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What is a Futures Contract?

Forward and futures contracts are financial instruments that allow market participants to offset or assume the risk of a price change of an asset over time.
A futures contract is distinct from a forward contract in two important ways: first, a futures contract is a legally binding agreement to buy or sell a standardized asset on a specific date or during a specific month. Second, this transaction is facilitated through a futures exchange.The fact that futures contracts are standardized and exchange-traded makes these instruments indispensable to commodity producers, consumers, traders and investors.

A Standardized Contract

An exchange-traded futures contract specifies the quality, quantity, physical delivery time and location for the given product. This product can be an agricultural commodity, such as 5,000 bushels of corn to be delivered in the month of March, or it can be financial asset, such as the U.S. dollar value of 62,500 pounds in the month of December.

The specifications of the contract are identical for all participants. This characteristic of futures contracts allows buyer or seller to easily transfer contract ownership to another party by way of a trade. Given the standardization of the contract specifications, the only contract variable is price. Price is discovered by bidding and offering, also known as quoting, until a match, or trade, occurs.

Futures contracts are products created by regulated exchanges. Therefore, the exchange is responsible for standardizing the specifications of each contract.

Every futures contract has an underlying asset, the quantity of the asset, delivery location, and delivery date.

For example, if the underlying asset is light sweet crude oil, the quantity is 1,000 barrels, the delivery location is the Henry Hub in Erath, Louisiana and the delivery date is December 2017.

When a party enters into a futures contract, they are agreeing to exchange an asset, or underlying, at a defined time in the future. This asset can be a physical commodity like crude oil, or a financial product like a foreign currency.

When the asset is a physical commodity, to ensure quality, the exchange stipulates the acceptable grades of the commodity.

For example, WTI Crude Oil contracts at CME Group is for 1,000 barrels of a grade of crude oil known as “light, sweet” which refers to the amount of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide the crude oil contains.

Futures contracts for financial products are understandably more straightforward: the U.S. dollar value of 100,000 Australian dollars is the U.S. dollar value of 100,000 Australian dollars.

Each futures contract specifies is the quantity of the product delivered for a single contract, also known as contract size. For example: 5,000 bushels of corn, 1,000 barrels of crude oil or Treasury bonds with a face value of $100,000 are all contract sizes as defined in the futures contract specification.


Overview of Expiration and Settlement


All futures contracts have a specified date on which they expire. Prior to the expiration date, traders have a number of options to either close out or extend their open positions without holding the trade to expiration, but some traders will choose to hold the contract and go to settlement.


Settlement is the fulfillment of the legal delivery obligations associated with the original contract. For some contracts, this delivery will take place in the form of physical delivery of the underlying commodity. For example, a food producer looking to acquire grain may be looking to take delivery of physical corn or wheat, and a farmer may be looking to deliver his grain to that producer. Although physical delivery is an important mechanism for certain energy, metals and agriculture products, only a small percent of all commodities futures contracts are physically delivered.

In most cases, delivery will take place in the form of cash settlement. When a contract is cash-settled, settlement takes place in the form of a credit or debit made for the value of the contract at the time of contract expiration. The most commonly cash-settled products are equity index and interest rate futures, although precious metals, foreign exchange, and some agricultural products may also be settled in cash.

What is Mark-to-Market?

One of the defining features of the futures markets is daily mark-to-market (MTM) prices on all contracts. The final daily settlement price for futures is the same for everyone.

MTM was a distinctive difference between futures and forwards until the regulatory reform enacted after the financial crises of 2007-2008. Prior to those reforms most OTC forwards and swaps did not have an official daily settlement price so clients never knew their daily variation except as described by a theoretical pricing model.

Futures markets have an official daily settlement price set by the exchange. While contracts may have slightly different closing and daily settlement formulas established by the exchange, the methodology is fully disclosed in the contract specifications and the exchange rulebook.

Mark-to-market enforces the daily discipline of exchanges profit and loss between open futures positions eliminating any loss or profit carry forwards that might endanger the clearinghouse. Having one final daily settlement for all means every open position is treated equally. By publishing these daily settlement values the exchange provides a great service to commercial and speculative users of the futures markets and the underlying markets they derive their price from.

Understanding Margin

Securities margin is the money you borrow as a partial down payment, up to 50% of the purchase price, to buy and own a stock, bond, or ETF. This practice is often referred to as buying on margin.

Futures margin is the amount of money that you must deposit and keep on hand with your broker when you open a futures position. It is not a down payment and you do not own the underlying commodity.

Futures margin generally represents a smaller percentage of the notional value of the contract, typically 3-12% per futures contract as opposed to up to 50% of the face value of securities purchased on margin.

Margins Move with the Markets

When markets are changing rapidly and daily price moves become more volatile, market conditions and the clearinghouses’ margin methodology may result in higher margin requirements to account for increased risk.

When market conditions and the margin methodology warrant, margin requirements may be reduced.

The Lifespan of a Futures Contract

Futures contracts have a limited lifespan that will influence the outcome of your trades and exit strategy. The two most important expiration terms are expiration and rollover.

Contract Expiration Options

A contract’s expiration date is the last day you can trade that contract. This typically occurs on the third Friday of the expiration month, but varies by contract.

Prior to expiration, a futures trader has three options:

Offset the Position

Offsetting or liquidating a position is the simplest and most common method of exiting a trade. When offsetting a position, a trader is able to realize all profits or losses associated with that position without taking physical or cash delivery of the asset.

To offset a position, a trader must take out an opposite and equal transaction to neutralize the trade. For example, a trader who is short two WTI Crude Oil contracts expiring in September will need to buy two WTI Crude Oil contracts expiring on the same date. The difference in price between his initial position and offset position will represent the profit or loss on the trade.


Rollover is when a trader moves his position from the front month contract to a another contract further in the future. Traders will determine when they need to move to the new contract by watching volume of both the expiring contract and next month contract. A trader who is going to roll their positions may choose to switch to the next month contract when volume has reached a certain level in that contract.

When rolling forward, a trader will simultaneously offset his current position and establish a new position in the next contract month. For example, a trader who is long four S&P 500 futures contracts expiring in September will simultaneously sell four Sept ES contracts and buy four Dec or further away ES contracts.


If a trader has not offset or rolled his position prior to contract expiration, the contract will expire and the trader will go to settlement. At this point, a trader with a short position will be obligated to deliver the underlying asset under the terms of the original contract. This can be either physical delivery or cash settlement depending on the market.

Calculating Futures Contract Profit or Loss

Market participants trade in the futures market to make a profit or hedge against losses. Each market calculates movement of price and size differently, and as such, traders need to be aware of how the market you are trading calculates profit and loss. To determine the profit and loss for each contract, you will need to be aware of the contract size, tick size, current trading price, and what you bought or sold the contract for. WTI Crude Oil futures, for example, represents the expected value of 1,000 barrels of oil. The price of a WTI futures contract is quoted in dollars per barrel. The minimum tick size is $0.01.

Current Value

If the current price of WTI futures is $54, the current value of the contract is determined by multiplying the current price of a barrel of oil by the size of the contract. In this example, the current value would be $54 x 1000 = $54,000.

Value of a One-Tick Move

The dollar value of a one-tick move is calculated by multiplying the tick size by the size of the contract.

The dollar value of a one-tick move in WTI is $0.01 x 1000 = $10

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