discovery with the limit price may be in order to find where market makers are willing to execute the trade.

The easiest way to think about a limit price in an options trade, particularly multi-leg trades, is that you are much less likely to to be matched with a corresponding retail order on the other side, therefore your price discovery on your limit price is finding the point, either at the mid point or just past where market makers are willing to fill the order.

Options traders face different challenges to stock traders, including often having to navigate wider bid/ask spreads and less liquidity. Enjoying higher quality execution and improving overall capital efficiency can therefore mean the need for more price discovery when trading.


In a heavily traded stock, buyers will typically be matched with sellers. If no sell order exists at that moment, the buy order may be filled by a market maker, who provides liquidity to the markets.

Market makers are not adding liquidity out of the kindness of their hearts. They are providing liquidity because they are able to make money buying on or near their Bid and flipping those shares for a profit by selling at or near their Ask. When a retail order to Buy or Sell cuts into the market maker Bid/Ask spread, that retail order becomes the Best Bid or Offer (Ask) and may be matched with another retail order.


The same process holds true in options, but with some key differences. A very liquid and actively traded options contract may see retail order flow being matched within the Bid/Ask spread. But with so many different strikes across multiple expiration dates, liquidity in individual options contracts is typically nowhere near as high as that of the underlying stock.

Therefore, market makers are responsible for a large portion of options order fills.

However, unlike a stock where a market maker could buy 100 shares on their Bid, and sell that 100 shares on their Ask and have no positions, market makers in options often don’t have the luxury of seamlessly matching positions on their books and eliminating risk. In addition, with so many individual options contracts to make markets on, what is shown on the Bid/Ask may not necessarily be the only price at which a market maker is willing to trade. They may be willing to buy or sell inside the Bid/Ask based on a calculation of ‘edge’ they could receive for making that trade. That edge calculation is based on the option order’s price versus the market maker’s calculation of ‘fair value’ for that contract. (Put simply, if the market maker has an option priced at 1.05 fair value, filling an order with a 1.15 limit bid would give them 10c of edge).

Multi-leg Options

Now we take the concept of ‘edge’ one step further by looking at multi-leg options or ‘spreads’. Many spread orders are executed on something called the Complex Order Book (COB). Simply put, the COB is where market makers can see multi-leg orders and determine if there’s enough edge to execute that order. (When we say “see” we are generally referring to a computer algorithm ‘seeing’ the order and deciding to fill or not fill).

One thing that makes the COB for multi-leg option orders unique is that there is no public Bid/Ask. As traders, the best we can do is to calculate an implied Bid/Ask spread from the NBBO (Best Bid/Offer) of each individual option contract or ‘leg’. However, unlike with individual options contracts or stocks, no market maker is required to guarantee an order fill at this ‘implied NBBO’. Therefore, not only are Bid/Ask spreads on multi-leg option orders typically wider than those on individual options contracts, but we can lack transparency on where liquidity can be found.

Liquidity is found and multi-leg orders will be filled when either there is a matching order already on the COB (unlikely) or when a Market Maker determines that there is sufficient ‘edge’ to take the position onto their books. This can often mean that a multi-leg options order may potentially be filled inside of the implied NBBO (giving the opportunity for price improvement for the trader), but it can also mean that occasionally it doesn’t get filled, even on the implied Bid or Ask.

This lack of transparency can heighten the need for orders to be ‘worked’ whether it be to enjoy price improvement or simply uncover true liquidity and pricing. By ‘working’ an order we mean placing an order at a limit price where we would hope to be filled (perhaps at or near to the ‘mid’ of the prevailing Bid/Ask) and walking that price up (if buying) or down (if selling) to ultimately find the point at which the order is actually filled.

The Options AI ticket is designed to make this process as straightforward and intuitive as possible.

First though, the basics. When buying an option, or a debit spread, the ticket will autofill at the midpoint of the bid/ask spread. If it is submitted at that price may execute instantly, or it may not.

The Options AI Trade Ticket

Data on Individual Options Contracts (Legs)

The trade ticket has a simple dropdown displaying the individual legs of an order along with their respective Bid/Ask, Bid/Ask Size, Volume on the day, Open Interest, Implied Volatility and Delta. Designed to improve insight into overall liquidity and likelihood of execution and to spot trades that may be harder to get filled.

Limit Price Slider

A slider can be used to change limit price, but is also designed to visually represent where that limit price lies within the actual or implied market Bid/Ask:

The slider will show your Bid if buying or Ask if selling, within the context of the prevailing Bid/Ask. If buying, the market Ask will be in bold text, if selling, the market Bid will be in bold text to indicate the direction you may want to head if choosing to work an order.

Trade Review Step

A review step summarizes the trade, including a plain English description of the risk/reward of the trade as well as breakeven level:

Order Status Page

Once the order is reviewed and submitted, the trader is redirected to a new page that shows the status of the order (Accepted, Pending, Filled etc). If partially filled it will show what has been filled and what remains. If the order is still working the trader can see a live market view of the order versus the market Bid/Ask:

Access to the Cancel & Replace function allows for more efficiency when working orders and a faster path to adjusting limit prices for more immediate fills.

Free From Options AI

Options AI Tools Home

Expected moves, unusual options activity, earnings data, stock scanner and much more! Yours FREE from Options AI.

Earnings Calendar with Expected Moves

See expected earnings moves to help decide whether to trade or fade the move.

Compare Expected Moves

Skip the chains and compare expected moves across multiple stocks.

Options University

Quickly advance your understanding of income and debit spreads with our short video series. 


Open an account

Learn more about Options AI and apply for an account.

Learn More

Stay in the loop

Be the first to hear product announcements and get daily market content from The Orbit.

WordPress Lightbox