What is Futures Trading?
Futures Trading is a form of investment which involves speculating on the price of a commodity going up or down in the future.
What is a commodity? Most commodities you see and use every day of your life:
- the corn in your morning cereal which you have for breakfast,
- the lumber that makes your breakfast-table and chairs
- the gold on your watch and jewellery,
- the cotton that makes your clothes,
- the steel which makes your motor car and the crude oil which runs it and takes you to work,
- the wheat that makes the bread in your lunchtime sandwiches
All these commodities (and dozens more) are traded between hundreds-of-thousands of investors, every day, all over the world. They are all trying to make a profit by buying a commodity at a low price and selling at a higher price.
Futures trading is mainly speculative 'paper' investing, i.e. it is rare for the investors to actually hold the physical commodity, just a piece of paper known as a futures contract.
What is a Futures Contract?
To the uninitiated, the term contract can be a little off-putting but it is mainly used because, like a contract, a futures investment has an expiration date. You don't have to hold the contract until it expires. You can cancel it anytime you like. In fact, many short-term traders only hold their contracts for a few hours - or even minutes!
The expiration dates vary between commodities, and you have to choose which contract fits your market objective.
For example, today is June 30th and you think Gold will rise in price until mid-August. The Gold contracts available are February, April, June, August, October and December. As it is the end of June and this contract has already expired, you would probably choose the August or October Gold contract.
The nearer (to expiration) contracts are usually more liquid, i.e. there are more traders trading them. Therefore, prices are more true and less likely to jump from one extreme to the other. But if you thought the price of gold would rise until September, you would choose a further-out contract (October in this case) - a September contract doesn't exist.
Neither is their a limit on the number of contracts you can trade (within reason - there must be enough buyers or sellers to trade with you.) Many larger traders/investment companies/banks, etc. may trade thousands of contracts at a time!
All futures contracts are standardized in that they all hold a specified amount and quality of a commodity. For example, a Gold futures contract (GC) holds 100 troy ounces of 24 carat gold; and a Crude Oil futures contract holds 1000 barrels of crude oil of a certain quality.
A Short History of Futures Trading
Before Futures Trading came about, any producer of a commodity (e.g. a farmer growing wheat or corn) found himself at the mercy of a dealer when it came to selling his product. The system needed to be legalised in order that a specified amount and quality of product could be traded between producers and dealers at a specified date.
Contracts were drawn up between the two parties specifying a certain amount and quality of a commodity that would be delivered in a particular month...
Futures trading had begun!
In 1878, a central dealing facility was opened in Chicago, USA where farmers and dealers could deal in ‘spot’ grain, i.e., immediately deliver their wheat crop for a cash settlement. Futures trading evolved as farmers and dealers committed to buying and selling future exchanges of the commodity. For example, a dealer would agree to buy 5,000 bushels of a specified quality of wheat from the farmer in June the following year, for a specified price. The farmer knew how much he would be paid in advance, and the dealer knew his costs.
Until twenty years ago, futures markets consisted of only a few farm products, but now they have been joined by a huge number of tradable ‘commodities’. As well as metals like gold, silver and platinum; livestock like pork bellies and cattle; energies like crude oil and natural gas; foodstuffs like coffee and orange juice; and industrials like lumber and cotton, modern futures markets include a wide range of interest-rate instruments, currencies, stocks and other indices such as the Dow Jones, Nasdaq and S&P 500.
Who Trades Futures?
It didn't take long for businessmen to realize the lucrative investment opportunities available in these markets. They didn't have to buy or sell the ACTUAL commodity (wheat or corn, etc.), just the paper-contract that held the commodity. As long as they exited the contract before the delivery date, the investment would be purely a paper one. This was the start of futures trading speculation and investment, and today, around 97% of futures trading is done by speculators.
There are two main types of Futures trader: 'hedgers' and 'speculators'.
A hedger is a producer of the commodity (e.g. a farmer, an oil company, a mining company) who trades a futures contract to protect himself from future price changes in his product.
For example, if a farmer thinks the price of wheat is going to fall by harvest time, he can sell a futures contract in wheat. (You can enter a trade by selling a futures contract first, and then exit the trade later by buying it.) That way, if the cash price of wheat does fall by harvest time, costing the farmer money, he will make back the cash-loss by profiting on the short-sale of the futures contract. He ‘sold’ at a high price and exited the contract by ‘buying’ at a lower price a few months later, therefore making a profit on the futures trade.
Other hedgers of futures contracts include banks, insurance companies and pension fund companies who use futures to hedge against any fluctuations in the cash price of their products at future dates.
Speculators include independent floor traders and private investors. Usually, they don’t have any connection with the cash commodity and simply try to (a) make a profit buying a futures contract they expect to rise in price or (b) sell a futures contract they expect to fall in price.
BENEFITS OF FUTURES
Leverage Offer a very high leverage of margin allowing us a small deposit to invest in a contract which is very much higher in value.
Liquidity Generally commodity futures offer a high volume of trade.
Two way market Short selling is legal.
Low execution cost Total brokerage or commission is less than 0.5% of contract value.
Protection order We can predetermine our loss before we take a position.
Hedging The market offers a place for the transfer of risk for the commercial players.
Diversification The Market offers investors another avenue to channel his/their fund.