Exploring Futures in Financial Markets: A Comprehensive Guide

By Colin Dodds · January 08, 2023 · 10 minute read

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Exploring Futures in Financial Markets: A Comprehensive Guide

Some investors may trade futures contracts in order to hedge against risk, or to speculate on the price movements of a given asset or security — or because their business will benefit if they lock in a commodity at a certain price. Trading futures can provide opportunities for a range of investors.

A futures contract requires both parties to honor the terms, no matter what the price is in the market when the contract expires. If you want to trade futures, there are various ways they can fit into your portfolio or plan.

What are Futures?

Futures are derivatives that take the form of a contract in which two traders agree to buy or sell an asset for a specified price at a future date. Popular underlying assets for futures may include physical commodities like gold, corn, or oil, as well as currencies, or financial instruments like stocks.

The most commonly traded futures contracts use standardized terms, and are traded on a futures exchange. For example, if you want to buy or sell corn futures, one contract would equal 5,000 bushels and be traded via the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). Oil is traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), and one oil futures contract equals 1,000 barrels of oil.

Traders buy and sell in increments specified by the contract. To buy 50,000 bushels of corn or 10,000 barrels of oil, you’d buy 10 contracts of each. Given the quantities and dollar amounts of these trades, investors often use leverage, thereby paying only a fraction of the total cost of the position.

💡 Quick Tip: Options can be a cost-efficient way to place certain trades, because you typically purchase options contracts, not the underlying security. That said, options trading can be risky, and best done by those who are not entirely new to investing.

Understanding How Futures Work

Futures work by obligating a buyer or seller to purchase or offload an asset — it’s a contract.

Mechanism of Futures Trading

A futures contract obliges the buyer to buy a certain asset, or the seller to sell an asset, at an agreed-upon price, by a certain date. Each party must fulfill the terms of the contract, no matter what the market price or spot price is when the contract expires (or trade the contract before the expiration).

Futures contracts are standardized, as noted above, and each contract also spells out the contract terms, which includes among other things:

•   The unit of the trade (e.g., tons, gallons, bushels, etc.).

•   The grade or quality of the commodity, where relevant. For example, there are different types of corn, oil, soy, etc.

•   Terms of settlement (e.g., physical delivery or a cash settlement).

•   Quantity of goods covered by the contract.

•   Currency in which the contract is priced.

Recommended: How Does a Margin Account Work?

The Role of Futures in Markets

A futures contract allows investors to speculate on the direction of the underlying asset, either long or short, using leverage. (Leverage means the trader doesn’t have to put up the full amount of the contract. Instead, futures traders use a margin account.) As such, they’re a tool that allows investors to use leverage and speculation.

Types of Futures Contracts

There are numerous types of futures contracts, including those tied to underlying assets such as equities and commodities. They can even be tied to other futures.

Equity, Commodity, and Other Futures

Futures contracts allow investors to make bets on the prices of a wide array of assets:

•   Commodity futures, which allow investors to buy or sell physical goods like crude oil, pork bellies, natural gas, orange juice, corn, wheat, and more.

•   Financial futures, including index contracts and interest rate or debt contracts.

•   Precious metal futures allow investors to bet on the future prices of gold, platinum, and silver.

•   Currency futures for fiat currencies like the euro, yen, the British pound, and more.

•   U.S. Treasury futures allow investors to make bets on the future value of government bonds.

What are stock futures? Like futures contracts where the underlying is a physical commodity, some futures are tied to shares of a single stock or ETF. Stock index futures, however, are tied to the price movements of an index like the S&P 500 index.

Trading and Speculating with Futures

There are two key aspects to futures trading, which are hedging and speculating. Both play an important role in the markets, and determining whether futures are actually traded or not. There are also trading strategies to keep in mind, too.

Strategies for Futures Trading

There are many strategies for trading futures contracts, just as there are many strategies for trading almost any other type of security or derivative. To name a few of the basic strategies, investors can look at strategizing around price pullbacks, breakout trading, or even spread trading — each requires its own gameplan, and some background research to get started.

Futures as Speculation and Hedging Tools

Hedging is a big reason why investors buy futures contracts: It’s a way to protect against losses resulting from price changes in commodities.

Among the businesses that hedge using futures, the goal is to reduce the risk they face from unexpected price movements, and to guarantee the price they pay or receive for a particular asset.

If a large food manufacturer wants to lock in the price of corn, for example, they might enter into a contract for $10 a bushel. Since corn contracts are typically standardized at 5,000 bushels per contract, the total amount of the futures contract would be $50,000 ($10 x 5,000), to be delivered in six months. Entering into this futures contract would offer the buyer some protection against the possibility of rising corn prices in the future.

Let’s say the price of corn does rise to $12/bushel by the time the contract expires. In that case, the buyer still only pays the agreed-upon price of $10/bushel, even though the spot price is now $12/bushel.

For the corn producer in this scenario, even though it turned out that the futures contract terms weren’t quite as favorable as the actual market price — the contract guaranteed they would get at least $10/bushel, which provided a hedge against a potentially bigger loss.

