In finance, a futures contract (more colloquially, futures) is a standardized contract between two parties to buy or sell a specified asset of standardized quantity and quality for a price agreed upon today (the futures price) with delivery and payment occurring at a specified future date, the delivery date. The contracts are negotiated at a futures exchange, which acts as an intermediary between the two parties. The party agreeing to buy the underlying asset in the future, the “buyer” of the contract, is said to be “long”, and the party agreeing to sell the asset in the future, the “seller” of the contract, is said to be “short”.
While the futures contract specifies a trade taking place in the future, the purpose of the futures exchange institution is to act as intermediary and minimize the risk of default by either party. Thus the exchange requires both parties to put up an initial amount of cash (performance bond), the margin. Additionally, since the futures price will generally change daily, the difference in the prior agreed-upon price and the daily futures price is settled daily also (variation margin). The exchange will draw money out of one party’s margin account and put it into the other’s so that each party has the appropriate daily loss or profit. If the margin account goes below a certain value, then a margin call is made and the account owner must replenish the margin account. This process is known as marking to market. Thus on the delivery date, the amount exchanged is not the specified price on the contract but the spot value (i.e. the original value agreed upon, since any gain or loss has already been previously settled by marking to market).
A closely related contract is a forward contract. A forward is like a futures in that it specifies the exchange of goods for a specified price at a specified future date. However, a forward is not traded on an exchange and thus does not have the interim partial payments due to marking to market. Nor is the contract standardized, as on the exchange.
Unlike an option, both parties of a futures contract must fulfill the contract on the delivery date. The seller delivers the underlying asset to the buyer, or, if it is a cash-settled futures contract, then cash is transferred from the futures trader who sustained a loss to the one who made a profit. To exit the commitment prior to the settlement date, the holder of a futures position can close out its contract obligations by taking the opposite position on another futures contract on the same asset and settlement date. The difference in futures prices is then a profit or loss.
The first futures exchange market was the Dōjima Rice Exchange in Japan in the 1730s, to meet the needs of samurai who—being paid in rice, and after a series of bad harvests—needed a stable conversion to coin.
The Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) listed the first ever standardized ‘exchange traded’ forward contracts in 1864, which were called futures contracts. This contract was based on grain trading and started a trend that saw contracts created on a number of different commodities as well as a number of futures exchanges set up in countries around the world. By 1875 cotton futures were being traded in Mumbai in India and within a few years this had expanded to futures on edible oilseeds complex, raw jute and jute goods and bullion.
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Main article: Margin (finance)
To minimize credit risk to the exchange, traders must post a margin or a performance bond, typically 5%-15% of the contract’s value.
To minimize counterparty risk to traders, trades executed on regulated futures exchanges are guaranteed by a clearing house. The clearing house becomes the buyer to each seller, and the seller to each Buyer, so that in the event of a counterparty default the clearer assumes the risk of loss. This enables traders to transact without performing due diligence on their counterparty.
Margin requirements are waived or reduced in some cases for hedgers who have physical ownership of the covered commodity or spread traders who have offsetting contracts balancing the position.
Clearing margin are financial safeguards to ensure that companies or corporations perform on their customers’ open futures and options contracts. Clearing margins are distinct from customer margins that individual buyers and sellers of futures and options contracts are required to deposit with brokers.
Customer margin Within the futures industry, financial guarantees required of both buyers and sellers of futures contracts and sellers of options contracts to ensure fulfillment of contract obligations. Futures Commission Merchants are responsible for overseeing customer margin accounts. Margins are determined on the basis of market risk and contract value. Also referred to as performance bond margin.
Initial margin is the equity required to initiate a futures position. This is a type of performance bond. The maximum exposure is not limited to the amount of the initial margin, however the initial margin requirement is calculated based on the maximum estimated change in contract value within a trading day. Initial margin is set by the exchange.
If a position involves an exchange-traded product, the amount or percentage of initial margin is set by the exchange concerned.
