The Futures Markets

One hallmark of a free market system is risk. Most producers (as well as consumers) face the risk that prices of goods (or commodities) they produce will change between the time they invest their resources to produce the goods and the time they are ready to sell their output. While in some cases long-term supply contracts at prearranged prices can be made, most prices, especially those of financial assets, commodities, and raw materials, are subject to almost constant fluctuations. Futures markets reduce the uncertainty and risk associated with these fluctuations by allowing market participants to enter into contracts, called futures contracts, which fix the price of a specified asset at a future date.

Futures contracts

Futures contracts help the realmarket participants by facilitating hedging and help investors by making speculation easier. A futures contract is an agreement between two traders to exchange an asset at a predetermined future date (called the delivery date) at the “futures price.” In the case of futures markets, the “asset” has been standardized as to the quantity, quality, the delivery point, and the date of delivery. The trade may take place at a “futures exchange” or “over-thecounter” (OTC)-a service provided by many financial institutions. OTC market allows large transactions to take place at lower cost and without the risk of moving the market price. Almost all transactions now take place over the phone or electronically, replacing the close physical contact that used to characterize trading on exchanges.

A futures contract differs from a “spot” contract mainly in terms of the date of execution of the contract: A spot contract is executed immediately after the contract is made whereas a futures contract is executed at a prearranged future date. A futures contract differs from a “forward” contract in that the futures contract is for a standardized asset whereas the asset in a forward contract can be tailor-made. The oldest futures exchange in the United States, the Chicago Board of Trade was established in 1848. Futures contracts in tulips, however, were traded in Holland in the 17th century. Commodities, raw materials, and financial assets including interest rates and currencies form the bulk of the assets traded on the futures markets. There are, however, futures contracts for many exotic assets like weather.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange offers futures contracts on snowfall, “cooling” or “heating” degree days in the United States, Canada, Europe, or Asia-Pacific, and even a future contracts on hurricanes. Futures markets facilitate the process of “price discovery” by providing information on current and possible future prices as assessed by market participants based on available information. This process is facilitated because futures markets provide improved liquidity and reduce counterparty risk for buyers and sellers of contracts over alternative arenas where comparable contracts could be traded. Improved liquidity comes from standardization of contracts, which makes trading easier for speculators.

Since all the characteristics of an asset have been standardized, a speculator can focus on the single element of the assets that is of interest to him/her-the price. Futures markets reduce the risk for traders by a practice called mark-to-market. Futures exchanges reduce the counterparty risk for a buyer or a seller in two steps. First, the buyer (or seller) of a futures contract enters into a contract to buy (or sell) a futures contract with the futures exchange, not with the trader who may enter into the opposite side of the transaction-in this case, the entity who may sell (or buy) the futures contract. This reduces the nonperformance risk, or the counterparty risk, from that of an unknown (and sometimes a higher-risk) seller to that of an exchange. As long as the buyer believes that the futures exchange will not become illiquid, there is no counterparty risk.

Second, the exchange reduces the nonperformance risk for itself by taking two related steps. First, every buyer (as well as every seller) deposits a “margin” usually equal to 10 percent of the value of the contract with the exchange when the futures contract is bought (or sold). Second, every contract is “marked-to-market” every day. At the end of every trading day, the exchange calculates the current value of the contract. If the price movement during the day has resulted in a loss of the value of the contract, the loss is deducted from the margin and the buyer is sent a “margin call.” This margin call requires the buyer to add funds to the margin so that it once again equals 10 percent of the value of the contract. Similarly, the exchange pays the day’s profits to the buyer of the contract should the price movement have been in favor of the buyer.

Should the buyer not respond to the margin call, the exchange can liquidate the contract on the following trading day and prevent any further losses on the contract. With this practice of marking every contract to market every day, the exchange faces no performance risk unless the price movement during the day exceeds 10 percent against the buyer and the buyer decides to default. Futures markets are regulated by Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the United States. The objective of the regulation is to protect public and market users from fraud, manipulation, and abusive practices. Futures markets contribute to the economic welfare of a society by increasing efficiency through centralization of services to all users of an asset.


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