Futures Trading Basics

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Futures Trading Basics

A futures contract is an obligation to buy or sell a commodity at or before a given date in the future, at a price agreed upon today. While the term “commodity” is usually used when referring to contracts like corn, or silver, it is also defined to include financial instruments and stock indexes. One of the benefits to the futures industry is that contracts are traded on an organized and regulated exchange to provide the facilities to buyers and sellers.

Exchange-traded futures provide several important economic benefits, but one of the most important is the ability to transfer or manage the price risk of commodities and financial instruments. A simple example would be a baker who is concerned with a price increase in wheat, could hedge his risk by buying a futures contract in wheat.

Not all futures contracts provide for physical delivery, some call for an eventual cash settlement. In most cases, the obligation to buy or sell is offset by liquidating the position. For example, if you buy 1 S&P500 e-mini contract, you would simply sell 1 S&P500 e-mini contract to offset the position. The profit or loss from the trade is the difference between the buy and sell price, less transaction costs. Gains and losses on futures contracts are calculated on a daily basis and reflected on the brokerage statement each night. This process is known as daily cash settlement.

US futures trading is regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the National Futures Association (NFA). The CFTC is an independent federal agency based in Washington, DC that adopts and enforces regulations under the Commodity Exchange Act and monitors industry self-regulatory organizations. The NFA, whose principal office is in Chicago, is an industry-wide self-regulatory organization whose programs include registration of industry professionals, auditing of certain registrants, and arbitration.

If you are new to futures trading, be sure to check out our tips for futures traders & watch our FAQ video below. Get answers to common questions such as the role of commission in overall trading costs and learn how leverage can impact margin requirements.

For a free educational guide to “Trading Futures and Options on Futures”, provided by the National Futures Association (NFA), please click here.

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NinjaTrader Group, LLC Affiliates: NinjaTrader, LLC is a software development company which owns and supports all proprietary technology relating to and including the NinjaTrader trading platform. NinjaTrader Brokerage™ is an NFA registered introducing broker (NFA #0339976) providing brokerage services to traders of futures and foreign exchange products.

Futures, foreign currency and options trading contains substantial risk and is not for every investor. An investor could potentially lose all or more than the initial investment. Risk capital is money that can be lost without jeopardizing one’s financial security or lifestyle. Only risk capital should be used for trading and only those with sufficient risk capital should consider trading. Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. View Full Risk Disclosure.

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What are the basics of futures trading?

Not sure if futures trading is right for you? In this article, we’ll help you find out by taking a close look at what futures are and how they work.

What are futures?

To start, here’s a quick definition: Futures are contracts for the delivery, or cash settlement, of many things you may encounter every day, like materials, products, or even the stock market itself. But what does that really mean? Let’s break it down by exploring a few key traits that make futures unique.

All futures share the following three characteristics:

  1. Easy contract trading. Futures are contracts that trade on an exchange. That means if you buy or sell them, closing your trade is as easy as it would be for a stock. The futures market is relatively deep and liquid.
  2. Settlement by cash or physical delivery. Like stocks, most futures—including the CME E-mini S&P 500 and other equity index futures—settle in cash. There’s no exchange of physical goods or shares of stock. The only thing that changes hands is money.

However, some commodity futures, like corn and soybeans, are physically settled, meaning each party to the trade is expected to deliver or receive the actual commodity at expiration. But very few futures contracts are settled this way, and at E*TRADE, while you should be sure to close your positions on time, there are mechanisms in place to minimize this risk.

  • Backed by commodities or other assets. Futures contracts represent the pricing of essential things that affect our daily lives, including agricultural products (like wheat and cattle), energy products (like crude oil and gasoline), and financial products that facilitate international trade (e.g., those involving interest rates and currency exchange).
  • Equity index futures are one of the most popular, providing another way for investors to trade on price movement in the stock market. These include the CME E-mini S&P 500 mentioned above, plus the CME E-mini Nasdaq and CME E-mini Russell 2000.

    What are the basic terms used in futures trading?

    Now that we’ve seen what futures are, let’s explore how they work by defining and illustrating some essential futures terms.