In case of loss or if the value of the initial margin is being eroded, the broker will make a margin call in order to restore the amount of initial margin available. Often referred to as “variation margin”, margin called for this reason is usually done on a daily basis, however, in times of high volatility a broker can make a margin call or calls intra-day.
Calls for margin are usually expected to be paid and received on the same day. If not, the broker has the right to close sufficient positions to meet the amount called by way of margin. After the position is closed-out the client is liable for any resulting deficit in the client’s account.
Some U.S. exchanges also use the term “maintenance margin”, which in effect defines by how much the value of the initial margin can reduce before a margin call is made. However, most non-US brokers only use the term “initial margin” and “variation margin”.
The Initial Margin requirement is established by the Futures exchange, in contrast to other securities’ Initial Margin (which is set by the Federal Reserve in the U.S. Markets).
A futures account is marked to market daily. If the margin drops below the margin maintenance requirement established by the exchange listing the futures, a margin call will be issued to bring the account back up to the required level.
Maintenance margin A set minimum margin per outstanding futures contract that a customer must maintain in their margin account.
Margin-equity ratio is a term used by speculators, representing the amount of their trading capital that is being held as margin at any particular time. The low margin requirements of futures results in substantial leverage of the investment. However, the exchanges require a minimum amount that varies depending on the contract and the trader. The broker may set the requirement higher, but may not set it lower. A trader, of course, can set it above that, if he does not want to be subject to margin calls.
Performance bond margin The amount of money deposited by both a buyer and seller of a futures contract or an options seller to ensure performance of the term of the contract. Margin in commodities is not a payment of equity or down payment on the commodity itself, but rather it is a security deposit.
Return on margin (ROM) is often used to judge performance because it represents the gain or loss compared to the exchange’s perceived risk as reflected in required margin. ROM may be calculated (realized return) / (initial margin). The Annualized ROM is equal to (ROM+1)(year/trade_duration)-1. For example if a trader earns 10% on margin in two months, that would be about 77% annualized.
Settlement – physical versus cash-settled futures
Settlement is the act of consummating the contract, and can be done in one of two ways, as specified per type of futures contract:
Physical delivery – the amount specified of the underlying asset of the contract is delivered by the seller of the contract to the exchange, and by the exchange to the buyers of the contract. Physical delivery is common with commodities and bonds. In practice, it occurs only on a minority of contracts. Most are cancelled out by purchasing a covering position – that is, buying a contract to cancel out an earlier sale (covering a short), or selling a contract to liquidate an earlier purchase (covering a long). The Nymex crude futures contract uses this method of settlement upon expiration
Cash settlement – a cash payment is made based on the underlying reference rate, such as a short term interest rate index such as 90 Day T-Bills, or the closing value of a stock market index. The parties settle by paying/receiving the loss/gain related to the contract in cash when the contract expires. Cash settled futures are those that, as a practical matter, could not be settled by delivery of the referenced item – i.e. how would one deliver an index? A futures contract might also opt to settle against an index based on trade in a related spot market. ICE Brent futures use this method.
Expiry (or Expiration in the U.S.) is the time and the day that a particular delivery month of a futures contract stops trading, as well as the final settlement price for that contract. For many equity index and interest rate futures contracts (as well as for most equity options), this happens on the third Friday of certain trading months. On this day the t+1 futures contract becomes the t futures contract. For example, for most CME and CBOT contracts, at the expiration of the December contract, the March futures become the nearest contract. This is an exciting time for arbitrage desks, which try to make quick profits during the short period (perhaps 30 minutes) during which the underlying cash price and the futures price sometimes struggle to converge. At this moment the futures and the underlying assets are extremely liquid and any disparity between an index and an underlying asset is quickly traded by arbitrageurs. At this moment also, the increase in volume is caused by traders rolling over positions to the next contract or, in the case of equity index futures, purchasing underlying components of those indexes to hedge against current index positions. On the expiry date, a European equity arbitrage trading desk in London or Frankfurt will see positions expire in as many as eight major markets almost every half an hour.