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Barron's Tesla’s Shareholder Vote on Elon Musk’s Pay Looms. Stock Options Show Fear.

Tesla stock options indicate significant concern about the shareholder vote on CEO Elon Musk’s enormous 2018 pay package.

Shareholders have to reconsider the issue after a Delaware judge in January voided the package, which passed in 2018 with more than 70% support, citing inadequate disclosures. Tesla’s board has put the same package, granting Musk some 300 million stock options, worth some $50 billion if they were exercised now, up for another vote with new disclosures.

Options markets imply Tesla shares will move about 7%, up or down, following the vote on Thursday. The risk of a decline outweighs the chance of a gain: Put options expiring soon are more expensive than call options with the same strike price.

There are a few reasons calls and puts with the same strike price and expiration dates don’t trade for the same prices. Still, a difference in put and call prices can tell investors how traders feel about risks over short time horizons.

Put options give the holder the right to sell a stock for a fixed price in the future. If the price falls below that level, an investor can buy the stock at the market price and then sell it, pocketing a gain.

A call option works the opposite way. It gives investors the right to buy shares at a fixed price.

Differences in the pricing of puts and calls can tell investors how traders feel about risks over short periods. Similar call options in Apple stock are a little more expensive than the puts right now, indicating investors have more hope than fear about what might come next for the company.

Based on options pricing, traders also expect Tesla stock to be two to three times more volatile than Apple stock in the coming months. That is typical for Tesla shares.

The expectations for volatility and the risk highlighted by the cost of puts are both related to Musk’s leadership. No one knows exactly how Musk would react if shareholders voted against his pay package. He recently said that he wants 25% voting control in Tesla stock to keep artificial intelligence projects inside the company instead of taking them to xAI, another company of his. If the options were restored to him, Musk would control about 20% of Tesla.

At least some of Musk’s AI efforts won’t be pursued within Tesla. Musk has set up an artificial-intelligence company called xAI and raised billions of dollars for it. Still, investors and Wall Street believe Musk’s engagement at Tesla is critical for the company.