In finance, a futures contract is a standardized contract, traded on a futures exchange, to buy or sell a certain underlying instrument at a certain date in the future, at a specified price. The future date is called the delivery date or final settlement date. The pre-set price is called the futures price. The price of the underlying asset on the delivery date is called the settlement price.
A futures contract gives the holder the obligation to buy or sell, which differs from an options contract, which gives the holder the right, but not the obligation. In other words, the owner of an options contract may exercise the contract, but both parties of a "futures contract" must fulfill the contract on the settlement date. The seller delivers the commodity to the buyer, or, if it is a cash-settled future, 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 has to offset his/her position by either selling a long position or buying back a short position, effectively closing out the futures position and its contract obligations.
Futures contracts, or simply futures, are exchange traded derivatives. The exchange's clearinghouse acts as counterparty on all contracts, sets margin requirements, and crucially also provides a mechanism for settlement.
Futures contracts ensure their liquidity by being highly standardized, usually by specifying:
The underlying asset or instrument. This could be anything from a barrel of crude oil to a short term interest rate.
The type of settlement, either cash settlement or physical settlement.
The amount and units of the underlying asset per contract. This can be the notional amount of bonds, a fixed number of barrels of oil, units of foreign currency, the notional amount of the deposit over which the short term interest rate is traded, etc.
The currency in which the futures contract is quoted.
The grade of the deliverable. In the case of bonds, this specifies which bonds can be delivered. In the case of physical commodities, this specifies not only the quality of the underlying goods but also the manner and location of delivery. For example, the NYMEX Light Sweet Crude Oil contract specifies the acceptable sulfur content and API specific gravity, as well as the pricing point -- the location where delivery must be made.
The delivery month.
The last trading date.
Other details such as the commodity tick, the minimum permissible price fluctuation
To minimize credit risk to the exchange, traders must post margin or a performance bond, typically 5%-15% of the contract's value.
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 money required to open a derivatives position( in futures, Foreign Exchange Market or CFDs) It is a security deposit to ensure that traders have sufficient funds to meet any potential loss from a trade.
If a position involves an exchange-traded product, the amount or percentage of initial margin is set by the exchange concerned.
If a 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 US 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 his 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 doesn't 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 (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 Euribor, or the closing value of a stock market 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 is the time when the final prices of the future is determined. 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 month. On this day the t+1 futures contract becomes the t futures contract. For example, for most CME and CBOT contracts, at the expiry on December, the March futures become the nearest contract. This is an exciting time for arbitrage desks, as they will try to make rapid gains during the short period (normally 30 minutes) where the final prices are averaged from. At this moment the futures and the underlying assets are extremely liquid and any mispricing 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....