Although it’s possible to settle a futures contract for the physical asset specified in the contract, most futures contracts are cash-settled. That’s because speculation on price movements is one of the main reasons that investors purchase futures contracts. A futures contract gives traders the opportunity to speculate whether a commodity will go up or down and potentially profit from the price change.

If the underlying asset of the futures contract — such as gold, oil, or corn — is above the price specified in the futures contract, then the investor can sell that contract for a profit before it expires. In that case, the contract would sell for the difference between the market price of the underlying commodity and the purchase price as specified in the contract.

In such a transaction, the underlying commodities don’t change hands between the counterparties of the contract. Instead, the trade would be cash-settled in the brokerage account of the investor.

Alternatively, an investor using futures for speculation could lose money if the price of the commodity is lower than the purchase price specified in the futures contract.

Risks and Benefits of Trading Futures

Futures trading has some significant risks and potential rewards — investors would be wise to know what they’re getting into, accordingly.

Understanding the Risks

Owing to the nature of futures trading, i.e., the binding nature of the contracts and the use of leverage, there are some obvious risks to bear in mind.

In a speculative trade, a futures contract allows you to bet on a commodity’s price movement. If you bought a futures contract, and at expiration the price of the commodity was trading above the original contract price, you’d see a profit. However, you could also lose if the commodity’s price was lower than the purchase price specified in the futures contract.

The potential risks here can be greater than they seem, because trading on margin permits a much larger position than the actual amount held by the brokerage. As a result, margin investing can amplify gains, but it can also magnify losses.

Imagine a trader who has $5,000 in their brokerage account and is in a trade for a $50,000 position in crude oil. If the price of oil moves against the trade, the losses could far exceed the account’s $5,000 initial margin amount. In this case, the broker would make a margin call requiring additional funds to be deposited to cover the market losses.

Speculators can also take a short position if they believe the price of the underlying asset will decline. An investor would realize a gain if the underlying asset’s price was below the contract price, and a loss if the current price was above the contract price. Again, using leverage to place these bets, long or short, can potentially expose investors to more risk than they intended.

Potential Benefits and Rewards

Some of the potential benefits of trading futures include the fact that investors can use leverage to try and generate outsized returns, the markets are liquid (meaning there’s plenty of trading action) and it offers up a chance to make some relatively quick (and potentially large) returns. That should, of course, be weighed against the aforementioned risks.

Futures vs Other Derivative Instruments

There are other financial derivatives with similar characteristics to futures contracts, such as options and forwards.

Comparing Futures with Options and Forwards

American-style options grant the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell the contract’s underlying asset at any time until the contract expires.

Unlike a futures contract, however, option contracts don’t require the investor to purchase or sell the underlying asset. The investor can simply let the option expire. A futures contract, on the other hand, obligates the buyer to purchase the underlying asset, or to pay the seller of the futures contract the cash equivalent of that asset at the time of the contract’s expiration.

Similarly, a forward contract looks and functions a lot like a futures contract, with the primary difference being that forward contracts are only settled once — on their expiration date. Forwards are also often settled in the underlying asset (as opposed to cash), and the forwards market tends to be less liquid.

💡 Quick Tip: In order to profit from purchasing a stock, the price has to rise. But an options account offers more flexibility, and an options trader might gain if the price rises or falls. This is a high-risk strategy, and investors can lose money if the trade moves in the wrong direction.

Opening and Managing Futures Positions

Opening and managing futures positions can be relatively simple, granted you’re using a platform that allows for futures trading, and can follow a few steps.

Steps to Start Trading Futures

It’s common for some brokerages to have their own futures-trading capabilities, as well as their own rules about what an investor needs in terms of assets in order to trade futures contracts. Be sure to verify what those requirements are before selecting a broker.

Once you’re eligible to open a margin account and trade futures, those contracts trade on different exchanges, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), ICE Futures U.S. (Intercontinental Exchange), and the CBOE Futures Exchange (CFE).

From there, depending on the brokerage or platform being used, investors should be able to open and swap futures positions.

Managing Futures Contracts Effectively

Most investors in futures contracts have no interest in either receiving or having to deliver the physical commodities that underlie these contracts. Rather, they’re interested in the cash profit. The means of doing so is to trade the futures contract before its expiration date.

The standardized nature of most futures makes it so that a great many (but not all) futures contracts will expire on the third Friday of each month. Some commodities are seasonal, and only trade during specific months. High-grade corn trades on the CBOT in March, May, July, September, and December, for example.

As with any type of trading or investing, making sure you know what you’re dealing with when it comes to futures — and paying attention to the market — is going to be paramount to finding success as a trader. There are risks at play, and there’s no guarantee that the chips will fall your way. But for some, futures trading has proven fruitful.

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Photo credit: iStock/hopeist

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Options involve risks, including substantial risk of loss and the possibility an investor may lose the entire amount invested in a short period of time. Before an investor begins trading options they should familiarize themselves with the Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options . Tax considerations with options transactions are unique, investors should consult with their tax advisor to understand the impact to their taxes.
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