    • Tick . Futures contract prices move in minimum increments called “ticks.” These are different for each futures product and can usually be found by checking the futures page. As an example, the CME E-mini S&P 500 has a tick size of a quarter of an index point.
    • Tick value. Unlike stocks (where each tick is worth a penny), tick size for futures is product-dependent, and as a result, the dollar value will vary. The tick value of the CME E-mini S&P 500 is $12.50, so if you buy a contract and end up selling it, say, two ticks higher, you’d make $25.00, assuming no commissions or fees.
    • Contract size. The specified quantity behind each futures contract (i.e., how much of a commodity or financial instrument is backing that contract) is called its contract size. For example, the CME gold futures contract represents 100 troy ounces of gold.
    • Notional value. Knowing the size of a futures contract enables you to determine its notional value—i.e., how much each contract is worth. You can figure this out by multiplying the contract size by the current price of the futures contract.

    Consider gold: If gold futures are trading at $1,300 per ounce and the size of the CME gold futures contract is 100 ounces, the contract’s notional value would be $130,000 ($1,300 x 100). In dollar terms, that’s how much one gold contract is worth.

    If a contract’s notional value ever seems too big for your wallet, check to see if there’s a contract with a smaller size. With gold, there is. It’s the CME E-micro gold, which has a contract size of 10 ounces—and a notional value of $13,000 ($1,300 x 10). That’s one-tenth the size of the bigger contract.

    Options Trading Strategies: A Guide for Beginners

    Options are conditional derivative contracts that allow buyers of the contracts (option holders) to buy or sell a security at a chosen price. Option buyers are charged an amount called a “premium” by the sellers for such a right. Should market prices be unfavorable for option holders, they will let the option expire worthless, thus ensuring the losses are not higher than the premium. In contrast, option sellers (option writers) assume greater risk than the option buyers, which is why they demand this premium.

    Options are divided into “call” and “put” options. With a call option, the buyer of the contract purchases the right to buy the underlying asset in the future at a predetermined price, called exercise price or strike price. With a put option, the buyer acquires the right to sell the underlying asset in the future at the predetermined price.

    Why Trade Options Rather Than a Direct Asset?

    There are some advantages to trading options. The Chicago Board of Options Exchange (CBOE) is the largest such exchange in the world, offering options on a wide variety of single stocks, ETFs and indexes. Traders can construct option strategies ranging from buying or selling a single option to very complex ones that involve multiple simultaneous option positions.

    The following are basic option strategies for beginners.

    Buying Calls (Long Call)

    This is the preferred strategy for traders who:

    • Are “bullish” or confident on a particular stock, ETF or index and want to limit risk
    • Want to utilize leverage to take advantage of rising prices

    Options are leveraged instruments, i.e., they allow traders to amplify the benefit by risking smaller amounts than would otherwise be required if trading the underlying asset itself. A standard option contract on a stock controls 100 shares of the underlying security.

    Suppose a trader wants to invest $5,000 in Apple (AAPL), trading around $165 per share. With this amount, he or she can purchase 30 shares for $4,950. Suppose then that the price of the stock increases by 10% to $181.50 over the next month. Ignoring any brokerage, commission or transaction fees, the trader’s portfolio will rise to $5,445, leaving the trader with a net dollar return of $495, or 10% on the capital invested.

    Now, let’s say a call option on the stock with a strike price of $165 that expires about a month from now costs $5.50 per share or $550 per contract. Given the trader’s available investment budget, he or she can buy nine options for a cost of $4,950. Because the option contract controls 100 shares, the trader is effectively making a deal on 900 shares. If the stock price increases 10% to $181.50 at expiration, the option will expire in the money and be worth $16.50 per share ($181.50-$165 strike), or $14,850 on 900 shares. That’s a net dollar return of $9,990, or 200% on the capital invested, a much larger return compared to trading the underlying asset directly. (For related reading, see “Should an Investor Hold or Exercise an Option?”)

    Risk/Reward: The trader’s potential loss from a long call is limited to the premium paid. Potential profit is unlimited, as the option payoff will increase along with the underlying asset price until expiration, and there is theoretically no limit to how high it can go.

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