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In finance, a futures contract (sometimes called futures) is a standardized legal agreement to buy or sell something at a predetermined price at a specified time in the future, between parties not known to each other. The asset transacted is usually a commodity or financial instrument. The predetermined price the parties agree to buy and sell the asset for is known as the forward price. The specified time in the future—which is when delivery and payment occur—is known as the delivery date. Because it is a function of an underlying asset, a futures contract is a derivative product.

Contracts are negotiated at futures exchanges, which act as a marketplace between buyers and sellers. The buyer of a contract is said to be the long position holder, and the selling party is said to be the short position holder.[1] As both parties risk their counter-party walking away if the price goes against them, the contract may involve both parties lodging a margin of the value of the contract with a mutually trusted third party. For example, in gold futures trading, the margin varies between 2% and 20% depending on the volatility of the spot market.[2]

The first futures contracts were negotiated for agricultural commodities, and later futures contracts were negotiated for natural resources such as oil. Financial futures were introduced in 1972, and in recent decades, currency futures, interest rate futures and stock market index futures have played an increasingly large role in the overall futures markets. Even organ futures have been proposed to increase the supply of transplant organs.

The original use of futures contracts was to mitigate the risk of price or exchange rate movements by allowing parties to fix prices or rates in advance for future transactions. This could be advantageous when (for example) a party expects to receive payment in foreign currency in the future, and wishes to guard against an unfavorable movement of the currency in the interval before payment is received.

However, futures contracts also offer opportunities for speculation in that a trader who predicts that the price of an asset will move in a particular direction can contract to buy or sell it in the future at a price which (if the prediction is correct) will yield a profit. In particular, if the speculator is able to profit, then the underlying commodity that the speculator traded would have been saved during a time of surplus and sold during a time of need, offering the consumers of the commodity a more favorable distribution of commodity over time.[2]

To minimize credit risk to the exchange, traders must post a margin or a performance bond, typically 5–15% of the contract's value. Unlike use of the term margin in eq

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.[7] By 1875 cotton futures were being traded in Bombay in India and within a few years this had expanded to futures on edible oilseeds complex, raw jute and jute goods and bullion.[8]

The 1972 creation of the International Monetary Market (IMM) by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was the world's first financial futures exchange, and launched currency futures. In 1976, the IMM added interest rate futures on US treasury bills, and in 1982 they added stock market index futures.[9]

Although futures contracts are oriented towards a future time point, their main purpose is to mitigate the risk of default by either party in the intervening period. In this vein, the futures exchange requires both parties to put up initial cash, or a performance bond, known as the margin. Margins, sometimes set as a percentage of the value of the futures contract, must be maintained throughout the life of the contract to guarantee the agreement, as over this time the price of the contract can vary as a function of supply and demand, causing one side of the exchange to lose money at the expense of the other.

To mitigate the risk of default, the product is marked to market on a daily basis where the difference between the initial agreed-upon price and the actual daily futures price is re-evaluated daily. This is sometimes known as the variation margin, where the futures exchange will draw money out of the losing party's margin a

To mitigate the risk of default, the product is marked to market on a daily basis where the difference between the initial agreed-upon price and the actual daily futures price is re-evaluated daily. This is sometimes known as the variation margin, where the futures exchange will draw money out of the losing party's margin account and put it into that of the other party, ensuring the correct loss or profit is reflected daily. If the margin account goes below a certain value set by the exchange, then a margin call is made and the account owner must replenish the margin account.

On the delivery date, the amount exchanged is not the specified price on the contract but the spot value, since any gain or loss has already been previously settled by marking to market.

To minimize credit risk to the exchange, traders must post a margin or a performance bond, typically 5–15% of the contract's value. Unlike use of the term margin in equities, this performance bond is not a partial payment used to purchase a security, but simply a good-faith deposit held to cover the day-to-day obligations of maintaining the position.[10]

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

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 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

    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 future contracts (as well as for most equity options), this happens on the third Friday of certain trading months. On this day the back month futures contract becomes the front month futures contract. For example, for most CME and CBOT contracts, at the expiration of the December contract, the March futures become the nearest contract. During a short period (perhaps 30 minutes) the underlying cash price and the futures prices 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.

    Pricing

    When the deliverable asset exists in plentiful supply, or may be freely created, then the price of a futures contract is determined via arbitrage arguments. This is typical for stock index futures, treasury bond futures, and futures on physical commodities when they are in supply (e.g. agricultural crops after the harvest). However, when the deliverable commodity is not in plentiful supply or when it does not yet exist — for example on crops before the harvest or on Eurodollar Futures or Federal funds rate futures (in which the supposed underlying instrument is to be created upon the delivery date) — the futures price cannot be fixed by arbitrage. In this scenario there is only one force setting the price, which is simple supply and demand for the asset in the future, as expressed by supply and

    When the deliverable asset exists in plentiful supply, or may be freely created, then the price of a futures contract is determined via arbitrage arguments. This is typical for stock index futures, treasury bond futures, and futures on physical commodities when they are in supply (e.g. agricultural crops after the harvest). However, when the deliverable commodity is not in plentiful supply or when it does not yet exist — for example on crops before the harvest or on Eurodollar Futures or Federal funds rate futures (in which the supposed underlying instrument is to be created upon the delivery date) — the futures price cannot be fixed by arbitrage. In this scenario there is only one force setting the price, which is simple supply and demand for the asset in the future, as expressed by supply and demand for the futures contract.

    Arbitrage arguments t ) {\displaystyle F(t,T)=S(t)e^{r(T-t)}\,}

    This relationship may be modified for storage costs u, dividend or income yields q, and c

    This relationship may be modified for storage costs u, dividend or income yields q, and convenience yields y. Storage costs are costs involved in storing a commodity to sell at the futures price. Investors selling the asset at the spot price to arbitrage a futures price earns the storage costs they would have paid to store the asset to sell at the futures price. Convenience yields are benefits of holding an asset for sale at the futures price beyond the cash received from the sale. Such benefits could include the ability to meet unexpected demand, or the ability to use the asset as an input in production.[12] Investors pay or give up the convenience yield when selling at the spot price because they give up these benefits. Such a relationship can summarized as:

    [13] Dividend or income yields qare more easily observed or estimated, and can be incorporated in the same way:[14]

    In a perfect market the relationship between futures and spot prices depends only on the above variables; in practice there are various market imperfections (transaction costs, differential borrowing and lending rates, restrictions on short selling) that prevent complete arbitrage. Thus, the futures price in fact varies within arbitrage boundaries around the theoretical price.

    Pricing via expectation

    When the deliverable commodity is not in plentiful supply (or when it does not yet exist) rational pricing cannot be applied, as the arbitrage mechanism is not applicable. Here the price of the futures is determined by today's supply and demand for the underlying asset in the future.

    In an efficient market, supply and demand would be expected to balance out at a futures price that represents the present value of an unbiased expectation of the price of the asset at the delivery date. This relationship can be represented as[15]::